For the estimated 30% of people who suffer from insomnia, a study suggests that a diet high in refined carbohydrates could be a part of the problem. The study revealed that postmenopausal women consuming a diet high in refined carbohydrates, added sugars in particular, were more prone to developing insomnia. Those women whose diet included lots of fiber, vegetables, and whole fruit had less of a risk of developing insomnia.
Medications or cognitive behavioral therapy is often used for treating insomnia, but can be costly and medications have side effects. The identification of other factors that can be a cause of insomnia can help find inexpensive interventions without side effects.
Results from prior research exploring a possible association between insomnia and refined carbohydrates has been inconsistent. Also, because the study participants were not followed over time, it’s unclear if a diet high in refined carbohydrates triggered the start of insomnia, or if eating more sugar laden carbohydrates was a result of insomnia.
One method for determining if carbohydrate intake is the cause of sleep problems is to look for the appearance of insomnia in individuals with different diets. The researchers gathered data for the current study from the food diaries of more than 50,000 Women’s Health Initiative participants. They looked at if women who had a higher dietary glycemic index had more of a risk of developing insomnia.
Blood sugar levels can be increased to varying degrees by different amounts and types of carbohydrates. Highly refined carbohydrates like white rice, white bread, soda and added sugars have a higher glycemic index, and lead to a more rapid blood sugar increase. When blood sugar is increased quickly, the body releases insulin, and the resultant drop in blood sugar can end up releasing hormones like cortisol and adrenaline that can interfere with sleep.
It was hypothesized by the researchers that the rapid spikes and dips in blood sugar following the consumption of refined carbohydrates could be triggering insomnia. It was discovered that the risk of insomnia was greater when the dietary glycemic index was higher, especially when consuming processed grains and added sugars. It was also found that women consuming more veggies and whole fruits were less prone to developing insomnia.
Although whole fruits contain sugar, the fiber in them slows the absorption rate which helps in preventing blood sugar spikes. This suggests that highly processed foods containing large amounts of added refined sugars was the dietary trigger for the insomnia that the women in the study experienced. Since a rapid rise in blood sugar following the consumption of refined carbohydrates is experienced by most people, it’s suspected that these results will also apply to a broader population, and not just premenopausal women.
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