New research from Columbia University Irving Medical Center found your diet could play a pretty major role in how well you sleep at night.

The number of Americans missing out on the sleep they need is on the rise, with more than 35% of adults missing the mark on a regular basis. This is not only a problem because it leaves us chronically tired—it also puts us at a significantly higher risk for chronic diseases like diabetes, depression and COPD.

The National Sleep Foundation defines insomnia as have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, even when given the chance to do so (think: uninterrupted by other people, pets or things). As many of us experience insomnia in our adult lives, researchers are working on developing more inexpensive treatments with fewer side effects. One of those treatments (and preventative measures) could be making some small changes to your daily diet.

woman sleeping in a comfy bed
Credit: Basak Gurbuz Derman/Getty Images

A new study out of Columbia University Irving Medical Center analyzed food diaries and sleep behaviors from more than 50,000 postmenopausal women in the Women's Health Initiative. They found that those who had a high intake of refined carbohydrates—especially in the form of added sugars used in things like sugary drinks, packaged snacks and desserts—were at a greater risk for experiencing insomnia.

On the other hand, women who simply had high-fiber diets due to an intake of whole grains, vegetables and fruit showed a significantly lower risk for insomnia or unhealthy sleep patterns. The authors of this study believe this phenomenon is because foods high in refined carbs give a quick rise in blood sugar and lead to the release of insulin. However, the energy spike from refined carbs doesn't last very long, so the resulting drop in blood sugar also leads to a release of sleep-interfering hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline.

"Whole fruits contain sugar, but the fiber in them slows the rate of absorption to help prevent spikes in blood sugar," says study author James Gangwisch, PhD., in a press release. "This suggests that the dietary culprit triggering the women's insomnia was the highly processed foods that contain larger amounts of refined sugars that aren't found naturally in food."

The Bottom Line

While the authors say further research is needed before determining if a dietary intervention focused on whole foods and complex carbs could actually prevent and treat insomnia, most of us could do a better job in reducing our added sugar intake and making at least half of our grains from whole sources.

The average American adult consumes three times more added sugar than the daily recommendation (no more than 10% of your daily caloric intake). And nearly 95% of us aren't getting enough fiber, which can easily be fixed with upping our consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans and whole grains. Check out our 30-Day Fiber Up Challenge or our 7-Day High-Fiber Meal Plan to help you get started. Not only could eating more fiber have the potential to help you sleep better, it also helps reduce your risk for several chronic diseases, keeps you regular and can help you maintain a healthy weight.