Diet often causes sleep disorders

Refined carbohydrates can trigger insomnia

Millions of people suffer from insomnia. You have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, wake up early, or have poor sleep quality. A new study from the United States now indicates that certain foods can lead to insomnia.

An estimated 30 percent of adults suffer from insomnia. A study by researchers from Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University in New York City now suggests that diet is partly to blame for insomnia.

Simple interventions with fewer side effects

As stated in a statement from the university, the study found that post-menopausal women who were high in refined carbohydrates, especially added sugars, were more likely to develop insomnia.

Women who had higher amounts of vegetables, fiber and whole fruits (not juice) on their diet were less likely to experience insomnia.

"Insomnia is often treated with cognitive behavior therapy or medication, but it can be expensive or have side effects," said lead author of the study, James Gangwisch, assistant professor of clinical psychiatric social work at Columbia University.

"By identifying other factors that lead to insomnia, we can find simple and inexpensive interventions with fewer potential side effects."

The study results were recently published in the "American Journal of Clinical Nutrition".

Link between diet and sleep

Previous scientific research has examined a possible link between refined carbohydrates and insomnia, but the results have been inconsistent.

And since the individuals in the studies were not followed for a long time, it is not clear whether a diet high in refined carbohydrates led to insomnia or whether people ate more sweets due to insomnia.

One way to determine if carbohydrates are causing sleep disorders is to examine the occurrence of insomnia in people with different eating habits.

In the current study, Gangwisch and his team collected data from more than 50,000 participants in the "Women's Health Initiative" who had created food diaries. The researchers examined whether women whose diets had a higher glycemic index were more likely to develop insomnia.

Not all carbohydrates are the same

Different types and amounts of carbohydrates increase blood sugar levels to different degrees. Highly refined carbohydrates such as added sugar, white bread, white rice and sodas have a higher glycemic index and cause a faster rise in blood sugar.

"If the blood sugar is raised rapidly, the body releases insulin and the resulting drop in blood sugar can lead to the release of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which can affect sleep," explains Gangwisch.

The scientists hypothesized that the rapid peaks and troughs in blood sugar could trigger insomnia after consuming refined carbohydrates.

Rapid rise in blood sugar

The researchers found that the higher the glycemic index of the food, the greater the risk of insomnia - especially when it is fueled by the consumption of added sugar and processed grain. They also discovered that women who consumed more vegetables and whole fruits (no juices) were less likely to get insomnia.

"Whole fruits contain sugar, but the fiber contained in them slows down the absorption rate," says Gangwisch. "This suggests that the cause of women's nutritional insomnia is the heavily processed foods that contain large amounts of refined sugar that are not naturally found in foods."

Since most people, not just postmenopausal women, see a rapid rise in blood sugar after consuming refined carbohydrates, the authors suspect that these results could also apply to a broader population.

"Based on our findings, we need randomized clinical trials to determine whether a dietary intervention aimed at increasing the consumption of whole foods and complex carbohydrates can be used to prevent and treat insomnia," said Gangwisch. (ad)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.


  • Columbia University: Refined Carbs May Trigger Insomnia, Finds Study, (accessed: December 15, 2019), Columbia University
  • American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: High glycemic index and glycemic load diets as risk factors for insomnia: analyzes from the Women's Health Initiative, (accessed: December 15, 2019), American Journal of Clinical Nutrition

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