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Ultra-Processed Foods May Increase Insomnia Risk

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Ultra-processed food (UPF) could be behind the insomnia experienced by one third of adults, according to a new study.

After analyzing health and sleep surveys filled out by 38,570 participants, the researchers from Sorbonne Paris Nord University found that those who reported chronic insomnia, on average, consumed a higher proportion of UPFs.

This effect could be due to the lack of healthy, sleep-promoting chemicals in UPFs, the researchers posit.

The results were published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Losing sleep over food

UPFs are a now staple part of Western diets. From ice cream to white bread, instant soup to soda, these products are thought to account for 57.9% of the diets of US citizens. They’re often rich in saturated fat, salt and sugar, and poor in fiber and essential nutrients like calcium.

For these reasons, the foods have been blamed for increasing rates of obesity, heart disease and cancer rates in Western countries.

To find out if the foods have any effect on sleep quality, the Sorbonne Paris Nord University researchers first accessed data from an ongoing online health study in France, the NutriNet-Santé cohort. All 38,570 selected participants (76.6% female, average age 50) had provided reports of their sleep quality and diet.

On average, participants consumed around 16% of their energy from UPFs. Close to 20% reported chronic insomnia.

These individuals who reported insomnia, on average, consumed more UPFs. This association between insomnia and UPF intake was seen in both males and females, but the risk was slightly higher in males.

Although concerned by their findings, the researchers weren’t necessarily surprised.

“Our research team had previously reported associations of healthy dietary patterns, like the Mediterranean diet, with a reduced risk of insomnia and poor sleep quality (both cross-sectionally and longitudinally), and high carbohydrate diets with an elevated risk of insomnia,” said Marie-Pierre St-Onge, an associate professor of Nutritional Medicine at Columbia University and co-author of the study.

“The consumption of UPF is on the rise worldwide, and it has been linked to numerous health conditions such as diabetes, obesity, and cancer,” she added.

While St-Onge and her colleagues admit that their findings were observational – and no biochemical causation between UPFs and insomnia could be proven – they nonetheless conclude that regular consumption of such manufactured treats and meals may be a risk factor for chronic sleeplessness.

After all, they say, the sleep–wake cycle is promoted by melatonin, which is synthesized exclusively from tryptophan present in the diet. This amino acid can be typically found in dairy, fish, fruit and vegetables, but is scarcer in processed foods.

The team say epidemiological and clinical research will be needed to uncover any such causational mechanism by which UPFs induce insomnia.

Reference: Duquenne P, Capperella J, Fezeu LK, et al. The association between ultra-processed food consumption and chronic insomnia in the NutriNet-Santé Study. Journ. of the Acad. of Nutri. and Dietet. 2024. Doi: 10.1016/j.jand.2024.02.015

This article
 is a rework of a press release issued by Elsevier. Material has been edited for length and content.