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Here’s How the Western Diet is Destroying Your Ability to Sleep

Do you know which foods you’re eating hurt your sleep the most?

The next time you’re lying in bed feeling wide awake, think back to the foods you ate earlier that day and week. Were you eating natural, unprocessed foods or snacking on prepackaged snacks?

If you’ve ever drunk a cup coffee or energy drink right before bed, you’re probably already familiar with the effect of caffeine on your sleep quality. Caffeine undoubtedly has a negative effect on your ability to sleep, but some other foods that harm your sleep aren’t as obvious.

Unfortunately, if you’re eating a prototypical Western diet, your diet is filled with foods that make getting high-quality sleep almost impossible.

Even when you’re unconscious, your body and brain are constantly working. Your body uses sleep as a time to rebuild damaged tissue and regulate many of your essential hormones.

Your body cycles through several different stages of sleep during the night. All types of sleep are essential. However, if you don’t get enough time in the deep sleep stages, you’re probably not going to feel well rested when you wake. Your diet can have a significant impact on how much time you spend in each stage of sleep.

The Western diet has changed drastically over the past 50 years. This change has unfortunately led to a dramatic increase in metabolic diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease, obesity and diabetes1.

How are people today eating differently than their grandparents?

The answer is in the bottom of your cereal box, in your granola bars and all the sweet sauces in your refrigerator. The amount of refined sugar that the average American consumes annually has dramatically increased. In the year 2000, the average person consumed 69kg of refined sugar per year compared to only 56kg per year in 19701.

Keep reading to learn what foods hidden in your diet are keeping you up at night and how to eliminate them from your diet.

Western Diet Changes and Their Effect on Your Health

Why are people eating more refined sugar today than ever before? A big reason that the amount of sugar in our diets has risen is because advancing technologies have made sugar more accessible than ever before. There’s evidence that humanity has been agrarian for thousands of years, but farming on a mass scale wasn’t available until the industrial revolution.

Our physiology hasn’t changed since the days of our prehistoric ancestors. Back in the hunting and foraging days, the only significant sources of sugar people consumed were fruit and vegetables.

Imagine you own a gasoline car and one day you decided to fill up with diesel instead of gasoline. Would you be surprised when the engine seized up 100 miles down the road? Probably not, and it also shouldn’t be surprising that if you put low-quality fuel into your body that you’re going to develop health complications.

Vegetable Oil May Erode Your Ability to Sleep

An increase in sugar isn’t the only change in the Western diet that’s happened over the past 100 years. The consumption of processed foods and vegetable oils during cooking has also skyrocketed.

Around the beginning of the 20th century, the consumption of processed vegetable oils, including soy oil, began to increase2. In that time, the average amount of linoleic acid, the primary omega-6 fatty acid found in vegetable products, has more than doubled. From 1938 to 1978, the production of soy oil in the united states increased by 2900% from 300 million pounds per year to a staggering 8700 million pounds.

Eating a diet high in omega-6 can cause inflammation which can have health complications such as increasing your risk of heart disease3.

You’ve probably heard of omega-3 fatty acids, the heart-healthy type of fat found in fish and some seeds. Omega-3 and omega-6 are both essential fatty acids. However, omega-3 have an anti-inflammatory effect.

The average person in the Western hemisphere consumes a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 of about 15:1 because of the overconsumption of vegetable oils4. The optimal ratio to reduce inflammation is thought to be 2:1 to 3:1.

Before people began cooking with vegetable oils, people would generally use butter and lard.

Researchers used to believe that a diet high in saturated fat caused heart disease, and they encouraged people to eliminate foods like butter and eggs from their diet. However, in recent times, researchers have re-examined the effects of saturated fat on heart disease and haven’t found ample evidence to connect the two5.

In fact, research supports the idea that sugar consumption may increase your risk of heart disease more than saturated fat6.

The Effects of the Western Diet on Sleep

Most of the research comparing diet to sleep quality leads to a circular argument: Does sleeping poorly lead to a poor diet or does a poor diet lead to poor sleep quality?

If you want to optimize your health, it’s best to try to improve both your sleep quality and nutrition.

Stages of Sleep

There are four types7 of sleep your brain cycles through during the night. These stages are divided into non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep and rapid eye movement sleep (REM).

The first three stages of sleep are NREM. In stage I sleep, your body prepares itself for rest. However, in this light stage of sleep, even a slight disturbance can wake you.

After 5-10 minutes in this stage of sleep, you move on to stage II. In stage II, your body undergoes physical changes to prepare itself for deeper sleep like decreasing body temperature and heart rate.

Stage III sleep is also known as deep sleep. It’s when your body repairs itself from physical damage, builds bone and muscle tissue, and strengthens its immune system. If you wake up from deep sleep, you’ll experience a phenomenon known as sleep inertia in which you feel groggy and have cognitive impairment for up to an hour after waking (probably not a great time to get behind the wheel of your car).

The final stage of sleep is REM sleep. This stage is where most of your dreams happen. If you’ve ever experienced sleep paralysis, where you wake up with the feeling of not being able to move your limbs, you would have woken up from REM sleep. According to the National Sleep Association8, this stage of sleep is necessary for regulating your mood, storing memories and refreshing your learning ability.

Avoid These Foods to Improve Your Sleep

The Western diet has changed drastically over the past 50 years. This change has unfortunately led to a dramatic increase in metabolic diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease, obesity and diabetes1.

High Fructose Corn Syrup and Refined Carbohydrates

In the past 100 years, there’s also been an increase in the use of high-fructose corn syrups. According to the United States Department of Agriculture11, the consumption of high-fructose corn syrup increased by almost 54-fold from the 1970s to the year 2000.

Why is this bad? Regular consumption of this type of sweetener is linked metabolic disorders, increases in risk of obesity, and can disrupt dopamine in your brain12. Research also shows that people who eat a diet high in refined sugar have lighter and less restorative sleep than people with low sugar diets13.

Research doesn’t directly link the consumption of high fructose corn syrup with sleep disturbances. However, people who sleep less than seven hours per night are more likely to snack on sugary foods and eat more calories than people who are long sleepers (more than nine hours per night)14.

High fructose corn syrup consumption is also linked to obesity, which does cause sleep disturbances. A study published by researchers in Japan found that overweight men had a higher incidence of insomnia than men of a healthy body weight15.

Another study performed in Japan found evidence that a diet high in processed, refined carbohydrates (noodles and sweet snacks) negatively impacts sleep quality16. In the study, the researchers analyzed the diets of 3129 female workers and used a self-administered dietary survey and the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index to measure how their diet affected their sleep.

The researchers found that overall, a high carbohydrate diet negatively influenced sleep quality. The researchers also found that women with higher intakes of fish and vegetables slept better.

Alcohol’s Effect on Sleep

You probably already know that over-consuming alcohol is bad for your mental and physical health. The occasional drink with friends isn’t going to undo an otherwise solid diet plan, but if you’re reaching for a bottle to help you get to sleep, you should probably stop.

The nightcap has been a pre-bed tradition for hundreds of years, but modern research shows that it’s ultimately ineffective.

In a 2015 study published in the Korean Journal of Family Medicine, researchers compared alcohol consumption rates among adults with perceived sleep quality. After surveying 393 people, the researchers concluded that people who consumed more alcohol slept more poorly19.

Researchers in the United Kingdom performed a literature review in 2013 in which they examined research comparing alcohol use with sleep quality20.

They concluded that alcohol decreases the onset of sleep and causes an increase in the number of disruptions during the night. Alcohol use also leads to a lower percentage of sleep consisting of REM sleep by delaying the onset of the first REM cycle.

If you often consume alcohol socially at night, you’re also likely cutting into time you would be spending in bed.

The Effects of Soy Sauce on Sleep

In a 2018 study that examined the effects of various foods on sleep quality, researchers found that people who consumed higher amounts of soy sauce also reported a poorer sleep quality. In the same study, the researchers concluded that alcohol has a negative effect on sleep quality and that dark fruit consumption is associated with improved sleep quality21.

It’s thought that soy sauce causes sleep disruptions by affecting melatonin levels. Melatonin is the primary hormone in your brain responsible for your circadian rhythm. When you’re exposed to natural sunlight, your body produces more melatonin and you feel alert. The opposite occurs in the evening before you go to bed.

Caffeine and Sleep

It’s ironic the substance many of us drink to help us wake up make actually be damaging our overall sleep quality. You undoubtedly already know that drinking coffee before bed is a bad idea. However, you might be surprised to learn how long caffeine stays in your body.

Everybody metabolizes caffeine slightly different, but research shows that the mean half-life is about five hours22. If you drink a cup of coffee with 100mg of caffeine at 6 p.m., you’ll still have 50mg circulating through your blood at 11:00 pm.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of using caffeine to make up for chronic sleep loss. When caffeine levels become high enough to affect your sleep quality, it’s easy to be tempted to drink more caffeine in the morning to undo the effects of lost sleep.

A study comparing caffeine intake to the sleep quality of Australian adults found that people who reported poor sleep quality consumed more caffeine than participants who reported good sleep qualities. Higher caffeine intake was also associated with a shorter time spent in bed23.

Taking Action to Improve Your Sleep Quality

Many of the changes that you can make to improve your sleep quality will also improve other aspects of your life. Research shows that there’s a link between being overweight and sleeping poorly.

Maintain a Healthy Body Weight

If you’re not already a healthy weight, your first goal should be to get your weight into a healthy range. Not sure if you’re overweight? You can use a BMI calculator to determine if you’re considered overweight. You can also use the following formula:

BMI=Weight (lbs) / (Height^2 (in^2)) x 703

A BMI over 25 is considered overweight. However, the formula doesn’t take in account your body composition. The formula isn’t accurate for people with above average amounts of muscle, pregnant women, and children.

Even if you’re a healthy weight, you can improve your sleep quality by cutting down on sugar and refined carbohydrates to keep your insulin levels stable.  Here’s a list of a few ways refined carbohydrates can sneak into your diet:

  • Granola bars and candy bars
  • Cereal and oatmeal with added sugar
  • Sports drinks, juices and sugary coffees
  • White bread, noodles, pasta or rice
  • Sugary sauces
  • Microwavable meals or prepackaged meals

You should also cut back on your use of vegetable oils (especially soy) and increase your intake of fatty fish.

Here are some oils to avoid:

  • Soy oil
  • Canola
  • Corn oil
  • Sunflower oil
  • Sesame oil
  • Peanut oil

Try using these oils instead:

  • Olive oil
  • Coconut oil
  • Avocado oil

Fruit and Sleep

Not all sugar is made equally. For example, most of the calories in fruit come from sugar. However, fruit also contains fiber that slows down the absorption of the sugar and keeps your insulin levels stable.

In fact, most fruits have a rating on the glycemic index of less than 55, which makes them low GI foods. Fruit also contains a dense amount of nutrients, unlike most foods loaded with processed sugar.

If you want to sleep soundly through the night, including plenty of fruit and vegetables in your diet may be the key. A study published in the United Kingdom in 2018 examined the link between daily fruit and vegetable consumption and sleep duration9.

The researchers used a four-day food diary to track the habits of 1612 participants. They found that participants who slept less than seven hours per night consumed on average 24g less fruit and vegetables per day compared to people who slept more than eight hours.

Can Kiwi Improve Sleep Quality?

Of all the fruit you can eat to improve your sleep, kiwifruit may be your best option.

It’s thought that eating kiwifruits before bed may increase sleep quality because of the high number of antioxidants and serotonin they contain.

A study performed by researchers in China sought to find if eating kiwi before bed could improve sleep quality in participants with sleep problems. In the study, the participants ate two kiwifruit an hour before bed for four weeks.

Did the consumption of kiwi show any benefit?

It certainly did. By the end of the study, participants fell asleep 13.4% quicker and slept for 5.41% longer than they did at the beginning of the study10.

Omega 3 and Sleep Quality

Including fatty fish and omega-3 supplements are two easy ways to improve your ratio of omega-3 to omega-6, which may improve your sleep quality.

One study examined the effect of giving omega-3 supplements to children with sleep disturbances, and the researchers found promising results17.

When researchers gave children 600mg of docosahexaenoic acid (one of the main types of omega 3s found in fish oil supplements) for 16 weeks, they discovered that actigraphy measures (a sleep-monitoring tool) of sleep quality improved in children given the DHA supplements compared to a placebo group.

There’s also evidence to suggest that sleeping properly can improve symptoms of chronic inflammation18.

Conclusion

Fruit and vegetables should be staples in your diet for optimal sleep. Avoid caffeine close to bed (or late afternoon if your caffeine-sensitive). Limiting alcohol will also improve your overall health and increase the amount of time you spend in REM sleep.

Your diet will never be perfect and if you have a one bad day, it’s not the end of the world. Making small changes to your diet every day is easier to sustain than trying to make your diet perfect all at once.

Citations and Sources

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Daniel Yetman

Daniel grew up in Halifax, Canada. He completed his Honours Kinesiology degree at Dalhousie University where he received an education in topics such as nutrition, exercise physiology, strength training and sports psychology. He will graduate with his MFA in Writing from the University of Saskatchewan in May.
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