Would you have considered that your gut health could affect your sleep? It doesn’t seem the likeliest of connections, does it? However, a growing body of evidence now shows there is a dynamic link between your brain and your gut (1). It is an intricate communication system known as the gut-brain axis and highlights how the brain can affect gut health and vice versa (2).
Given the gut and the brain are constantly communicating, it’s easy to see that a disturbance in either can ultimately influence the way you sleep. Knowing that, it’s concerning to find that as much as 45% of the Australian population state that sleep issues plague them daily (3). That’s a HUGE number of people!
Sleep complications might include things like inadequate amounts of sleep, trouble getting to/staying asleep or; not sleeping at all. Not great is it? Particularly when you consider that sufficient sleep is needed each night for the body to function optimally.
How exactly is the gut involved?
The gut microbiome stimulates the release of several of our chemical messengers (or, neurotransmitters) including serotonin, dopamine, and GABA. These messengers have various roles to play in:
- Supporting metabolism and brain function
- Improving mood
- Regulating hormones and;
- Controlling the sleep-wake cycle….. amongst many other things (4).
If our gut is healthy, it’s likely that all of the above is also running smoothly. However, when an imbalance is present in the microbiome, we’re much more susceptible to something going wrong. Hormones are thrown out of whack, our appetite changes (more sugar anyone?), brain fog occurs etc. We’re also more susceptible to the effects of stress, anxiety, and depression. These emotions can contribute to a dependence on things like caffeine and alcohol, which further exacerbates the poor sleep/poor gut health cycle.
So why aren’t we sleeping?
Several factors can contribute to a person’s inability to sleep. Two of the most important I’ve already outlined are an imbalance in the microbiome and high stress. Some other big considerations are:
- Having increasingly sedentary lifestyles
- A high fat and protein diet (which may affect the microbial rhythm in the gut with flow on effects to the circadian rhythm)
- No sleep routine / poor sleep hygiene
- Too much exposure to blue light from phones, i-pads, tv screens (especially at bedtime)
- Lack of sufficient sunlight, which affects our melatonin and cortisol levels (5, 6, 7, 8)
Sleep disorders can also contribute to a lack of sleep and might include conditions like sleep apnoea, insomnia, restless leg syndrome, narcolepsy and those affected by shift work.
Can I get better sleep if I improve my gut health?
We can now see the strong link that exists between our gut health and our sleeping habits. So yes, it’s possible to improve your sleep because if we correct one, we correct both. Just keep in mind it won’t be as simple as that for a sleep disorder, as there is much more at play. You should be seeking medical advice to help you address any such condition.
Additionally, whilst we will focus on the gut here it’s imperative that you also address lifestyle factors contributing to poor sleep. Particularly any of those listed above. To drum it in one more time – it’s a two-way street. Poor sleep can affect gut health just as much as poor gut health can affect sleep!
Top 5 things you can do to start improving your gut health include:
- Watch your alcohol intake – Alcohol can wreak havoc on the microbiome and lead to gut dysbiosis (microbiome imbalance). Stick to two standard drinks per day and three alcohol-free days days per week
- Eat a largely plant-based diet – A majority of vegetables, fruit, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains will do wonders for your microbiome. They’re high in fibre (great gut food) and many are also considered prebiotics. Prebiotics promote the growth of probiotic species in the gut whilst inhibiting the growth of pathogenic bacteria. They also aid in the management of health concerns like high cholesterol, heart disease etc. (9)
- Enjoy a wide variety of foods – A diverse microbiome is a healthy one! The best way to achieve this is ensuring you eat a wide variety of food rather than the same foods repeatedly. Doing so means several species of gut bacteria (not just a handful) will be nourished
- Eat foods that are rich in polyphenols – Berries, cherries, red and black grapes, red and purple carrots, red potatoes, red onions, flaxseed meal, black tahini, red and black rice/quinoa, rye sourdough and green tea are all great. These foods behave like prebiotics and they’re also anti-inflammatory, an added bonus
- Have fermented foods every day – Fermented foods can provide you with beneficial probiotic strains. This helps to improve the health of the microbiome overall. Try things like fermented vegetables, a good quality yoghurt (pot set is one of the best), tempeh, kefir and kombucha. All are becoming widely available but it’s super easy to make your own too. I have an enormous stack of Scoby’s for kombucha making, which I happily share with clients. Ask me for one at your next consultation!
Gut Microbiome Testing
It’s always best to know exactly what you’re working with when it comes to any health condition. This is why I’m a strong supporter of testing. I offer UBiome Gut Explorer testing in clinic that enables us to map your microbiome. We then use the microbiome analysis to tailor a specific treatment plan to your specific gut make-up. It’s a very powerful tool to have at our fingertips. Get in touch or book a consultation if you would like to chat about gut testing to help improve your sleep…. and your gut health.
If you want to know more about other ways in which the gut and the brain interact, you can read my article on mind-body medicine and the gut here.
- Martin, CR, Osadchiy, V, Kalani, A & Mayer, EA 2018, ‘The Brain-Gut-Microbiome Axis.
- Carabotti, M, Scirocco, A, Maselli, M & Severi, C 2015, ‘The gut-brain axis: interactions between enteric microbiota, central and enteric nervous systems.
- Adams, R, Appleton, S, Taylor, A, McEvoy, D & Antic, N n.d., Report to the Sleep Health Foundation 2016 Sleep Health Survey of Australian Adults.
- Sharma, S & Kavuru, M 2010, ‘Sleep and metabolism: an overview.
- Harb, F, Hidalgo, M & Martau, B 2014, ‘Lack of exposure to natural light in the workspace is associated with physiological, sleep and depressive symptoms’.
- Dolezal, BA, Neufeld, E V, Boland, DM, Martin, JL & Cooper, CB 2017, ‘Interrelationship between Sleep and Exercise: A Systematic Review’.
- Chang, A-M, Aeschbach, D, Duffy, JF & Czeisler, CA 2015, ‘Evening use of light-emitting eReaders negatively affects sleep, circadian timing, and next-morning alertness‘.
- Thaiss, CA, Levy, M, Korem, T, Dohnalová, L, Shapiro, H, Jaitin, DA, David, E, Winter, DR, Gury-BenAri, M, Tatirovsky, E, Tuganbaev, T, Federici, S, Zmora, N, Zeevi, D, Dori-Bachash, M, Pevsner-Fischer, M, Kartvelishvily, E, Brandis, A, Harmelin, A, Shibolet, O, Halpern, Z, Honda, K, Amit, I, Segal, E & Elinav, E 2016, ‘Microbiota Diurnal Rhythmicity Programs Host Transcriptome Oscillations.’.
- Anandharaj, M, Sivasankari, B & Parveen Rani, R 2014, ‘Effects of Probiotics, Prebiotics, and Synbiotics on Hypercholesterolemia: A Review’.