No bread in bed: Study suggests refined carbs can trigger insomnia

NEW YORK — Sleep seems to happen almost instantly on some nights, while others are spent endlessly tossing and turning in pursuit of some rest. Insomnia can be caused by a variety of factors, but it is indisputably a common occurrence nowadays. In fact, an estimated 30% of adults experience insomnia regularly. If you’ve been having trouble falling asleep lately, a new study says you may want to examine your eating habits. Research performed at Columbia University found that post menopausal women consuming a diet high in refined carbohydrates, specifically added sugars, are more likely to deal with insomnia.

Conversely, women eating more vegetables, fiber, and whole fruit were less likely to experience trouble sleeping. While this study focused solely on older women, the research team theorize that the same holds true for men and younger women as well.

“Insomnia is often treated with cognitive behavioral therapy or medications, but these can be expensive or carry side effects,” comments senior study author James Gangwisch, PhD, assistant professor at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, in a release. “By identifying other factors that lead to insomnia, we may find straightforward and low-cost interventions with fewer potential side effects.”

This isn’t the first time researchers have investigated a possible connection between refined carbohydrates and insomnia, but prior studies had ultimately yielded inconclusive results. For example, none of those previous studies had followed participants over an extended period of time, making it impossible to definitively say if a high-carb diet led to insomnia, or if insomnia actually caused some individuals to eat more carbs and sweets.

So, for this study, researchers utilized data collected from over 50,000 women who had filled out diet diaries. They then analyzed this information to see if women with diets high in refined carbs were more likely to develop insomnia.

Now, different types of carbs have varying effects on blood sugar. Refined carbs, including added sugars, white rice, soda, and white bread, entail a higher glycemic index, which really just means they induce a more rapid and pronounced increase in blood sugar after consumption.

“When blood sugar is raised quickly, your body reacts by releasing insulin, and the resulting drop in blood sugar can lead to the release of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which can interfere with sleep,” Gangwisch explains.

As predicted, the study’s authors found that the more carbs women ate with a high dietary glycemic index, specifically foods with added sugars or processed grains, the more likely they were to experience insomnia.

“Whole fruits contain sugar, but the fiber in them slow the rate of absorption to help prevent spikes in blood sugar,” Gangwisch comments. “This suggests that the dietary culprit triggering the women’s insomnia was the highly processed foods that contain larger amounts of refined sugars that aren’t found naturally in food.”

Of course, postmenopausal women aren’t the only individuals who experience an increase in blood sugar levels after eating refined carbs. With this in mind, the research team are fairly confident that similar findings would appear among more diverse population samples.

“Based on our findings, we would need randomized clinical trials to determine if a dietary intervention, focused on increasing the consumption of whole foods and complex carbohydrates, could be used to prevent and treat insomnia,” Gangwisch concludes.

The study is published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.