How to Fix Sleep Issues Caused by a Caloric Deficit and Intermittent Fasting
Many dieters, athletes, and bodybuilders occasionally experience difficulty falling or staying asleep due to caloric deficits or intermittent fasting. Based on our client experience, we’ve come to believe that sleep is truly everything for health, aesthetics, and performance. You should never have to choose fat loss over sleep. You can have both. In Part 1,…
Many dieters, athletes, and bodybuilders occasionally experience difficulty falling or staying asleep due to caloric deficits or intermittent fasting. Based on our client experience, we’ve come to believe that sleep is truly everything for health, aesthetics, and performance. You should never have to choose fat loss over sleep. You can have both.
In Part 1, we covered reasons why dieting and fasting can disrupt sleep. In this article, part 2, we cover practical tips to prevent or mitigate such sleep problems. Also, we’ll introduce ways you can achieve similar health benefits as fasting without the same side effects.
1) Ease up or take diet breaks
If the things you’re trying to do to lose weight end up disrupting your sleep, the best thing to do is to ease up on them. Try going back to your maintenance calories for a week or two. Perhaps take a week off hard training and focus on gentler exercise.
If the sleep disruption happens after you start to introduce intermittent fasting, it could mean that intermittent fasting is not for you, at least with your current health status and stress levels. Consider shortening your fasting window or try a gentler approach to achieve your goals.
2) Try diet cycling and intentional refeeds
Those who find the most sustainable and consistent results with IF and calorie reduction typically all have some element of diet cycling and refeeds. Rather than stick with say 1800 calories a day and an 8 hour feeding window, 1-2 times per week they’ll refeed. Meaning, they’ll have something like 2500 calories and eat within 10-12 hours, for example. This regular influx of more calories and a relaxed eating window serves like a pressure release valve. It signals to the body that there is plenty of food energy available and that it’s safe to maintain a higher metabolism. It’s also great mentally to have a couple of days per week to simply enjoy more of your favorite foods.
3) Don’t work out close to bedtime
If you are struggling with sleep, first ensure that you are not training intensely too close to your bedtime. A hard workout is ideally placed in the morning upon waking or 5-6 hours before bedtime. This enables your nervous system to relax leading up to bed rather than be overstimulated and hard to settle at night.
4) Ease up on your training and maximize your recovery
Overtraining can overload your stress response system. You may be able to handle the training without a caloric deficit, but get sleep disruption when you combine both at the same time. This can happen even if you don’t exercise close to your bedtime. So, the key here is to lay off the bootcamp or “harder is better” mentality. Also, don’t rely on exercise as a way to burn calories, but rather use it as a stimulus to maintain or build muscles.
Instead of lifting as heavy as you can for as many reps as you can, focus on lifting slow and controlled reps, and end each set with a few reps in the tank. Your RPE should be up to 7-8 in shorter workouts (<45 minutes). Such workouts will provide enough signals to your body to build, preserve, and maintain muscle mass without overtraining. As long as you eat adequate protein, your body should burn fat to cover the caloric deficit.
To maintain health and sleep, you need to “earn” the training by making sure you have enough reserve to handle your training. That means maximizing your recovery to match your training intensity. Consider the following:
- Monitor your daily morning heart rate variability, a measure of stress and well-being, and adjust your training accordingly.
- Using practices that support nervous system recovery such as sensory deprivation therapy and meditation may also be beneficial.
5) Make sure your caloric deficit is not too aggressive
Aggressive caloric deficit can disrupt sleep. High cortisol and adrenaline levels can make it hard to calm down and get good sleep. And if your body is in starvation mode during the night, you are likely to wake up early and feel alert/panicked. This is because your body thinks you’re in danger and is anxious to find calories and feel safe again. Adequate nutrition sends the message that there is plenty of food available for your needs, and this greatly reduces survival stress.
A Daily 500-calorie deficit is practical for most and is a great starting point. Then, monitor your sleep and adjust accordingly.
6) Include carbs with dinner to improve sleep
Carbohydrates help bring tryptophan into your brain to produce serotonin and melatonin. So, low-carb diets can make it harder to sleep. High blood sugar can also make you tired and ready for bed.
If you are restricting carbs, consider adding an extra 50-75 grams of carbohydrates with dinner. This is a great way to encourage sleepiness, especially if you eat a low-carb or keto diet while exercising. In my experience, strict low-carb diets have never worked long-term for my clients or myself. Let’s be clear that carbs are not ‘bad’ in fact, they are delicious and very effective at lowering cortisol.
7) Use supplements for a healthy stress response
If you are taking supplements with B vitamins or anything with stimulating properties be sure to take them with breakfast or lunch. Some individuals are very sensitive to these and find them to be highly stimulating, so you should be mindful. Some people can’t even have a piece of chocolate after dinner for the same reason–it keeps them up.
Consider the following supplements:
- Use Sleep Breakthrough to support healthy GABA, melatonin, and nervous system relaxation
- Ashwagandha, an Ayurvedic adaptogen that helps lower cortisol, promotes sleep, and improves stress resilience. A study involving “stressed healthy adult” participants who were given varying doses of ashwagandha extract for 8 weeks produced remarkably beneficial effects. Participants received 250 mg or 600 mg per day and both doses significantly reduced serum cortisol and perceived stress while improving sleep quality.
- Phosphatidylserine, which helps reduce serum cortisol, may help with sleep in people with excessive stress responses. In a study on 10 healthy males, phosphatidylserine reduced serum cortisol and improved the testosterone-to-cortisol ratio measured after exercise. The findings suggest that phosphatidylserine can mitigate the negative effects of excessive exercise which may translate into any high-stress scenario.
Do You Need Less Sleep While Fasting?
If you are fasting, and not exercising intensely or experiencing a high level of stress you may find you need less sleep. Many individuals who experiment with different fasting protocols note that they sometimes find it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep. They also note that the sleep they do get seems to be of greater quality so that they don’t feel tired or groggy. This could mean that factors like deep sleep and REM sleep are upregulated while doing some kind of fasting or IF.
This may be because your body is using less energy for digestion and so it has more energy for recovery and regeneration. It may be that when you are slowly starving, your brain keeps you alert and awake longer to go find food.
Both too low or too high blood sugar can make you tired. This is why you’re often sleepy after high-carb meals. Glucose is an oxidizing sugar, and high glucose suppresses orexin (energizing) neurons in your brain. Lower and more steady blood sugar can make you overall more energized and need less sleep.
People who are keto-adapted will need less sleep both from higher orexins and their neurons overall being more energized from ketones. Also mineral losses from being in ketosis can interfere with sleep, so you want to make sure to take in electrolytes such as potassium.
Some people start to get better sleep once they’re keto-adapted. However, if the sleep disruptions persist or they keep you from feeling and performing optimally, especially when you implement all the tips above, it’s time to ease up on the fasting or caloric deficit.
How to Reap the Benefits of Caloric Restriction and Fasting Without Losing Sleep
If your goals with intermittent fasting are to lose weight and enhance cellular cleanup, also known as autophagy, there are additional factors worth considering.
1) Time your food, especially carbs, appropriately
Simply adjusting the timing of when you consume different foods can make a big impact on sleep. As mentioned earlier, carbs at night will enhance melatonin production, so rather than carbs with breakfast, try them with dinner. Some folks particularly like a tsp or two of raw honey before bed, so consider that too for an easy experiment.
2) Include proteolytic enzymes for systemic support
If you want to enhance autophagy but maintain your weight or simply tone up a bit then you can use proteolytic enzymes to help with that. Simply take 4-6 quality systemic enzymes on an empty stomach at least 1 hour before food and let them go to work. The enzymes will get into your circulation and help to break down cellular debris and scarring all without having to restrict calories. You won’t get this benefit if you take them with food so ensure you take it 2 hours away from meals.
3. Focus on exercise as a way to stimulate anti-aging pathways
Exercise potently activates anti-aging pathways, including autophagy. If you want to maintain muscle while losing body fat and without doing any fasting, exercise is your best bet.
Ways to Stimulate Autophagy with Supplements and Technology
1. Calorie restriction mimetics
Taking these supplements may prove useful though in many cases we simply don’t have long-term human data to know for sure. Regardless of their CRM properties, many of these natural compounds have additional benefits which are certainly worth exploring for yourself.
Another avenue for stimulating autophagy comes from consuming what are known as calorie restriction mimetics (CRM). These substances, often naturally sourced, are theorized to enhance cellular autophagy at therapeutic dosages and without reducing calories. The most popular ones are curcumin, resveratrol, EGCG (green tea extract), NAD+ precursors, quercetin, and berberine to name a few.
2. Infrared sauna
When it comes to devices that support the goals of calorie restriction there are two technologies that I see as supreme. The first is an infrared sauna. The deeply penetrating heat waves help cells to function better, to regenerate, and to become more resilient to stress. If you do saunas immediately following a workout you’ll get an even greater benefit for calorie burn and cardiovascular fitness. In fact, saunas provide benefits similar to steady-state cardio as your system has to work hard to keep cool.
3. Photobiomodulation or red light therapy
The other piece of tech to mention are red light therapy or photobiomodulation (PBM) devices. These work by enhancing cellular function, reducing inflammation, and boosting ATP energy within the mitochondria. PBM devices in the 660 nm or 880 nm spectrum are the most studied for therapeutic effects. Simply by exposing the skin to these lights regularly you can speed up cellular regeneration remarkably. Combine this tool with exercise and you could experience faster recovery, meaning you may be able to train more frequently.
How to Find the Combination and Protocol For You
The most important thing to remember are
- What is your long-term goal?
- Why are you interested in a calorie-reduced IF protocol in the first place?
Don’t get caught up in fads because some influencer told you it was the best way to go. Check-in with yourself and listen to your body as it responds to different approaches and patterns. Fasting can be dumb if you’re pushing through sleep disruptions and skyrocketing stress levels.
I’m not saying fasting or caloric restrictions are not beneficial. But you have agency and choices when it comes to your nutritional strategies. I simply caution folks who may get obsessed or dogmatic to moderate practices because I’ve seen them become harmful over time.
That said, to be healthy and wise, you’ll need to pay attention to these key areas to determine if your approach is working. Namely, your energy, mood, ability to function without stimulants, and of course your weight and body composition. If these things are trending in the right direction and you feel good then keep on going. The best way to track these key areas in my opinion is with a journal or spreadsheet that has spaces for each. And if things shift, which they always do eventually, then don’t be afraid to try something new.
If this is confusing to you (and it often is), it’s best to see a coach who’s not dogmatic about any particular approach. They can give you perspective, help you weed out irrelevant information, and tell you what to do or watch out for.
Our Nutrition Bible is coming soon.
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