Instead of counting sheep when you are having trouble sleeping you may want to try to recall what you ate that day because it could be the reason you are awake. A new study from Columbia University found women who consumed a diet high in refined carbohydrates and sugar were more likely to develop insomnia.
Other women in the study whose diets included higher amounts of vegetables, fiber and fruit (not fruit juice) had fewer issues with insomnia. It is estimated insomnia, which is characterized by having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, affects about one in three adults.
"Insomnia is often treated with cognitive behavioral therapy or medications, but these can be expensive or carry side effects," says the study's senior author James Gangwisch, Ph.D., assistant professor at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. "By identifying other factors that lead to insomnia, we may find straightforward and low-cost interventions with fewer potential side effects."
The study focused on postmenopausal women and the findings were published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Researchers looked at food diary data from more than 50,000 participants in the Women’s Health Initiative to determine if there was a link between a higher dietary glycemic index and insomnia.
Different foods impact blood sugar levels differently. Highly refined carbohydrates like white-flour based products and white rice have a higher glycemic index as do sugar-sweetened drinks and foods high in added sugars. They cause a person’s blood sugar level to increase more rapidly.
"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 says.
That fact is the reason researchers theorized refined carbs might trigger insomnia. Their hypothesis was confirmed when a greater risk of developing insomnia was observed in those with the highest dietary glycemic indexes, especially when it resulted from the consumption of processed grains and foods high in added sugars.
"Whole fruits contain sugar, but the fiber in them slow the rate of absorption to help prevent spikes in blood sugar," says Gangwisch. "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. 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."
While the study only focused on postmenopausal women, researchers believe the same results hold true for others since men and women of all ages experience a similar spike in blood sugar after refined carbohydrate consumption.