There are plenty of reasons why we can’t fall asleep. After all we are a culture that is constantly stressed. We are running through our to do list from the moment we wake. We check our phone before we roll out of bed. If we are lucky we cram in a home cooked meal and some sort of brief exercise before or after work. Our attention is craved by coworkers, spouses, kids, pets and friends. At night we are busy binge-watching the latest hit TV show. So naturally sleep starts to feel like this ‘thing’ we have to fit into our busy schedule. But, how is this mindset affecting our digestion and holding us back from true healing?
Here’s what research has discovered so far.
How your gut works
The gut doesn’t just turn food into energy and waste matter, it’s a smart organ that is in constant communication with your brain.
Our gastrointestinal tract (our gut) is often referred to as the second brain, which is not a surprise considering all the things it affects. It’s also home to the enteric nervous system that’s in contact with our brain and central nervous system, helping to regulate vital processes for your body.
The gut is basically a long tube reaching from our mouth to anus, and it is home to bacteria, fungi and viruses, most of which are located in the colon, and collectively called the “microbiota” or “microbiome”. A healthy and balanced microbiota contains both good and bad bacteria.
Approximately one-third of our gut is the same for everyone — the other two-thirds are individual, resulting from genetics, environment, diet, and personal background. Around 1,000 different types of microbiota bacteria are present in the adult digestive tract. But what is interesting is that the composition of our gut changes and evolves as we age.
Our diet and the environment where we live have an important influence on the composition of our gut microbiome. Sugary and processed foods, lack of fibers, exercise, hydration, antibiotics, physical or emotional stress can all have a negative impact on the microbiota. In order to live a normal and healthy life, we need a well-balanced gut microbiota.
The gut and sleep disturbances
Sleep deprivation can put our appetite out of balance, increase our food cravings, and cause weight gain. That is because lack of sleep decreases the level of a hormone called leptin, which is responsible for our feelings of fullness.
It also increases the level of ghrelin, a hormone in charge of hunger. So when we lack sleep, leptin cannot control or signal when we are full, but ghrelin is telling us to continue eating even more. This helps explain why sleep-deprived people tend to gain weight faster and are at higher risk of obesity.
Sleep deprivation also impacts the parts of our brain in charge of impulse control. That is why many people who suffer from poor sleep claim that they cannot control themselves when it comes to overeating. All of that has consequences for the wellbeing of our gut microbiota.
If we cannot tell when we are full and we have strong impulses for food it often leads to making poor choices to fill our immediate hunger. Most frequently we reach for high carbohydrate food choices. Too much of which over time will throw off our gut health.
How can we improve gut health?
By improving our digestion and gut microbiome, researchers believe that we can help solve sleep problems.
Researchers believe that the microbiome can affect sleep by hindering the sleep-wake cycle, circadian rhythm, and hormones that regulate wakefulness and sleep. But what can we do in the meantime while scientists investigate this question?
We can take care of our gut health with prebiotics and probiotics, and they will feed the good bacteria and take care of the wellbeing of our gut. This is something that is already proven and well researched.
Probiotic benefits are not a myth, and, some scientists believe that probiotics can also be beneficial for our sleep. One small study assigned 18 healthy volunteers to a mix of a recognized probiotic strains (Lactobacillus fermented, L. Rhamnosus, L. plantarum, and Bifidobacterium longum), and 15 people to a placebo for six weeks.
The scientists used the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index questionnaire to assess how well they slept at the start and several times during the study. They found that volunteers taking probiotics slept better and reported less fatigue during the study.
What about a healthy diet?
Since everything in your body is connected, it’s no surprise that a healthier diet could help alleviate sleep problems. A healthy food regime, which limits the intake of processed foods, meats, sugary snacks, and fast food.
Rather than making big unsustainable changes, like overnight choosing to go vegan, add more fiber-rich and fermented foods like live yogurt, kefir, and sauerkraut to your everyday meals. You can also expand the range of foods you eat to include more berries, dark chocolate, nuts, and colorful plant-based foods.
Forget about late-night snacks, and try to avoid consuming any source of calories about 2–3 hours before bedtime because it can affect your sleep. Instead, try to get a wholesome dinner early in the evening that will keep you satiated so you have time to digest before bedtime. Eating too heavily close to bedtime revs up the digestive system, just when your body is naturally wired to give digestion a rest
Avoid processed foods. Diets heavy on sugars, fatty and highly-processed foods in your diet can alter the make-up of your gut microbiome, reducing the abundance of beneficial microorganisms. Limiting these foods, and replacing them with whole, unprocessed nutrient rich foods like vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, can help restore and protect the beneficial bacteria in your gut.
Eat organic whenever you can. There’s research indicating that pesticides alter the microbiome, and are harmful to the beneficial bacteria we want to have thriving in our microbiome. Pay attention to lists like the Dirty Dozen and the Clean 15, and go organic when you can. Remember, organic isn’t only about fruits and vegetables. Look for organic sources of beans, grains, dairy, and other animal products, too.
Eat a wide variety of plants. A diet rich in whole fruits and vegetables is the foundation of healthy living, and healthy sleep. To give your body a true diversity of beneficial bacteria, pay attention to getting as broad a variety of plant-based foods as you can. This is often called “eating the rainbow,” of colorful fruits and vegetables—and it’s great for your gut health, as well as your nightly rest.
Get your exercise. Exercise helps you fall asleep more easily, and sleep more soundly throughout the night. New research shows exercise also may directly benefit your microbiome. Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne studied the effects of exercise on the microbiome in both mice and in humans, and found physical activity changed the composition of the microbiome, increasing the amounts of beneficial microorganisms that lead to lower inflammation. Scientists found the benefits of exercise on microbiome composition happened independent of diet.
Improving your sleep
There are a few other things you can do to try and improve your sleep and your gut health. Try following a circadian rhythm. For most this means starting to dim lights and use tools like blue light filtering glasses or dimming features on electronics. Also, try going to sleep at the same time every day. Try a nighttime meditation like progressive muscle relation to help you wind down. This has the added benefit of forming a good relationship with sleep. By allowing you to see good sleep as a form of self-care.
Sleep is one of the many primary foods I work with my clients to help improve. If you are interested in discovering more tips and want to have a free initial consultation contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
As a Certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, I teach people how to nourish their body & mind with real foods and complimentary practices such as meditation, journaling and yoga. My mission is to help each individual I see achieve their specific personal health goals – most specifically by healing digestive issues and the underlying causes. I believe no two clients are alike and aim to address your specific goals and needs.