10/15/2010 08:22 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Why Going Gluten-Free Can't Guarantee a Good Night's Sleep

Being gluten-sensitive or gluten-intolerant has gained a lot of attention in recent years, no doubt spurred by celebs like Elisabeth Hasselbeck of "The View," who has written a book about living a "G-free" life. Also called celiac disease, this condition is caused by an allergic reaction within the inner lining of the small intestine to proteins (gluten) that are present in wheat, rye, barley and, to a lesser extent, oats. The body's immune response causes inflammation that destroys the lining of the small intestine, which then reduces the absorption of dietary nutrients and can lead to uncomfortable symptoms and signs of nutritional, vitamin and mineral deficiencies.

You wouldn't think being sensitive to gluten would have any effect on sleep, but there is in fact a strong connection. A team of researchers recently found that people with this condition -- even those following a gluten-free diet -- commonly suffer from sleep disorders that are related to depression, anxiety and fatigue. It is, to put it mildly, a vicious cycle:

  • When you're tired and down, you're not likely to sleep well, which can then play into digestive issues.

  • Add to that a sensitivity to an ingredient as ubiquitous as gluten and there's bound to be trouble.
  • The reverse holds true as well: When your eating life is challenged by celiac, you run a higher risk of having physical ailments that hinder restful sleep.
  • Since anxiety and depression both occur at higher rates in people with celiac disease than in the general population, the researchers were curious to see how it might affect quality of sleep. In addition to finding that sleep disorders commonly affect people with this disease, regardless of gluten-free status, they also found that sleep disorders are less common in celiacs who score higher on quality of life scales, while those with low quality of life scores suffer at higher rates.

    This may seem an expected likely observation, but it further proves the complex challenges people face when their health is not 100 percent or they suffer from a condition that can lower their quality of life. Just about any disease or illness can cut sleep short and increase one's risk for consequences linked to sleep deprivation. Fatigue, depression and anxiety are really just common denominators to myriad other conditions; in other words, they happen as a side effect to enduring or living with other health problems.

    Here's some help:  if you or someone you love has celiac disease, be prepared to address sleep issues, and do everything possible to ensure a good night's rest. That means:

    • Avoiding digestive irritants, especially if you're sensitive to gluten.

  • Keeping a regular bedtime routine.
  • Watching your consumption of stimulants, from caffeine to "CSI" at night.
  • Managing stress better in your life and being mindful of your mood.
  • Getting the sleep your body deserves.
  • For celiacs, living a G-free life doesn't mean you have to be sleep-free, too. The more restful sleep you achieve, the easier it will be to manage your condition and enjoy a vibrant, well-rested life.

    Sweet Dreams,

    Michael J. Breus, Ph.D.
    he Sleep Doctor™