Chronic insomnia linked to ultra-processed foods

Ultra-processed foods have been linked with diabetes, cancer and depression.

Ultra-processed foods have been linked with diabetes, cancer and depression. Photo: Getty

Suffering with sleep difficulties? What you’re eating may be to blame.

New research suggests that chronic insomnia is linked to a diet heavy in ultra-processed foods.

These are ready-to-eat foods – high energy but low in nutrition – that are often packaged for long shelf lives.

They include potato chips and other snacks, frozen dinners like pasta dishes and pizzas, and deli meats containing preservatives.

They’re also known as discretionary foods.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), about one-third of Australians’ energy comes from these foods.

The proportion is even higher for teenagers aged 14 to 18, at 41 per cent.

Meanwhile, in a separate report, the AIHW found that nearly half of all Australian adults complain of at least two sleep-related problems.

This particular report was investigating sleep problems as a risk factor for chronic conditions.

This suggests that the relationship between diet and insomnia is a complex one.

The connection

Over the past three decades, the consumption of ultra-processed foods (UPFs) had steadily increased worldwide. This has happened hand in hand with the rise of diabetes, obesity and cancer.

The evidence for this link between these packaged foods and chronic disease is accumulating at a fast pace.

There is also growing evidence that UPF negatively impacts child development – and inflames the ageing brain, causing memory loss.

Now, an international study has shown “a statistically significant association between consumption of UPFs and chronic insomnia”.  This was “independent of sociodemographic, lifestyle, diet quality, and mental health status characteristics”.

Lead investigator was Dr Marie-Pierre St-Onge, from the Division of General Medicine and Centre of Excellence for Sleep & Circadian Research, Department of Medicine, Columbia University.

Her team had “previously reported associations of healthy dietary patterns, like the Mediterranean diet, with a reduced risk of insomnia and poor sleep quality”.

They also found that high carbohydrate diets had “an elevated risk of insomnia”.

It was a logical step to then put the focus on ultra-processed foods, she said in a prepared statement: “At a time when more and more foods are highly processed and sleep disturbances are rampant, it is important to evaluate whether diet could contribute to adverse or good-quality sleep.”

The study

The diet and sleeping habits of more than 39,000 French adults was analysed.

Data were collected every six months between 2013 and 2015 from participants who completed multiple 24-hour dietary records and provided information on insomnia symptoms.

Overall, the participants got 16 per cent of their daily energy from UPFs. Close to 20 per cent reported chronic insomnia – and the insomniacs tended to have more UPFs in their dietary intake.

The association of higher UPF intake and insomnia was evident in both males and females. But the risk was slightly higher in males than females.

The authors conclude: “To our knowledge, this is the first large epidemiological study to report significant independent associations between UPF consumption and chronic insomnia among men and women recruited from the general population.”

Which is interesting, but the study doesn’t prove a causal ink. As the researchers, note further research is required.

However, there is previous research supporting the link between poor diet and poor sleep.

In 2016, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine published a study which found that eating less fibre, more saturated fat and more sugar is associated with lighter, less restorative, and more disrupted sleep.

Stay informed, daily
A FREE subscription to The New Daily arrives every morning and evening.
The New Daily is a trusted source of national news and information and is provided free for all Australians. Read our editorial charter.
Copyright © 2024 The New Daily.
All rights reserved.