Sleep disturbances such as insomnia are extremely common, especially in women after menopause. According to data from the National Institutes of Health, sleep disturbance varies from 16% to 42% before menopause, from 39% to 47% during perimenopause, and from 35% to 60% after menopause.
Insomnia is a serious medical problem defined by frequent difficulty falling or staying asleep that impacts a person’s life in a negative way. Hormone changes around menopause can lead to sleep problems for many reasons, including changing sleep requirements, increased irritability, and hot flashes.
What menopausal women eat could have an impact on their risk of developing insomnia
Researchers recently looked at detailed dietary data from over 50,000 postmenopausal women (average age 63) enrolled in the Women’s Health Initiative study between 1994 and 2001. Carbohydrate intake was measured in several ways: glycemic index (GI) and glycemic load (GL), measures of added sugars, starch, total carbohydrate, and dietary fiber, and specific carbohydrate-containing foods such as whole grains, processed or refined grains, whole fruits, vegetables, and dairy products. They then looked at each participant’s risk of developing insomnia after three years of follow-up.
They found that the risk of developing insomnia was greater in women with a higher-GI diet, as well as in women who included more added sugars in their diet. Added sugars included white and brown sugar, syrups, honey, and molasses. The risk of developing insomnia was lower in women who ate more whole fruits and vegetables.
The researchers accounted for and adjusted for many potentially confounding factors, including demographic (education, income, marital status), behavioral (smoking, alcohol, caffeine intake, physical activity), psychosocial (stress, social connection), and medical factors (body mass index, various medical diagnoses, hormone therapy, snoring).
What is the glycemic index of food, and how could this affect sleep?
The glycemic index (GI) is a ranking of foods on a scale from 0 to 100 according to how much they raise blood sugar levels after eating them. I’ve written previously about planning meals with knowledge of the GI and the glycemic load of foods. High-GI foods are those that are rapidly digested, absorbed, and metabolized, and cause spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels. Some examples of high-GI foods include anything made with processed grains (bread, pasta, baked goods, white rice) and anything containing added sugars (sugary beverages, sweets).
Low-GI foods don’t cause your blood sugar and insulin levels to spike, and include plant foods such as most fruits and vegetables, legumes and beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. Even plant foods that have a high GI — such as bananas and watermelon — are not likely “bad” for you when eaten in moderation.
Researchers hypothesize that high-GI foods cause insomnia because of the rapid spike and then crash of blood sugar levels. Essentially, what goes up must come down, and after blood sugar and insulin levels peak, they tend to drop, which can cause a lot of symptoms, including awakening from sleep. The researchers of this new study cite multiple studies supporting this theory.
Nutrition is critical for so many aspects of our health, including sleep
Endless research connects the quality of our diet with our risk for heart disease, strokes, dementia, depression, and cancer. This new research notes that diet can also impact our risk for certain sleep problems. It’s not just about eating the obviously healthy foods, but also about avoiding the obviously unhealthy foods.
So how can you apply these findings?
In addition to practicing good sleep habits, here are some additional ways postmenopausal women can incorporate what we have learned from this study to sleep better (and be all-around healthier):
- Go for low-GI foods as much as possible. This means aiming to eat fruits and vegetables, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, whole grains, and lean protein instead of anything made of processed grains or with added sugars. Think plain yogurt with berries and nuts instead of cereal or bagels for breakfast; a big plate of roasted vegetables and grilled salmon instead of pasta and meatballs for dinner.
- Never eat large meals close to bedtime. As a general rule, a large meal should be eaten at least three to four hours before lying down, maybe more. You do not want to go to bed with lots of food in your intestines!
- If you have to have a little something closer to bedtime, avoid sugars and processed grains. A sliced apple with a little almond butter; some blueberries and nut milk; or maybe hummus and carrots. Those are all well-balanced, plant-based snacks.
Insomnia: Definition, Prevalence, Etiology, and Consequences. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, August 2007.
National Institutes of Health State-of-the-Science Conference Statement: management of menopausal symptoms. Annals of Internal Medicine, June 21, 2005.
High glycemic load and glycemic index diets as risk factors for insomnia: analyses from the Women’s Health Initiative. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, December 11, 2019.
Sleep Disorders in Postmenopausal Women. The Journal of Sleep Disorders and Therapy, August 2015.
About Glycemic index. The Boden Institute of Obesity, Nutrition, Exercise and Eating Disorders and Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney.