Did you know your pizza, burgers, and sugary snacks could lead to chronic insomnia?

While insomnia is often attributed to stress, screen time, or other common factors, the study reveals a surprising culprit -Ultra Processed Foods, which Indian doctors agree can give sleepless nights.

ByChetana Belagere

Published Jun 11, 2024 | 7:00 AM Updated Jun 13, 2024 | 12:56 PM

Did you know your pizza, burgers, and sugary snacks could lead to chronic insomnia?

Imagine tossing and turning at night, unable to find restful sleep. Many people have been there and probably attribute insomnia to stress, screen time, or other common factors.

However, a new study reveals a surprising culprit that has been so far, linked to several health problems like heart disease and diabetes–Ultra-processed foods (UPFs)!

UPFs are heavily modified to enhance their taste, and contain added preservatives to extend their shelf life.

A study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics explored the link between UPFs and insomnia.

Conducted as part of the NutriNet-Sante research project, this large scale epidemiological study involved over 38,570 French adults who provided detailed dietary records and information on their sleep patterns.

“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,” said Marie-Pierre St-Onge, a nutrition and sleep scientist at Columbia University in the US and the author of the study.

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Why Ultra Processed Foods don’t let you sleep

St-Onge and her colleagues found a statistically significant association between higher UPF consumption and increased chronic insomnia risk, after allowances were made for sociodemographic, lifestyle, diet quality, and mental health factors.

The researchers found that about 16 percent of the participants’ daily energy intake came from UPFs such as sugary snacks, instant noodles and frozen meals.

Shockingly, nearly 20 percent of these individuals reported chronic insomnia, a rate significantly higher than those who consumed fewer UPFs in their dietary intake. The data also showed a slightly stronger association in men.

The study only assessed single points in time, and relied on self-reporting. However, the large number of people involved suggested this is a link that’s worthy of future investigation.

“It is important to note that our analyses were cross-sectional and observational in nature, and we did not evaluate longitudinal association,” said epidemiologist Pauline Duquenne from Sorbonne Paris Nord University in a media release.

The authors noted that considering the previous research, and the well-established links between diet and sleep, it’s perhaps not surprising that UPFs might be having an impact on our bodies in terms of chronic insomnia risk.

Dr Roopa Rachel Premanand, Consultant Pulmonologist at Kauvery Hospitals, in Bengaluru, explains, “Although the study does not establish a direct cause-and-effect relationship, it highlights an important correlation that warrants further investigation.”

“Diet plays a crucial role in sleep quality. Ultra-processed foods often contain additives such as artificial flavours, preservatives, and emulsifiers, which can impact the body’s metabolism and inflammatory responses, potentially affecting sleep patterns.”

“Given the rise in both the consumption of processed foods and the prevalence of sleep disturbances, it is vital for healthcare providers to consider dietary habits when addressing sleep issues in patients. Future studies are necessary to explore the causality and long-term impacts of ultra-processed foods on sleep health,” the doctor adds.

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Why is this study important?

Sleep medicine experts and food scientists, acknowledging this link between UPFs and Insomnia, explain that this study warns that one should pay attention to dietary choices, not just for physical health, but for sleep quality as well.

Speaking to South First, Dr Satyanarayana Mysore, HoD Sleep Medicine, Manipal Hospitals in Bengaluru said, “This is a large study and that in itself shows that there is an association between food and insomnia.”

“In this case, UPF has been studied in more than 38,000 people, at the face value, statistical relevance is apparent between consumption of UPF and chronic insomnia,” Dr Satyanarayana said.

Meanwhile, fitness expert Wanita Ashok said, “One can notice that eating pizza, burgers, and sugar-loaded food just before sleep can actually lead to severe acidity or gastric issues and leave the person sleepless at nights. It is important to choose whole foods over processed snacks to make a significant difference in one’s sleep patterns.”

Convenor of Nutritional Advocacy for Public Interest, Dr Arun Gupta, told South First, “There is so much evidence existing on the association of higher consumption of UPF with diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and many other non-communicable diseases.”

‘Read the labels carefully’

“This is something new which has emerged for the first time and should be taken into consideration, especially by the young, whom the industry is targeting to hook onto their UPFs and beverages,” said Gupta, who has been advocating for warnings on the front of food product packets.

He added that the youth have to be cautious in the selection of their choices and read the labels carefully. “If the ingredients are more than five, consider it an ultra-processed food product and try to avoid it,” Gupta added.

Meanwhile, Dr Arun said for the governments, it becomes a public health imperative to regulate such foods sooner rather than later. “Here, I mean, a warning on the front of the packet as well as restriction of marketing,” he said.

However, speaking about the limitation of the study, Dr Satyanarayana explained that though the results of the study are something that one must probe further, there are large limitations in the study.

Speaking about the age group of the patients, he said the mean age is 50 years and that chronic insomnia is much more prevalent in the elderly population.

Obesity, smoking and former smokers have other factors responsible for chronic insomnia. Hence, the results of this study need to be taken with a pinch of salt with respect to chronic insomnia.

However, the study is still welcome to push people to avoid UPFs which overall may be of health benefit.

(Edited by Shauqueen Mizaj)