Not Sleeping Well? The Answer May Be in Your Gut
Up to 70 million Americans struggle with sleeping, according to research by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It’s a critical issue, as sleep is one of the most important pillars of good health. If you’re not getting enough, or your sleep is low quality, it can cause extreme fatigue, brain fog, increased stress, irritability, weight gain, and is linked to many health disorders. It’s during sleep that our brain takes out the trash, and our body recovers from daily wear and tear.
If you're looking to improve your sleep and you've already changed your diet, exercise regimen and other lifestyle factors, you might be wondering where else to look. The real culprit could be your gut health.
Gut health and sleep go hand in hand in many ways. Improving your microbiome health often improves the quality of your sleep. If you’re not sleeping well, it can impact your gut, creating a vicious cycle. Your immune system needs consistent rest for optimal performance.
If you’re having trouble sleeping, you may be taking sleeping supplements or medications. Not only can these temporary solutions come with side effects, but they’re also not as effective as addressing the root causes of your inability to fall and stay asleep. This quick fix approach skips over the root cause and only treats the symptoms. These approaches can impact your natural circadian rhythm and eventually make things worse. You may find yourself constantly feeling groggy and lethargic, and you may become heavily reliant on pills in order to fall asleep. In this article we'll talk about the links between sleep and gut health, and how restoring balance in your microbiome can aid your sleep.
Gut Health and Trouble Sleeping
Just as the health of your microbiome can affect the quality of your sleep, your sleep can affect your gut health. It works both ways. Let’s take a look at recent research on some specific sleep conditions that have been shown to affect the gut.
Sleep Apnea and Gut Health
Obstructive sleep apnea is a respiratory disorder in which people experience either a partial or full collapse of the upper airway during sleep, and can make it hard to breathe. It has been linked to gut health, as it reduces the amount of oxygen you are getting while sleeping. Reduced oxygen can result in something called dysbiosis, or a disruption in the normal, healthy gut flora.
Gut dysbiosis can lead to low-grade chronic inflammation in the intestines and symptoms such as nausea, bad breath, bloating, constipation and fatigue. It can also cause anxiety and depression, which can compound your sleep troubles.
Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome and Gut Health
Delayed sleep phase syndrome (DSPS), a disorder in which a person's sleep is delayed by two or more hours and can cause difficulty in waking up at the desired time, is a newly defined research area in the last decade. Links between delayed sleep phase syndrome and gut health haven't been fully explored, due to the newness of this research field. However early studies have suggested DSPS and other circadian rhythm disorders might be influenced by gut dysbiosis. Your circadian rhythm is your sleep-wake pattern over the course of a 24-hour day, and helps control your daily schedule for sleep and wakefulness. Much of the early research on circadian rhythm disorders has been done related to shift workers who lead a disrupted sleep-wake cycle from the normal day-night cycle. It makes sense that people who are shift workers, or travel often across time zones and experience jet lag for example, could have gut dysbiosis.
How to Improve Gut Health for Better Sleep
If you have recurrent sleep issues, perhaps you feel powerless to fix them. Maybe you've tried some over-the-counter sleep aids or a variety of hacks. If your sleep still hasn’t improved though, it might be time to look at your microbiome.
Dr. Stasha Gominak has done extensive research on sleep and how it is affected by our intestinal bacteria. As she explains, the same healthy bacterial species (Actinobacteria, Bacteroidetes, Firmicutes and Proteobacteria) are found in every human with a healthy gut, because each of them makes at least one B vitamin and needs other B vitamins that the others make and share. They work together. However, when these B vitamins don’t receive vitamin D (when we get less sunlight), they’re replaced by bacteria that don’t need vitamin D, which can cause problems with our digestion, immune system, and yes, sleep. Vitamin D supplements are not the same as the Vitamin D we create when we are exposed to sunshine.
One simple and important approach to helping reset your natural circadian rhythms is to schedule 15-20 minutes each morning as the sun is rising and again as it is setting each day. These light signals on our skin and in our eyes are critical to the production of vitamin D and to the signaling to our brain for the light and dark sleep cycle cues.
Restoring the natural production of B vitamins in your gut can take many months. You can support this process in several ways. First consider supplementing with B vitamins, B12 and thiamine in particular, since the western diet is generally high in processed foods that are devoid of living organisms that can produce these vitamins. Add a quality probiotic with strains that are known to produce the B vitamins (like our formulas!). Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria species found in fermented foods and probiotics are the key suppliers of B vitamins in our gut. These species are depleted by the modern Western diet and our continuous exposure to herbicide and pesticide residues in our foods.
Gut Health and Sleep Pattern
In addition to addressing vitamin B and vitamin D deficiencies, there are other factors to consider for improving your gut health, and thus your sleep, Fasting, dietary changes, and supplementing with probiotics and melatonin and also help.
Recent research suggests that routine fasting may support better sleep, which makes sense since the timing of meals can affect your circadian clock. Think about a time you perhaps ate dinner too late, and lay awake at bedtime feeling uncomfortable and restless. Ideally you want to eat your last meal of the day a minimum of two hours before you plan to go to bed. Intermittent fasting is the practice of limiting the window of hours that you are eating to 6, 8 or 10 hour windows, allowing your body to rest and digest for a longer portion of the 24 -hour day. By intermittent fasting and eating earlier in the day, your body can work with your circadian rhythm, giving your cells more time to repair and restore overnight.
Fasting has also been shown to reduce inflammation and oxidative stress, which reduce circadian disruption and promote sound sleep.
Here’s a great overview of how to use fasting as a tool for better sleep from Dr. Michael Breus, including how both timing and duration play a role, and tips for getting started.
In addition to considering when you eat, it’s also important to address what you eat when it comes to improving sleep. Since a connection between the microbiome and sleep has been established, you want to nourish your body in a way that boosts good bacteria.
A few things you can do:
Another thing you can add into your regular diet is L. reuteri yogurt. Dr. William Davis, author of Super Gut, has done extensive research on the effects of eating L. reuteri yogurt, which sends a signal via the vagus nerve to the hypothalamus to release oxytocin. Consequently you can experience deeper sleep and more vivid dreams. In one survey Dr. Davis found that 62% of participants who consumed the yogurt reported moderate improvement in sleep, while 13.25% reported dramatic improvement. Here’s a recipe to make your own yogurt with L. reuteri using our Sugar Shift probiotic!
You’re likely already familiar with melatonin, or know that it plays a role in sleep. But it can be helpful to understand how it functions as it relates to the gut.
Melatonin is a hormone that regulates your sleep cycle. It helps you fall and stay asleep. Microbes in the gut produce melatonin too, along with other hormones including serotonin, dopamine and Gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA). Serotonin is an important precursor to melatonin. It is estimated that more than 90% of the serotonin in our bodies is made in the gut, which is why supporting your gut health can have a positive effect on your sleep. Here’s a helpful two-minute overview of melatonin from Neuroscientifically Challenged:
While supplementing with melatonin can be helpful, it’s not a “cure-all” for resetting your circadian clock. Since it’s produced in the pineal gland in the hypothalamic suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN as well as other cells in the body), exposure to natural light and dark cycles matters - melatonin production is suppressed by artificial light. So you need to be mindful of using devices before bed, which can be tough to do in the modern world. Melatonin is produced in the morning from signals of the early morning light spectra and released in the evening when the sun sets and it gets dark. Our normal melatonin cycles are disrupted by blue light which all of our electronic devices are pumping out.
To improve your melatonin production and sleep quality, turn off all electronics a minimum of one hour before bedtime. Two is even better! Just think what you can do with that time you are not staring at a screen.
Probiotics for Better Sleep”
Probiotics are live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer health benefits. They’ve shown promise in supporting better sleep as well, since the microbiome is key in the connection between your digestive system and your brain. The signaling that occurs between these two systems is often mediated by metabolites and other compounds produced by the gut microbiome. This signaling could result in a more relaxed sleep cycle, or it could adversely affect it.
Our Simple Slumber formula in particular was specifically created to produce melatonin and other compounds that support sound, undisturbed sleep. It also increases production of antioxidants such as reduced glutathione, and anti-inflammatory substances such as butyrate that support health and your body’s ability to detoxify while you sleep. .
You can read more here about the specific strains in Simple Slumber that work together to form a stable, sustainable bacterial community to help restore a healthy gut microbiome, and promote sound sleep.
One strain in particular, Lactobacillus casei, increases serotonin and melatonin production, which are key hormones for regulating sleep.
Prebiotics for Insomnia
While probiotics provide the gut with some species of healthy bacteria, the fibers in prebiotics provide your native gut bacteria and the probiotics with the appropriate food. By providing plenty of food for your probiotic microbes you are enabling them to grow and thrive, leaving less room in your gut for the not–so-friendly microbes that take advantage of free space.
A study at the University of Colorado Boulder has begun looking at the potential of prebiotics in improving people's sleep. According to a postdoctoral researcher, Robert Thompson, prebiotics can reduce our vulnerability to stress-induced disruptions in complex behaviors such as sleep. As he notes, bacterial dependent metabolites, such as short chain fatty acids and secondary bile acids, can signal the brain through the gut-brain axis. Therefore gut microbial modulatory diets containing prebiotic nutrients can feasibly produce changes in the gut metabolome that signal the brain.
In addition, the study found that ingesting prebiotics can also improve non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, promotes increases in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep after stressor exposure (REM rebound), and prevents stress-induced reductions in gut microbial alpha diversity.
Prebiotics are composed of fiber, but this does not mean that all fiber is a prebiotic. Specific forms of prebiotic fibers include fructo-oligosaccharides, galacto-oligosaccharides, xylo-oligosaccharide (XOS)s and inulin. Each prebiotic fiber favors different species of bacteria. For example, the best prebiotic to feed Bifodobacteria is XOS. Common sources of prebiotics to incorporate in your diet include whole grains, nuts & seeds, Jerusalem artichokes, leeks, beans, berries, and bananas. Take care in your selection of fibers like grains, as a high carb diet can feed a whole host of health issues related to metabolic dysfunction.
Gut Health and Sleep Quality
One of the newest areas of gut health research focuses on the gut’s effects on sleep quality rather than on sleep patterns. While there is still more research to be done, one study found that microbiome diversity was positively correlated with increased sleep efficiency, or the ratio of total sleep time to time in bed, and was negatively correlated with waking after sleep onset. Researchers also found positive correlations between total microbiome diversity and interleukin-6, a pro-inflammatory cytokine noted for its effects on sleep. These early findings suggest that improving your gut health can not only help you sleep more regularly, but also more deeply.
Link Between Gut Health and Sleep
Sleep is one of the most important facets of your health, and taking steps to prioritize it is crucial for your overall well being. Start with just one of these action items and pay attention to how you feel. If you’re looking for more information about how probiotics can help you, read our in-depth post here, and if you’re not sure where to begin don’t hesitate to reach out to us!
Martha Carlin, is a Citizen Scientist, systems thinker, wife of Parkinson’s warrior, John Carlin, and founder of The BioCollective, a microbiome company expanding the reach of science. Since John’s diagnosis in 2002, Martha began learning the science of agriculture, nutrition, environment, infectious disease, Parkinson’s pathology and much more. In 2014, when the first research was published showing a connection between the gut bacteria and the two phenotypes of Parkinson’s, Martha quit her former career as a business turnaround expert and founded The BioCollective to accelerate the discovery of the impact of gut health on all human health, including Parkinson’s. Martha was a speaker at the White House 2016 Microbiome Initiative launch, challenging the scientific community to “think in a broader context”. Her systems thinking background and experience has led to collaborations across the scientific spectrum from neuroscience to engineering to infectious disease. She is a respected out of the box problem solver in the microbiome field and brings a unique perspective to helping others understand the connections from the soil to the food to our guts and our brains.