Ultra-processed foods increase risk of insomnia, sleep loss

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Recent research published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has identified a notable association between the consumption of ultra-processed foods (UPF) and the incidence of chronic insomnia, affecting approximately one-third of adults.

This association persists even when adjusting for factors such as socioeconomic status, lifestyle, overall diet quality, and mental health.

The study, led by Marie-Pierre St-Onge, Ph.D., from Columbia University’s Division of General Medicine and Center of Excellence for Sleep & Circadian Research, suggests that the rising prevalence of UPFs may play a role in the widespread sleep disturbances observed today.

Unlike previous research that focused primarily on specific nutrients or supplements, this study examines the broader dietary patterns and the extent of food processing, providing new insights into dietary impacts on sleep health.

Dr. St-Onge and her team have previously explored how dietary patterns like the Mediterranean diet correlate with better sleep outcomes and how high-carbohydrate diets might increase insomnia risks.

The current study expands on this by linking the consumption of UPFs—increasingly common worldwide and associated with various health issues such as diabetes, obesity, and cancer—to poor sleep quality.

Using data from the NutriNet-Santé study, which included over 39,000 French adults, the researchers analyzed detailed dietary information and sleep variables collected biannually from 2013 to 2015.

Participants documented their dietary intake through multiple 24-hour records and reported insomnia symptoms according to established criteria.

The findings revealed that participants with chronic insomnia tended to consume a higher percentage of their energy from UPFs—16% on average. The relationship between high UPF intake and insomnia was consistent across genders, although slightly more pronounced in males.

Pauline Duquenne, MSc, the first author from the Nutritional Epidemiology Research Team at Sorbonne Paris Nord University, emphasized the observational and cross-sectional nature of the analysis.

She noted that while the study does not establish a causal relationship, it significantly contributes to the growing understanding of how diet influences sleep.

The study’s limitations include its reliance on self-reported data, which may lead to misclassification of food items, and its demographic composition, which has a higher proportion of females and individuals from higher socioeconomic backgrounds than the general population.

However, the researchers maintain that the UPF intake reported is comparable to that of a nationally representative sample.

Given these findings, the researchers suggest that individuals experiencing sleep difficulties might benefit from reviewing their dietary habits, particularly their consumption of ultra-processed foods.

Future research should aim to establish causality and further investigate these associations over time, to better understand the impact of diet on sleep quality and the potential benefits of dietary adjustments.

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The research findings can be found in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

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