March 18, 2024 3 min read

Sleep problems are fairly common. Studies show that an estimated 20-40% of the general population is affected by some type of sleep disturbance [1], like insomnia, excessive sleepiness, restless leg syndrome, or sleep apnea. 


Many factors can contribute to this. Stress, mental illness, health issues, aging, and psychostimulants are just some examples. But a less talked about but probable cause of some cases of sleep problems is food allergies and other adverse reactions to food.

Can Food Allergies Disrupt Sleep?

Very likely, and that’s because your gut and brain are tightly connected.


There’s evidence that people with poor dietary habits and chronic digestive disorders sleep less or have unrefreshing sleep [2]. Poor sleep is also known to worsen digestive disorders. 


This can be explained by the two-way interaction between the gut and the brain, known as the gut-brain axis. The gut and brain are interconnected through nerves, hormones, and immune cells, allowing the brain to influence digestion and the digestive tract to affect mood, cognition, and sleep. 


When it comes to food allergies specifically, the same reasoning applies. 


A study on psychiatric patients with sleep problems noted that those with a food allergy had significantly worse sleep [3]. The researchers suggest that inflammation that follows an allergic reaction to food can be the cause of sleep disturbances. Food allergies activate mast cells, which can lead to inflammation of the nervous system. Common allergens can also trigger the release of adrenaline and other stimulant neurotransmitters that disrupt sleep.

Food Allergies and Sleep Apnea

Food allergies can contribute to all kinds of sleep problems, but what about sleep apnea?


According to one large study, high-inflammatory diets were more likely to worsen sleep apnea symptoms [4]. This study suggests a link between low-grade inflammation and worsening sleep apnea symptoms. The same thing holds true for food allergies as these lead to inflammation in the body. Some theories suggest that food allergies can increase mucus production in the airways, making breathing during sleep difficult. 


The only research that has found a possible link between the two disorders involved small children. The study recruited children under 3 years of age with habitual snoring. The study found that children with a diagnosed food allergy (usually cow’s milk) were more likely to be habitual snorers by their first year [5].


If you suspect you have either sleep apnea or a food allergy, it’s important to contact a health professional. Untreated, both problems can worsen and become life-threatening. Food allergies can lead to anaphylaxis in some — which is a severe reaction to an allergen that can be fatal if not treated. With sleep apnea, your sleep quality can suffer and result in chronic health problems, like high blood pressure, insulin resistance, obesity, and depression. 


References:


  1. M. Ohayon M. Epidemiological Overview of Sleep Disorders in the General Population.Sleep Medicine Research (SMR).2011; 2(1): 1-9. Published online: Apr 30, 2011https://www.sleepmedres.org/journal/view.php?number=14

  1. Vernia F, Di Ruscio M, Ciccone A, et al. Sleep disorders related to nutrition and digestive diseases: a neglected clinical condition.Int J Med Sci. 2021;18(3):593-603. Published 2021 Jan 1.doi:10.7150/ijms.45512

  1. Gomi C, Yokota Y, Yoshida S, Kunugi H. Relationship of food allergy with quality of life and sleep in psychiatric patients.Neuropsychopharmacol Rep. 2022;42(1):84-91.doi:10.1002/npr2.12231

  1. Liu Y, Tabung FK, Stampfer MJ, Redline S, Huang T. Overall diet quality and proinflammatory diet in relation to risk of obstructive sleep apnea in 3 prospective US cohorts.Am J Clin Nutr. 2022; 116(6):1738-1747.doi:10.1093/ajcn/nqac257

  1. Kongmeesook, C, Sirivimonpan, Suratannon, N, et. al. The Association Between Food Allergy and Habitual Snoring in Young Children.Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. 2015; 135 (2).https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaci.2014.12.1769



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