Is Poor Gut Health Keeping You Awake At Night?

by Katie Stone, ND July 01, 2019 6 min read

Is Poor Gut Health Keeping You Awake At Night?

Lying awake at night? Tossing and turning? Exhausted but still unable to fall asleep? It could be your gut.

Insomnia and other sleeping issues are becoming more and more common, especially in Western society.

It’s thought that around half of Americans sleep for less than 6 hours each night – when the recommendation is actually 7-9 hours.

You’ve probably heard about the many health problems that sleep deprivation can lead to. Moodiness, irritability, weight gain, unstable blood sugar levels, and even weakened immunity. Unsurprisingly, it can also be linked to higher risks of accidents on the job, depression, and reduced cognitive function. (1)

Fortunately, new research has suggested that there are several solutions to sleeping problems that may be more effective than the standard sleep aids.

When it comes to deep, restorative sleep, many of us are overlooking one very important factor: gut health.

Recent studies show that one of the best ways to promote natural sleep is to look after your gut! (2)

The Link Between Your Gut and Your Sleep

When your body is functioning at its best, you should have a natural sleep/wake cycle. This means you are awake and feeling alert for around 16 hours of the day, and then you feel tired and fall asleep for the remaining 8 hours at night. Simple, right?

This is all controlled by your body clock, which is based on the circadian rhythm dictated by your suprachiasmatic nucleus in your brain. Circadian rhythms also control your body temperature and hormone production and release.

In a perfect world, we all function at our best. We wake up, go about our everyday routines with plenty of energy, and slowly wind down when darkness comes at night. We then hop into bed and relax into a deep, restful REM sleep.

But in reality, very few of us get to experience this. If you’re like most people, your circadian rhythm is slightly (or extremely) out of order. This can mean your body isn’t getting the right messages about when to be awake or when to go to sleep.

Your nightly EM and REM cycles can get muddled, which means you end up feeling fatigued during the day but start to perk up in the evening. And then you can’t get to sleep!

So, how does this relate to your gut?

The Gut And The Brain

Gut bacteria can not only affect your gut function, but also your mind function! Research has shown that the microorganisms in your gut play different roles in your neural development, brain chemistry and emotional behavior.

There is now evidence that these amazing gut bacteria produce sleep-related neurochemicals such as serotonin, dopamine and acetylcholine that are all involved with how much time you spend asleep each night.

Your brain requires certain levels of these hormones and chemicals in order for your memory to function properly, as well as your learning and mood.

For example, when you experience psychological stress from anxiety-producing events such as exams, giving a speech or an important office meeting, you may experience some level of gastric discomfort – even to the point of diarrhea. This is because your gut bacteria can both affect your brain and be affected by your brain. This two-way street is referred to as the gut-brain-axis (3).

You see, the cells lining your gastrointestinal tract play a major role in the production of hormones and neurotransmitters responsible for daily sleep patterns. Your gut bacteria can therefore have a huge impact on how well you sleep each night.

Gut bacteria influence the levels of hormones like:

  • Serotonin
    Your body requires a certain amount of serotonin to create melatonin, the hormone that promotes your ‘sleepiness’ and also helps your digestion. Around 90% of your serotonin is produced in your gut, thanks to the work of your gut microbes.
  • Cortisol and GABA
    These two hormones are both associated with your stress responses. Cortisol sends you into "fight or flight" mode when your body senses a stressor. When your gut microbiome is healthy, it is better able to regulate your cortisol levels. Your microbiome also helps your body to produce GABA, the hormone that reels in your body’s stress response.  Being stuck in ‘fight or flight’ mode obviously makes it more difficult to sleep at night!
  • Adenosine
    This is the compound that helps you to feel more sleepy as the day goes on, allowing you to feel ready for bed at night time. You start the day with fairly low levels of adenosine, which increase over the day. When adenosine peaks, you should be able to drop off to sleep. The microbes in your gut have a direct influence on the production of adenosine and also help in breaking down the nutrients needed to create it.

As you can see, the proper functioning of your gut is extremely important to restful sleep! That’s why it’s vital for you to keep those many different types of beneficial bacteria as healthy as possible.

Unfortunately, that may be easier said than done. The Western diet, lifestyle and environment harms our microbial balance everyday with things such as sugar, alcohol, antibiotics, pollutants, chemicals, stress, and lack of exercise.

But, good news: you CAN improve your gut microbiome – and sleep better! All it takes is some effort to eat better and avoid the things that destroy gut bacteria. And to take probiotics!

The Benefits of Probiotics for Good Sleep

You have heard that probiotics are a great way to encourage healthy gut bacteria. This can lead to better digestion and immune health. But, while these are certainly major benefits of taking probiotics, what many people don’t realize is that probiotics can help you to sleep better, too.

Research now suggests that probiotics have a direct effect on sleep quality, helping you to fall asleep more easily at night and encourage healthy sleep cycles.

One study showed that people who drank a probiotic drink containing a strain of lactobacillus had significantly improved sleep efficiency and fewer episodes of waking up in the night. (4)

Another recent study suggested that taking a multi-strain probiotic containing Lactobacilli and Bifidobacterium could be especially helpful for promoting sleep. The study investigated the effects of probiotics on young women when taken for six weeks.

It was found that probiotic supplementation improved many factors of the women’s mood and overall wellbeing, including reducing their feeling of depression, anger and fatigue, and improving their sleep quality. (5)

It also appears that prebiotics can help with your sleep. Prebiotics are a special type of fiber that can’t be broken down in the gut, so they become a kind of ‘food’ for your gut microbiome. When we eat these non-digestible food components, we help to fuel the growth of "good" gut bacteria.

It’s now been found that when our good bacteria digest prebiotic fiber, they release byproducts that can influence brain function, helping us to feel more relaxed and less stressed.

Researchers have stated that eating plenty of prebiotic-rich foods such as garlic, artichoke and onions can help to improve sleep and support your gut microbiota, which has the ultimate benefit of promoting proper brain function, hormone production and overall psychological health. (6)

Look After Your Gut And Sleep Better

Improving your gut health isn’t as difficult as it sounds – and it sure beats sleeping pills!

You can support your ‘good’ gut bacteria by limiting your exposure the things that kill them. These are things that you probably know and experience every day, such as refined sugars, alcohol, antibiotics, pesticides and food chemicals. Although they’re not possible to avoid entirely, you can try to keep them at a minimum!

The next step is to add plenty of fermented foods to your diet, such as sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir and miso. These foods are rich in both prebiotic and probiotic bacteria, so you’ll be feeding your gut bacteria and promoting the development of more colonies.

Most importantly, start taking a high-quality, daily probiotic supplement.

Look for a product that contains a variety of probiotic strains including Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. It should have a high CFU count (colony-forming units), and use time-release tablets that aren’t destroyed by stomach acid. You can read more about our market-leading probiotic here.

It’s also important that you cover all other bases of sleep hygiene. If you’ve been using sleeping pills for some time, you may have to carefully wean yourself off them while still taking your probiotics. Over time, your body will adjust to better sleep-wake cycles – but only if you make the effort. Set yourself a regular bedtime and make sure your bed is a clean, comfortable place to sleep.

Sleep is absolutely vital for healthy gut function – and a healthy gut is absolutely vital for sleep! Making the effort to ensure that all is well in your gut microbiome could mean fewer nights of tossing and turning, and better health overall.

Katie Stone, ND
Katie Stone, ND


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