Ultra processed foods linked to insomnia, study finds

Scientists have found a link between ultra processed foods and insomnia. (Getty Images)
Scientists have found a link between ultra processed foods and insomnia. (Getty Images)

It’s well known that ultra processed foods (UPFs) – which are foods with ingredients you wouldn’t be able to find in your cupboards – aren’t great for your overall wellbeing. But did you know consuming UPFs can impact your sleep too?

A new large-scale study from researchers in France have found that consumption of UPFs could be a contributing factor to chronic insomnia.

To come to this conclusion, researchers from Sorbonne Paris Nord University analysed data from 38,570 adults and found a ‘significant’ association between UPF consumption and insomnia risk.

Nearly one in five (19.4%) of the adults studied reported symptoms of chronic insomnia, with the same group tending to have a higher UPF intake.

“While data do[es] not establish causality, our study is [the] first of its kind and contributes to the existing body of knowledge on UPF,” study author Pauline Duquenne said.

While further research is required to confirm the link, the same researchers found that people who follow the Mediterranean diet are less likely to report insomnia symptoms in a separate 2018 study.

Suzie Sawyer, nutritionist at Biotiful Gut Health tells Yahoo UK that the reason why UPFs may be contributing to insomnia symptoms could be due to lack of protein.

Ultra processed foods like doughnuts can disrupt blood sugar levels. (Getty Images)
Ultra processed foods like doughnuts can disrupt blood sugar levels. (Getty Images)

“A diet high in ultra processed foods is often low in protein and it’s the amino acids that make up proteins that are needed to manufacture our brain’s neurotransmitters. Key for sleep are serotonin and melatonin,” Sawyer explains.

“The amino acid tryptophan, found in poultry, oats, soy, almond and dairy is the starting block for both. A nutrient depleted diet, especially one low in protein and high in sugary foods will disrupt gut health and a healthy gut microbiome is also essential for healthy brain neurotransmitter production.”

Sawyer adds that blood sugar balance is also essential for a restful sleep, and this relies on the body having ‘sufficient quality protein and healthy fats’.

“A diet high in UPFs and caffeine disrupts the way the body balances blood sugar, making us feel irritable, jittery, anxious and moody – not conducive to restful slumbers,” Sawyer says.

While most UPFs may lead to unwanted awakenings, Sawyer says that sugary UPFs such as cakes and biscuits can disrupt your blood sugar balance which affects sleep.

Additionally, caffeine and alcohol are two of the worst culprits when it comes to getting a good night’s rest.

“Caffeinated drinks, which includes energy drinks are probably the worst offenders for disrupting sleep,” Sawyer explains. “Unfortunately, people can often forget that chocolate also contains caffeine so can be a sleep disturber for some.

“When it comes to alcohol, people often fall asleep quickly, only to wake up too early and be unable to get back to sleep.”

Just as a balanced diet can help with your overall wellbeing, it can also promote better sleep.

“Foods containing the amino acid tryptophan, especially turkey, oily fish and dairy produce are great,” Sawyer explains. “Supporting gut health and protein intake is key for neurotransmitter production, a healthy gut microbiome and blood sugar balance."

Fermented vegetables. Homemade marinated cabbage with carrot and cucumbers, sauerkraut sour in glass jars. Preserved canned vegetables, superfoods and vegetarian food.
Fermented foods can help with blood sugar balance and lead to a better sleep. (Getty Images)

Sawyer suggests fermented, probiotic food such as kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, and tempeh.

“Ideally, the body likes to enter the post-absorptive phase of digestion before going to bed. This enables all its many processes to happen smoothly during the night, including liver detoxification,” Sawyer says.

“Eating too close to bedtime is going to disrupt its natural rhythms and cause disturbed sleep. It’s always best to have finished eating around three hours before bedtime. However, drinking a chamomile or lemon balm tea before light’s out can often be helpful for sleep.”