T Nation

Why Insomnia?



I joined this site after scanning a few on the net recently. As the title suggests, whey can create insomnia - if you over do it! I am writing this post as another thread here talking about it was locked.

I was on about 5 to 7 scoops a day of high quality whey protein isolate and suffered the consequences. I always ruled whey out of elimination diets to correct my insomnia because I thought it was so 'natural' as a supplement. I should have been using it in a 'natural manner', maybe once a day, instead of using it as a meal subsitute for protein throughout the day and evening.

To naturally obtain this amount of amino profile/quantity, I would have to consume at least 6 times that weight in powdered semi-skimmed milk. Add water to that, and you've got a hell of a lot of milk!

The component that causes the problem is GLUTAMATE. A great amino acid for training and growing - in moderation. However, if you refine it, and have it in a free form (as derived by the whey isolate process) , any excess can be converted into harmful nervous system 'excito toxins'. The dreaded MSG or monosodium glutamate has as it's active component the same glutamate found in whey.

The glutamate literally attacks the nervous system, placing it in a stressed state while simoultaneously making it difficult for taurine synthesis - which normally acts as a neuro sedative. Some amino's in substantial 'free form' are never tolerated well in excess in some people. Eg too much supplemental taurine can lower test (over 6 grammes daily) and too much tyrosine can over stimulate the nervous system ( I estimate over 5 grammes daily).

The symptoms I got were:

(1) unusual fat burning potential overnight - I would wake up the next day and actually see fat had diminished as if on diet drugs or amphetamines. My partner commented my fat level was "obscenely low". I also felt like I was on amphetamines - not good after a few months.

(2) Progression to early waking insomnia, eventually progressing to difficulty getting to and staying asleep - for months!

(3) Anxiety chest pains - when I wasn't (and had no reason to be) anxious or worried.

(4) A lump feeling in my throat, again similar to that of anxiety. None of these anxiety 'mimic' symptoms were attenuated by aerobic or anaerobic exercise - in normal circumstances of anxiety or depression, exercise would substantially diminish physical symptoms.

(5) An eventual slump in mood created by long term insomnia.

(6) Slightly raised blood pressure and a constant 'pounding' heart - not faster, just much harder. My heart would pound throughout the night and on any movement from rest whatsoever.

(7) Gastrointestinal disturbances, particularly upper tract.

(8) Hypervigilance, though thankfully I never got to the paranoia stage!

My blood test results were in normal range but my doctors agreed there was a physiological issue as they concurred my mood and outlook were still positive. It was a conversation with a psychiatric nurse I knew that got my attention. The first thing they asked was 'what is your diet like?' They explained many of their cases for insomnia problems were in fact caused by diet and not depression, and especially by supplements. I realised that relying 100% on whey isolate as a protein source was a damn foolish thing to do. Looking back, the real symptoms began when I went from 2 scoops to 6 scoops a day whilst working on a contract job near home. I was working so much I just threw in the whey to put off having to cook or by meat as it was wasting my working paid time!

I cut the whey powder out and after two days I was able to take an afternoon nap - this was impossible only a week prior. The washout period for glutamate is at least 36 hours - which also makes it difficult to nail down diet culprits due to the perception of 'overlapping' days of symptom experience. As excessive glutamate can also cause nerve damage of the type often seen after trauma or extreme stress, recovery can be measured in weeks and months as nerves begin to regrow.

Anyway, I hope this is useful for discussion. Everyone is different and some folk can handle higher levels of one supplement than others. I've been off caffeine for 6 months as a result - which has actually been a good thing. But from now on, I'm not going to be such a lazy ass and get cooking my own meals again! I will not rule out whey completely and in due time, use it respectfully as one should any supplement.


Good thread with useful info and a new perspective on some things


Interesting, i have been having a lot of sleeping problems lately. I take a minimum of 2 scoops whey per day, 4 or 5 scoops on training days. Might have to try cutting it right down. I've already had to cut out flavoured whey because the sucralose gives me bladder problems.


Interesting but not sure if entirely convincing. Some thoughts:

  • You mean the whey supplied too much glutamic acid, leading to too much glutamate in the brain, no?

  • "glutamate literally attacks the nervous system" - you mean EXCESSIVE glutamate levels.

  • ok, seems to be true that we get a lot more glutamic acid with all the shakes:
    100g whey: ca. 16g glutamic acid
    100g chicken breast: ca. 5g
    100g steak: ca. ca. 4g

Does that really lead to excessive glutamate levels in the brain? It seems not since very few people get the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome from shakes.


There indeed is information put out there that would give this impression (such as http://www.peaktestosterone.com/Whey_Excitotoxins_Glutamic_Acid.aspx , just doing a quick Google search) but it is inaccurate, or perhaps more precisely, is a result of misinterpretation. Or in the above case, is part of selling a whey protein they are pushing versus other whey proteins, trying to suggest that other companies' proteins are or could be toxic.

Whey protein does not have free glutamic acid in any significant quantity, if at all. I can't rule out that conceivably some individual product may be produced in a weird way that could get some degree of free glutamic acid, but I don't think it's the case. Whey proteins in general are very little hydrolyzed, even with the processing that is used.

Instead, free glutamic acid results during lab analysis when the protein is broken down to analyze amino acid content.

There is no economical way, if any way at all, to provide a breakdown of amino acid content of a given batch of protein without breaking it down in this way. It doesn't mean that any of the amino acids listed were present in their free form. Where an unusually high (greater proportion than actually present within the protein) of glutamic acid is given, the value represents the total of both glutamine and glutamic acid that had been present within the protein -- some labs report it that way and the supplement companies are simply reporting what the lab gave them.

So for example the above company can be using a lab that reports the total glutamine + glutamic acid of their product as glutamine, and comparing to competitors that use a different lab which reports the same total as glutamic acid. Yes, it's not ideal that differing labs do it differing ways but it is what the labs do and so this is what goes on labels. No real problem comes of it though, unless it's further employed to make a twisted claim.

Where the figure is given as glutamic acid, it actually does not mean either that any free glutamic acid was present, nor that that much glutamic acid was present in bound form within the proteins as part of the amino acid sequence.

That said, if you found relief from reducing whey protein intake, then quite likely for some reason either that much whey protein in general or that much of that specific product was affecting your sleep adversely, or perhaps for some individual reason simply that high an amount of protein intake did not suit you.


After reading this thread I started thinking about the role of glutamate in excess aging. It SEEMS as though there is a relationship between the ammount of carbs injested and the levels of glutamate produced by the body. (correct me if I am interpreting this wrong)

Does the lowered level of glutamate produced by the body, and subsequent lack of premature aging in the absence of carbohydrates explain why on a lower calorie diet the life expectancy of animals is increased?

Also a question for you, Bill. Whatis the relationship between Oxaloacetate and glutamate? I have recently read the potential for Oxaloacetate supplements to increase life expectancy throug similar mechanisms of calorie deprevation.. without alorie deprevation. Are these two phenomena related somehow?


In terms of dietary intake I don't know of a relationship (which doesn't mean there isn't one); in terms of what happens inside cells, there is a relationship in that an enzyme converts some oxaloacetate in the cell together with some glutamate to yield aspartic acid and alpha-ketoglutarate, and vice-versa. The enzyme causes a balance to exist between these two combinations.

So it could be that having more oxaloacetate would result in having less glutamate, if oxaloacetate is limiting in that equilibrium. But I don't know if there is a practical difference resulting from that.

On your bringing up oxaloacetate, there's only one study on that which personally I would weigh as being a substantial indicator and that was the Japanese study on diabetics. As there's been no follow-up that I know of, and particularly since it may only have acted in a diabetes-specific way, not a great deal can be concluded but it certainly was interesting. On the outcomes with nematodes and so forth, that seems a stretch for claiming enhanced lifespan for humans (not that that needed to be said)