Refined Carbs May Be Keeping You Up at Night

Janet Tiberian Author
By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
January 20, 2020
Refined carbs and insomnia

Having a tough time sleeping? Check your diet. Refined carbs might be the problem, particularly among post-menopausal women, according to a study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.  

Researchers from Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons analyzed data collected through the Women’s Health Initiative Observational Study, a long-term study that examined the effects different types of carbohydrates had on sleep patterns of post-menopausal women. Almost 78,000 women were involved in the baseline study and about 53,000 women were included in the three-year follow up. 

Results suggested that women who ate refined carbs, especially foods with added sugars, reported insomnia. Women who ate vegetables, high-fiber foods and whole fruit (not juice) as part of their diet slept better.

“Observational studies may not prove a cause and effect, but they do suggest connections,” says Bernard Kaminetsky, MD, medical director, MDVIP. “In this case, there seems to be a connection between a diet high in refined carbohydrates and sleeplessness – a theory that’s been floating around scientific circles for a while.” 

What are Refined Carbs?

Refined carbohydrates (also known as simple or processed carbs) are high in sugar and/or grains that have been stripped of bran, fiber and nutrients. Examples of refined carbs include juices, sodas and energy drinks; white flour products like pastries, white bread and most bagels; flavored yogurts and dairy-based desserts; white rice and rice cakes; pasta; many breakfast cereals and frozen meals. 

Why are Refined Carbs Bad?

Eating them is a problem because they raise your blood sugar levels quickly and release insulin to help lower it. However, insulin triggers cortisol and adrenaline, hormones which help your body respond to stress but can also interfere with sleep. As a side note – a diet high in refined carbs also raises the risk for obesity, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.  

“Because not all carbs are equal, I tell my patients to check the glycemic index (GI) to see where their favorite foods rank,” Kaminetsky says. “You’ll find some healthy foods such as certain fruits and vegetables ranked relatively high. Despite their nutritional value, they can still raise your blood sugar levels quickly, potentially affecting your health and sleep patterns, so eat them in moderation.” 

And whole fruit ranks lower than fruit juice. Whole fruit has fiber which slows the digestion rate of carbohydrates and the rise in blood sugar. Additionally, fruit juices have added sugars, which raise the GI and blood sugar levels.

“Keep in mind, refined carbs and insomnia is still just a theory,” says Kaminetsky. “If you’re struggling to get enough sleep, try cutting refined carbs from your diet, even if it doesn’t seem to help, it can help lower your risk for other issues. But most importantly — if you can’t sleep, work with your doctor.”

If you don’t have a doctor, consider partnering with an MDVIP-affiliated physician. MDVIP doctors have the time to help you work with you to develop a personalized wellness program and help you control insomnia. Find a physician near you and begin your partnership in health » 

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About the Author
Janet Tiberian Author
Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES

Janet Tiberian is MDVIP's health educator. She has more than 25 years experience in chronic disease prevention and therapeutic exercise.

View All Posts By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
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