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Insomnia and food allergies = food-allergy insomnia

Food allergies may be a silent culprit for some. They can lead to all kinds of symptoms that can wreck a perfectly good day. Take unidentified or untreated food allergies to bed with you, and you can be sure that both your days and nights will suffer.

What is food-allergy insomnia?

According to theInternational Classification of Sleep Disorders(3rd edition) (ICSD-3), “Food allergy insomnia is a disorder of initiating and maintaining sleep due
to an allergic response to food allergens.”

Food-allergy insomnia has extrinsic causes, meaning it is a sleep disorder influenced by factors outside the body.

Both adult and children can suffer from food-allergy insomnia, though it’s more commonly noted in children under the age of 4.

However, the incidence of food allergies in adults does seem to be on the rise, according to a 2013 Centers for Disease Control study, which showed an increase in food allergies by about 50 percent between 1997 and 2011.

This means that some 15 million Americans 9 million of them adults suffer from food allergies. That’s a lot of people losing sleep because of something they ate.

Fortunately, the removal of the allergen from the diet ends the problems with sleeplessness. But the problem remains: many people are unaware they have food allergies to begin with.

TheICSD-3has an established protocol for identifying patients with food-allergy insomnia:

  • Their chief complaint is insomnia

  • They can associate their complaint to a specific trigger food or drink

  • Restriction of the identified food or drink trigger resolves the insomnia; reintroduction of the trigger leads to a relapse of insomnia

They also suffer from two or more of the following symptoms:

  1. Anxiety, agitation, or irritability

  2. Daytime sleepiness

  3. Breathing problems

  4. Skin rash

  5. Stomach upset

Tests can help confirm the diagnosis by showing:

  • elevated levels of serum antibodies against the allergen

  • frequent arousals from any stage in an overnight sleep study

  • no other medical issues can account for the symptoms

  • all other forms of insomnia have been ruled out

Is there a difference between food allergy, food intolerance, and food sensitivity?

Generally speaking, a food allergy relates to an immune system response to the protein component of a food. A food tolerance, or food sensitivity, relates to a digestive system response to a carbohydrate component of a food.

Both food allergies and intolerances lead to many uncomfortable symptoms.

Food sensitivities may be more difficult to identify, as the symptoms often don’t appear until long after the food has been consumed. Sometimes it might be days before a sensitivity presents itself.

Food allergies, however, present immediately and can lead to life-threatening symptoms, whereas food intolerances do not.

In any event, both can also lead to major sleep problems including debilitating insomnia.

How to be an allergy detective

If you suspect that you might have a food allergy, and you’ve experience insomnia enough to be concerned by it, considered taking action in these ways:

  • See a doctor.This could mean your primary care physician, an allergist, or a sleep specialist.
  • Have an allergy screening.There are good tests these days to identify both allergies and sensitivities.
  • Eliminate trigger foods.Think you know what’s bothering you? Does a screening identify foods you can’t tolerate? Take them out of your diet. Be vigilant; read labels of prepared and packaged foods to discover if they contain your trigger. Most likely these will be nuts, eggs, dairy, or gluten. Avoid them for at least a couple of weeks to see what happens to your sleep problems.
  • Keep a diary.Actually, two diaries would be helpful:
    • Food diary:If you are still trying to figure out what foods seem to bother you, keep track using a small notebook and pen, or use one of the apps available to record medical symptoms. Indicate contents of the meal, the time it was eaten, and the symptoms including their severity and what helped to improve any symptoms. Also indicate any trouble sleeping that night.
    • Sleep diary:Recording what you ate during the day, then any incidence of sleep problems such as insomnia, frequent awakenings, or daytime sleepiness as they occur. This can be helpful evidence for a sleep physician trying to narrow down the root cause of your problems.
  • Practice healthy behaviors.Drink adequate amounts of water, exercise regularly, and manage your stress. These will enhance any efforts you make to improve your health in the face of food allergies.
  • Prepare your own food at home.This allows you to avoid reliance on prepared foods, which may contain hidden food allergens.Be wary of carry-out, picnics, and restaurant food as well, and be willing to make special requests so you can maintain control over what you eat.
  • Join a food allergy support group.Sometimes the obstacles of dietary restriction can seem nearly insurmountable in the beginning.

    People who are well versed in restrictive diets due to allergies and sensitivities can offer a lot of insight into what products to buy or avoid; how to best prepare or store food; how to eat when you are away from home; and how to deal with symptoms should you unknowingly eat a problematic food.

All of these actions can go a long way to help you to not only overcome your food allergy or sensitivity problems, but to reclaim a healthy sleep habit once again and, most importantly, rid yourself of insomnia.


Centers for Disease Control
International Classification of Sleep Disorders (3rd ed.)
Sleep Medicine: Essentials and Review(2008, T. Lee-Chiong)id
A Woman’s Health

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