Diet for night terrors and other sleep disturbances


The mother of a two-year-old wrote: "Can the diet help with night terrors?"

The answer is YES, absolutely. Readers report that diet helps where other approaches do not - and not just for children!

Our son has had a history of sleep problems since birth ... following the RPAH Elimination diet ... John now settles calmly to sleep within 15-30minutes, sleeps through the night ... and no longer suffers with night terrors - Ursula from story [1341]

Ursula was alarmed that all the health professionals she saw had failed to mention diet. Behavioural interventions, night time routines and age-appropriate bedtimes had been recommended, but none of these worked.

I will write to every health professional to get food intolerance recognised as a diagnosis, she said. You can see her draft letter here  

In 1994, a major study by pediatrician Dr Kathy Rowe and her husband leading educational researcher Dr Ken Rowe (who tragically died in Victoria's 2009 Black Saturday bushfires) showed that the main behavioural effects of artificial colours are:

  • irritability
  • restlessness
  • sleep disturbance - such as difficulty falling asleep, frequent night waking or night terrors (1,2)

Other additives and some naturally occurring food chemicals such as salicylates and amines that can cause the same problems have been identified by Sydney's Royal Prince Alfred Hospital (RPAH) Allergy Clinic (3,4).

As is usual with food intolerance, everyone is different - effects can be delayed and cumulative, and different food chemicals can be involved.

Reader reports

The following quotes are from more than 1,500 in our database of reader reports, compiled over 25 years.

Night terrors due to food additives

Artificial red colour (and possibly yellow) cause my son to have a few night terrors during the night after he has had it during the day and can sometimes last up to two nights – Kim [1476]

Last night my son had 3 night terrors close together, where he screams and his legs cramp and he twitches.  I phoned his day care as he spoke about eating glue ... it was a thing called 'gloop' made with flour, water and (yesterday) green food colouring. [452]

... our 5 year old daughter is intolerant of all the nasty additives, colours, preservatives etc ...  last time she ate at McDonald's, we had her up in the night screaming with "night terrors"... – K [1042]

My sister aged 61 was awake during the night for about three hours and kept repeating the words "I'm terrified" and I believe it was from potassium sorbate in the sweet cider we were using to make her fruit smoothie ...  I poured all that cider away and bought some that has no preservatives and she slept good for me the last two nights - Leanda [1221]

Night terrors due to additives in medication

Colour free medication can contain other problems such as preservatives or strong fruit flavours that are very high in salicylates.

After a dose of colour free panadol my 5-year-old went back to his pre diet ways, crying non stop, angry, rages and night terrors ... it took 4½ horrible days to get out of his system [916]

I gave my son crushed up Panamax paracetamol 4-hourly for a couple of days, as well as the inners of amoxil capsules ... A couple of days later, his behaviour was absolutely shocking and it culminated in him having a night terror one evening, the most severe one he has had since going failsafe nine months ago ...  the Panamax has potassium sorbate (202) in it ... [797]

Night terrors due to salicylates (naturally occurring in most fruit and some vegetables)

We went low salicylate for my son. He falls asleep faster and night terrors ... have completely stopped - Ali [1465]

My sister’s 3 yo son suffers from night terrors ... He eats large amounts of fresh fruit and vegies...3 weeks later: “My sister cannot believe the difference. She is making everything failsafe. Her son has had his first week in more than two years, without waking, screaming etc [819]

Night terrors due to amines (naturally occurring in foods such as aged meat, chocolate, some fruit and vegetables)

My son’s reaction to amine foods is always the same: depression, crying for nothing, being angry, seeking conflicts, ODD like behaviour and many attacks of night terrors (like 5 times in a 2-week-period). He had very strong reactions to pork meat and to chocolate, and the effects to those foods lasted for almost 3 weeks even after stopping the challenge [1004]

My two year old daughter was having bananas and grapes (amines!!!!!) every day, some days she would even have two bananas.  I quickly banned these two foods and the difference ... was amazing.  She now wakes up a happy child!  Recently I let my guard down and let her have bananas again and saw the effects after about 4-5 days of having one each day ... even night terrors. And then I remembered the amines! After three days of no bananas, she was back to her usual self - Pauline [813]

Night terrors due to salicylates AND amines

My three-year-old son has been on the diet for three months now and it has been a miracle for our family ... he goes to sleep and sleeps all night with no night terrors (we were dealing with three or four a night). ...  We have found he is sensitive to amines and salicylates [474]

Night terrors improve on diet (unspecified causes)

Some people see a huge difference just by avoiding additives. Others need to do the full RPAH elimination diet with challenges to find out exactly what is causing their problems. The following readers were often reporting on other symptoms and have not mentioned exactly which food chemicals caused the night terrors.

Within a week of starting the diet, my little one stopped bedwetting and stopped having night terrors. For years, both would only happen as part of a food reaction - Tracy [1210]

I was having at least 5 night terrors a week and hated going to bed ... My daughter bought the Fed Up book to help her son (my one year old grandson) ... So I joined him on the diet ... and I haven't had one night terror since - Monica [1068]

My daughter had night terrors every night for 4 years ...  We made many trips to specialists and psychologists and others ... We chose to try Failsafe ...  and thankfully it worked! - Debbie [1166]

... My daughter's night terrors, which used to be horrific and last over 30 minutes of her guttural screaming and trying to hurt me and ending in vomiting all over me, haven’t happened since the diet was started - [1413] ."  

Our 7 year old daughter has been living in anxiety and terror at night .... I have been trying the diet with her for one and half weeks no amines, glutamates and moderate salicylates only. Last night was her first fear free night - Rachel [1119]

My son's ...  night terrors ... melted away completely within 3 months of going off artificial colours, preservatives and additives. That was several years ago and we have not looked back - Paula [1454]

...As a toddler my daughter Sarah rarely slept ... when she was three, Sarah became withdrawn, anxious, and suffered severe night terrors ... Grade 1 presented more problems, huge anxiety attacks and night terrors lasting two hours ... A friend gave me Sue Dengate's book Fed Up. I started that day and on the first night of the elimination diet my two children slept through the night. That was the first whole night's sleep I had for nearly seven years - Julie [009]

Three years ago [our daughter] was attacking us, herself, smashing her head on the floor, screaming 24/7, night terrors, impossible to toilet train, the list is endless. I’ll gladly give a testimonial to any sceptic but if the diet can transform my daughter it can help anyone - Charlotte [1500]

Response to this blog [1534]

Absolutely diet can help! My daughter had dreadful night terrors. I eliminated amines and bingo! No more horrifying nights ? - Sue

I regularly suffer from nightmares and night terrors when not eating failsafe. My screaming scares the pants off my partner. At least I don't snore, though...- Sarah

Night terrors are the reason we tried failsafe for my then 20mo. She went from 3-5/week (absolutely horrendous time for us we had been living like that since she was 8 mo) to none unless she eats non failsafe. Sals and amines cause it for her - Josie

My story is in the blog...stopped within a week after being dreadful and frequent. But... biggest trigger was antioxidants, and as she got older the reaction became sleepwalking instead – Tracy

More info

A typical day of failsafe eating

How to start the diet

For severe symptoms, we strongly recommend a trial of the RPAH elimination diet, supervised by an experienced dietitian. See our list of friendly, supportive dietitians - many will do skype or email consultations:

Scientific references

1.Rowe KS, Rowe KJ.Synthetic food coloring and behavior: a dose response effect in a double-blind, placebo-controlled, repeated-measures study. J Pediatr. 1994 Nov;125(5 Pt 1):691-8.
2. Dr Ken Rowe, Victorian bushfires claim leading educational researcher, ACER, 2009
3. Allen DH et al, Adverse reactions to foods.Med J Aust,1984;141(5 Suppl):S37-42.
4. Loblay RH and Swain AR "'Food intolerance'. In Wahlqvist ML, Truswell AS, Recent Advances in Clinical Nutrition, London: John Libbey, 1986,169-177.


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