Eggs and Insomnia

It isn’t well known that eggs (large amounts) can cause insomnia nor that caffeine — in special cases — can reduce insomnia. But a reader named Baeo Maltinsky recently made those discoveries:

Back around July 2012, I was trying to improve my diet but I didn’t want to give up my vegetarianism, so I started to eat a LOT of eggs, usually in the range of 10 to 14 per day. Not long after, I started having awful insomnia. I could lie awake all night just unable to fall asleep. There were suddenly just too many thoughts buzzing through my head keeping me up. I assumed that it was a result of ketosis disturbing sleep. I tried reintroducing carbs, but when that didn’t work I gave up on dietary modifications. I started cycling through OTC sleep aids, but I developed tolerance to anticholinergics very quickly.

By October 2013, I was going crazy. I couldn’t sleep well. It was making me depressed and seriously impairing my academic performance. I was exhausted constantly, but then I noticed something. I slept better when I consumed a lot of caffeine in the morning. I noticed there was a clear dose dependent relationship between how much caffeine I consumed and how well I slept. I had a hunch that the caffeine was depleting my acetylcholine levels, serving a similar function as OTC anticholinergics like diphenhydramine and kava.

I wondered what would happen if I sharply reduced my intake of acetylcholine precursors. A lot of people advertise eggs as “choline packed”, so I cut back to less than 3 per day. Suddenly, I was sleeping much better. Now, it could be something else in the eggs (I’m not really attached to my choline hypothesis), but either way I feel confident blaming them for my sleep troubles. My insomnia returns whenever I start eating them again.

I asked him why he hadn’t realized earlier that eating so many eggs was the problem. He replied:

I just didn’t think there was anything special about the eggs. I googled around for it and the only things I could find were about ketosis induced insomnia, so it didn’t occur to me that eggs specifically were likely to be problematic. I tried consuming enough carbs to knock myself out of ketosis, but when that didn’t improve the situation, I just assumed that something else was going on aside from diet. Eggs seemed like the perfect food. Cheap, nutrient rich, paleo, easy to prepare, and compatible with my (then) vegetarianism. It would have been hard for me to find a suitable replacement, so while the idea of testing it probably occurred to me, performing the test itself wouldn’t be trivial and the results wouldn’t be actionable.

As it got worse, I tried treating it more aggressively with OTC sleep aids, and that worked well enough that I stopped worrying about it. I wasn’t sleeping great, but it was enough to get by. Eventually they stopped working, but not long after that I made the caffeine connection and decided to try removing eggs. It was easier to do at that point because I had given up on paleo and vegetarianism and could just substitute chicken and sprouted lentils, and I had a (probably
incorrect) neurochemical explanation to support it. Moreover, it had become VERY difficult to eat the eggs. My body just didn’t want to consume them and I had to slowly force them down. Something seemed to know it was bad for me, but I wasn’t listening to the signs. My behavior was not at all rational, and believe me after I discovered eggs were the problem I was kicking myself for not trying it sooner.

I asked him what he learned from this, apart from how to sleep better. He replied:

  1. Costly experiments sometimes need to be performed.
  2. Sometimes your values are bad for your health.
  3. Don’t give up just because there’s no evidence to support a hypothesis.
  4. Simple things can easily go unnoticed.

Those are good lessons.

25 Responses to “Eggs and Insomnia”

  1. dearieme Says:

    He should have been eating quail eggs.

  2. Mehmet Says:

    Another lesson maybe: “too much of a good thing is bad” or “dose makes the poison”.

  3. Sentinel Says:

    Fascinating re caffeine and eggs.

    Baeo – what time of day were you eating the eggs, and in what form did you consume eggs and caffeine?

  4. Kyle Says:

    I agree with Mehmet. I kind of question the idea about ketosis, because eggs have a lot of protein.

    What do people think about caffeine being beneficial because they help boost certain hormones?

  5. David Says:

    I’m a vegetarian and really like eggs, but can’t imagine eating a dozen a day even for a single day. I guess my overall caloric intake must just be much less than his.

    +1 for what Mehmet says.

    Also “Meden agan” (“Nothing too much”/”Moderation in all things”).

  6. Brandon Berg Says:

    Eggs only have about 60 calories each. In terms of calorie count, a dozen is a light meal.

  7. Brandon Berg Says:

    Got the math wrong. It would be an average-sized meal, not a light one.

  8. Kevin Says:

    The caffeine may have worked due to circadian rhythm amplitude, similar to sunlight or vitamin D in the morning.

  9. gwern Says:

    > It isn’t well known that eggs (large amounts) can cause insomnia nor that caffeine — in special cases — can reduce insomnia. But a reader named Baeo Maltinsky recently made those discoveries:

    I see we’re using an interesting definition of ‘known’.

    I will point out that this would be very easy to do a blind self-experiment on: simply buy a few hundred grams of a choline like choline bitartrate or choline citrate (like $10), cap it & some flour for placebo (<$5), and do my usual concealed-containers trick. I can confidently predict that no one will do this, however, not even the OP who claims to be so confident…

  10. Joe Says:

    I think there must be more to this story. Why would someone try to improve his diet by suddenly consuming 10-14 eggs daily? Where is it written that eating over a dozen eggs a day is a kind of improvement? Improvement in what way? To what end?

    He tried reintroducing carbs? Why would a vegetarian ever need to RE-introduce carbs? Don’t vegetarians, almost by definition, eat a lot of carbs?

    Caffeine eventually helped him get to sleep? Really?

    In my opinion, there’s too many moving parts, and also some major inconsistencies, here to hazard even a guess as to why he couldn’t sleep, then suddenly why he could (what else was going on in his life at these times?), etc.

  11. Jimmy Says:

    Interesting timing.

    I’ve recently come into a weird situation that requires me to eat a dozen egg yolks most days. My sleep has also been really out of whack in about the same time period, but there’s enough other possible causes that I’m not sold on the egg thing yet.

    I actually have choline and gel caps on hand, so I might try that test eventually. However, first I’m going to try the more convenient (but less conclusive) test of piracetam to see if counteracting the extra choline improves my sleep. (I know piracetam helps me burn through choline because I’ve experienced and corrected for the other end of the spectrum before)

  12. Don Says:

    I think it is in fact the choline (or phosphatidylcholine) in the eggs.

    I realized a couple years ago that eating eggs daily for breakfast caused me to experience a marked increase in shoulder and neck tension. I must be fairly sensitive to this effect, since I only ate 2 or occasionally 3 eggs per day. The light went on for me when I remembered that acetylcholinesterase inhibitor drugs can have shoulder tension as a side effect (sleep disruption as well.) These drugs raise acetylcholine levels, as I believe dietary phosphatidylcholine can do as well.

    To much lecithin (presumably soy source) has the same effect on me.

  13. Alex Says:

    This was a helpful clue, perfectly timed. One night last week I woke up at 3:00 and my preteen daughter woke up at 4:00. It’s unusual for her to wake up, less so for me. After your post I realized that the previous night I’d made omelets for dinner instead of our usual meat and veggies fare. She asked for seconds, thus eating four eggs at bedtime. She’d had two eggs for breakfast, also. We’ll have to try it again.

  14. Baeo Maltinsky Says:

    Sentinel: The time varied between the late afternoon and late in the evening. Almost always scrambled. Caffeine came in the morning in the form of tea.

    Gwern: I have serious doubts about the choline hypothesis. For all I know it could have something to do with an amino-acid deficiency caused by having eggs as my primary protein source. Either way I imagine that I probably have some greater sensitivity to whatever-it-is-that-caused it than the general population.

    Joe: Gary Taubes and Robert Lustig presented very compelling cases I suppose. Given how bad my diet was before, switching to eggs as a dietary staple was actually a massive improvement. You are correct in assuming that low-carb vegetarianism is insane. I agree completely (at least I do now). Caffeine and other stimulants actually do have calming effects in some people (those afflicted with ADHD being the obvious example). Your other criticisms are valid. Humans are complicated and this was by no means a controlled experiment. All I can say is that the eggs definitely caused me sleeping issues, so I tend to avoid them these days.

    Really, I’m still not sure what’s going on. I made some bizarre and probably incorrect connections coming to what may be an incorrect hypothesis. I can say this: eggs cause insomnia for me. I don’t know why. Choline toxicity? Amino acid imbalances? Some specific allergy to eggs (which would explain the positive effects of anticholinergics I suppose)? I’ll freely admit that I don’t know. I haven’t performed the tests and frankly at this point I’m not that interested in finding out if it means testing it myself. Also, while it’s interesting to see other people reporting similar things, I’m a bit concerned that the choline hypothesis is getting too much attention. A quick reasonability check (looking at the choline content of eggs and comparing it to the TUL) suggests that choline toxicity is unlikely. Insomnia isn’t even a common symptom of choline toxicity when it DOES happen. Maybe the form it’s in in eggs causes the issue, but that’s yet to be established.

  15. Carlos Says:

    For me the issue are raw eggs. If a made some mayo for dinner I won’t sleep well, but I can have 4-6 fried eggs for dinner without issue. Anyone else has experienced this?

    P.S: I should point out that I have dinner quite late for US standards, around 22:00 (which is quite common here in Spain)

  16. JRM Says:

    “Almost always scrambled.”

    Some people, like myself, react to egg whites. I go for hard boiled eggs, eat the yolk and throw away the whites. I had read about egg whites causing a reaction in some people and then noticed the effect in myself. Most of the nutrition is in the yolk, too.

    Yolk:
    http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/dairy-and-egg-products/113/2

    Egg White:
    http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/dairy-and-egg-products/112/2

  17. Joe Says:

    Baes: “Gary Taubes and Robert Lustig presented very compelling cases I suppose. Given how bad my diet was before, switching to eggs as a dietary staple was actually a massive improvement. You are correct in assuming that low-carb vegetarianism is insane. I agree completely (at least I do now). Caffeine and other stimulants actually do have calming effects in some people (those afflicted with ADHD being the obvious example). Your other criticisms are valid. Humans are complicated and this was by no means a controlled experiment. All I can say is that the eggs definitely caused me sleeping issues, so I tend to avoid them these days.”

    Thanks for the feedback, Baes. Yes, Taubes and Lustig present very compelling cases (in my opinion), but what about those cases caused you to suddenly start eating 14 eggs per day? I didn’t find anything like that in any of the Taubes books or Lustig videos.

    I agree with you that choline toxicity is unlikely. But too much protein might be the culprit, especially if you were consuming other forms of protein (meat, milk, cheese, etc.) at the same time. A lot of my gym-rat friends used to talk about how consuming too much protein caused many of them to sleep poorly.

    I think you will agree that we all have different sensitivities to caffeine, and while I think ADHD is grossly over-diagnosed, I don’t think caffeine is actually helping you sleep. How about another experiment: Try having a couple of cups of coffee in the evening, before you go to bed, and see how that works out for you. If it’s the caffeine that is actually helping you sleep, you should sleep at least as well, right? My prediction: You won’t.

    Again, thanks for the feedback.

    Carlos: Try commercial mayo – it’s pasteurized. That is, the eggs are essentially cooked. See if it makes any difference. Personally, I don’t think there’s enough egg in mayo (typically 6-8% by weight) to have the effect you’re describing.

  18. Baeo Maltinsky Says:

    Vegetarian protein sources that aren’t heavy in carbohydrates are few and far between. Eggs seemed like the best option at the time. My protein intake wasn’t exceptionally high. It was normally between 80 and 120 grams per day, which is about average for someone my size (I’m about 6’1″).

    I never claimed that caffeine in the evening helped me sleep. Caffeine in the morning though seemed to. I’m not going to say that it definitely did something, but it seemed to. Maybe if I kept closer records I’d see that it was nothing after all. Hard to say.

  19. Joe Says:

    Baeo: “Eggs seemed like the best option at the time” Why? Don’t you like meat, poultry, or fish? Why just eggs?

    Protein requirements are all over the board, depending on whom you ask, your age, your activity level, etc. But unless you’re trying to build (or prevent the loss of) muscle mass due to age, inactivity, injury, that seems a bit much to me. In fact, the CDC says that the adult male needs ~ 56 grams of protein per day. The AMA says .36 grams per pound of BW (thus, a 190 pound person would need only 68.4 grams of protein per day). And Mark Sisson has this to say: . How do those recommendations apply to your personal situation?

    “I never claimed that caffeine in the evening helped me sleep.”

    Didn’t say that you did. I asked you to try drinking your coffee in the evening, instead of in the morning, to see what happens. If it helps you to sleep then, too, you just may be one of those rare individuals who get better sleep with caffeine. But if it doesn’t help you, and actually makes your sleep worse, then it’s highly unlikely, I think, that caffeine in the morning makes you sleep better either. You might want to find this out about yourself for future reference.

  20. Joe Says:

    Oops! Forget the link to Sisson.

    Here it is:

    http://www.marksdailyapple.com/how-much-protein-should-you-be-eating/#axzz2qPRzVqIJ

  21. Baeo Maltinsky Says:

    Joe: I was, at the time, a vegetarian. I’ve since given that up. With regards to protein intake, while the requirement for someone my size may have been only 70 grams, in practice most people consume well more than their requirement without ill effects. 100 grams of protein just doesn’t seem like enough to cause issues, especially given that consuming the same amount from different sources doesn’t cause me problems.

    I’m considering trying evening caffeine in the near future. However, if this blog has taught us anything it’s that time-of-day is such an important indicator. Morning caffeine could improve sleep while hurting it at night, like with Vitamin D.

  22. Joe Says:

    Baeo: One thing too much protein can do for you is to make you fat. Excess protein is stored as fat. I call that an ill effect.

    Yes, time-of-day can be important. But there are confounding factors. For example, some research shows that taking vitamin D first thing in the morning, on an empty stomach, is a waste of money. It’ll go right down the urinal. The Cleveland Clinic says to take vitamin D in the evening, with what is usually the biggest meal of the day (increases vitamin D absorption). That’s why it’s important to EXPERIMENT on yourself.

    Anyway, I hope you figure it out one day. Good luck!

  23. daz Says:

    histamine is another potential explanation…
    excessive egg consumption may raise histamine levels (in some people) over time.

    (looking around the web) foods raising histamine seems to be a bit like filling a bucket with water. histamine levels may be rising without any symptoms…until one day they overflow ‘the bucket’. then you need to try & empty ‘the bucket’ by avoiding high histamine foods & foods that raise histamine.

    purportedly eggs (or specifically egg whites) “are potent histamine liberators”, Source wiki, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Egg_allergy#Egg_white_intolerance

  24. daz Says:

    cont. i forgot to finish my thought process…

    purportedly, one symptom of high histamine is insomnia. which may be why antihistamines are sometimes used as a treatment for insomnia (usually the first generation H1 antihistamines (the ‘sedating antihistamines’)

  25. Jazi Zilber Says:

    I fell asleep multiple times fast after drinking coffee.

    I felt it has a connection.