Gut Health and Sleep – The Not-so-surprising Connection

Gut health has a major impact on sleep quality and sleeping disorders in general. Sleep disruptions have a negative effect on gut health too. The “second brain” of the body, the gut, also maintains a direct link to the brain and it governs a surprising number of bodily functions/processes. When the microbiome of the gut is affected, problems occur.

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How does poor gut health impact sleep and how does a disrupted circadian rhythm affect gut health?

What can you do to steer these interconnected issues onto the right path, thus effectively doing your overall health a major favor?

Gut health affects the brain, and sleep

For some reason, some people still find it surprising – or even difficult to fathom – that gut health and sleep are closely connected. One affects the other and vice-versa, so messing up these aspects of your life can lead to a vicious circle-fueled downward spiral that is extremely difficult to break.

If you think about it, it all makes perfect sense. The connection is not a superficial one either. It is not on the level of “well, I haven’t slept well for a couple of days and I’m having minor digestion issues.” Sleep problems actually affect the gut’s microbiome and through it, they trigger deep-rooted problems which are then reflected in your everyday life and performance, in ways you would not believe.

As said above, sleep- and gut issues are linked in a sort of “did the egg or the chicken come first?” manner. One triggers and feeds the other, so it is difficult to determine which one comes about first, ushering in the other.

Let us deconstruct the conundrum though, taking a look first at the gut health problems generated by poor sleep.

At this point, you’ll probably say you’re not a sleep disorder-sufferer. After all, you do not snore and you do not believe you’re even close to anything as serious as OSA (Obstructive Sleep Apnea).

While OSA is indeed the very definition of a sleep disorder, it is by far not the only such issue. In fact, you may be suffering from a sleep disorder and not even know it…

If you experience daytime sleepiness (during specific hours), if you have anxiety and/or depression, if you sleep on your stomach, if you grind your teeth, if you have cold hands and feet, if you fall asleep suddenly during the day, if you experience brain fog and forgetfulness, or have a scalloped tongue, you’re likely suffering from a sleep disorder.

You really need to rethink the definition of what makes a sleep disorder. Say for instance, that you experience fragmented sleep. You wake up briefly several times a night, maybe to just turn onto your other side, and then go back to sleep. This type of sleep is not refreshing and it never gets to be deep enough.

Such a sleep pattern leads to increased risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes and a host of other metabolism-linked problems/diseases.

While further research is indeed needed in this regard, there’s an increasing body of scientifically established evidence regarding the links between the circadian rhythm, gut microbiota and enteric infections. Long story short: whenever the circadian rhythm is disturbed (as it happens when one does not sleep well), the own rhythm of the microbiota (closely linked to the circadian rhythm) is also thrown out of step. As a result, it becomes much more vulnerable to infection.

A study conducted in Sweden, in 2016, involving 9 healthy individuals, with normal sleeping and eating patterns, found that all it took was two nights of disturbed sleep to throw a wrench into the finer workings of the gut microbiota.

Among the effects noted in the study, was a decrease in beneficial gut bacteria, an increase in the number of gut microorganisms promoting type 2 diabetes and obesity, as well as an unwelcome drop in insulin sensitivity.

The ill-effects of an upset gut microbiota aren’t limited to diabetes and obesity though. It has been known for a while that declining gut health is directly linked to a decline in cognitive capabilities.

That’s right: your gut health directly impacts your brain. As a matter of fact, it has been found that age-related cognitive decline has a lot to do with poor sleep and the resulting poor gut health. Also, it seems like poor gut health may be linked to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

As mentioned above, the sleep-gut link is a two-way street. Thus, poor gut health leads to poor sleep and all sorts of sleep disorders.

What this means in practical terms is that one can consider addressing gut health as an avenue to treat various sleep disorders.

Stress is the obvious cause of many a sleeping disorder, but it is a factor many find quite impossible to address. Indeed, modern life cannot really be imagined without some level of stress.

The addition of healthy gut bacteria has been proven to help with stress though, and thus with sleeping disorders as well.

Concrete ways to promote gut- and sleep health

Generally speaking, it is a great idea to pay attention to gut health for several reasons and it does represent a very reasonable starting point for the treatment of sleep disorders too.

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What concrete steps can you take in this regard though?

  • Consider taking a probiotic. Such products deliver a massive amount of beneficial bacteria to your gut and it only really takes you a few seconds a day to pop some of these capsules.
  • Organic plant-based foods are always a great choice, as are prebiotic options, such as onion, garlic, artichokes, apples and asparagus.
  • Steer clear of sugar, artificial sweeteners, pesticides and preservatives. Such compounds are known to wreak havoc on the gut flora.
  • Antibiotics are especially disastrous for your microbiota. When you have to take them, you have to take them – there’s no way around that. Just make sure you re-establish your gut flora afterwards, by taking pre- and probiotics and by eating the right types of food.
  • Exercise is known to be a promoter of gut health. Its beneficial ramifications for the body in general are multi-fold, so make sure you include such activity in your routine.

Prebiotics for gut health and better sleep

To tackle both sides of the sleep-gut/gut-sleep avenue, there are a number of measures you can take to promote sleep quality as well.

  • Try to figure out what bedtime is perfect for you. Since everyone’s body is different, there are indeed slight differences in ideal bedtimes for people. The important thing is that you should leave yourself plenty of time to get enough sleep.
  • If you tend to get drowsy during the daytime at certain hours, make a point of NOT hitting the sack then. Daytime sleep (even if rather brief) can mess up your regular nighttime sleep schedule, no matter what some experts opine in this regard.
  • Introduce a relaxing evening ritual. If you have a tendency to work late, try to change it up… Finish up work on time and then leave yourself a couple of hours to gradually unwind. You can read, listen to some relaxing music or have a hot bath.
  • If your work is done on a computer, it is doubly important that you cut down on late work. The blue light emitted by your computer screen (as well as phone- and TV screens) triggers alertness in your brain, thus postponing bedtime.
  • This one should go without saying really: stay away from caffeine and alcohol. Go instead for a relaxing sip of some sort of herbal tea (such as chamomile).
  • Set up your bedroom to be as dark as possible. If the light from your clock bothers you, cover it up with something. If you happen to wake up in the dead of the night, do not turn on any lights. You will find it much easier to go back to sleep that way.
  • Vitamin D seems to be an essential actor in sleep health. Make sure you get enough of it. Unfortunately, vitamin D deficiency is quite difficult to identify, though supplementation is an option, even if deficiency is merely suspected.

It is worth noting that because of the dual nature of the problem, a double-pronged approach is not just the only one that’s effective, it is pretty much the only one that makes any kind of sense, when dealing with sleep disorders and/or digestive issues.

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What is the microbiome?

I brought up gut microbiome time and again above, and stressed its overall importance/far reaching influence on the body. What exactly is it though and how does it work?

The simplest definition of the microbiome would be that it is a bacterial/microorganism world within the guts, the primary role of which is digestion, though it fulfills an impressive number of other functions too.

Given that the microbiome is a living/breathing world (quite literally), comprising trillions of microorganisms, it is obviously vulnerable to chemicals and antibiotics. The diversity of the microbiome is also quite impressive: besides bacteria, a massive range of fungi, viruses and protozoa have also set up shop in our innards.

The body’s microbiome is not limited to the guts, though this is where its concentration is the highest and its role the most prominent.

What is there to know about the gut’s microbiome?

It is considered to be a sort of “second brain,” and indeed, it is comprised of hundreds of millions of neurons, forming a nervous system which constantly communicates with the brain. Through this link, the microbiome influences hormone production and various related functions, such as appetite, mood, metabolism, the handling of stress, as well as the functioning of the immune system.

Since it works as a “second brain,” it is hardly surprising that the microbiome produces some of the same neurotransmitters that the brain does, and indeed, these include neurotransmitters that influence sleep, such as serotonin, dopamine, and GABA, not to mention melatonin.

The microbiome is a complex ecosystem and as such, under normal circumstances, it is in a state of balance. The majority of the microbial denizens of this ecosystem are benefic for the body, but there are also some that may promote diseases. The balance means though that potentially dangerous microbes are kept in check by their “good” peers.

Needless to say, this balance can be upset quite easily and that is when problems occur.

Above and beyond sleep and mental health, the microbiome is linked to just about every health-related aspect of our lives. It determines our risk for chronic diseases for instance and it influences mood and circulatory health.

Apparently, a damaged microbiome can go as far as to cause high blood pressure in people suffering from sleep apnea. The problem is compounded by the fact that sleep apnea itself is known to damage the microbiome.

Everyone’s microbiome is unique and personal, developed and shaped by one’s individual lifestyle choices, diet, habits, body composition and genetics.

Unexpected problems caused by the microbiome

In addition to the above listed issues (some of which could indeed be considered unexpected as well), microbiome-related problems can cause sleep-disturbing issues one would simply never link to them without the science that makes the connection.

One such issue is teeth grinding. While most people would not consider teeth grinding to be a major sleep disrupting problem, according to statistics, some 31% of all people suffer from daytime or nighttime teeth grinding, and the issue can indeed be a sleep disruptor.

As such, it is an integral part of the vicious circle alluded to above, as it disrupts sleep, thereby aggravating an already existing gut condition, which in turn, further aggravates the teeth grinding and the sleep side of the equation.

Knowing the above, it makes perfect sense that bruxism (teeth grinding) is associated with a host of mental disorders, as well as stress, anxiety. Perhaps even bad dreams, specifically dreams of teeth falling out.

The bottom line

Over the last few years, science has learned a lot about the microbiome and its role in sleep/overall health. Still, we are probably only scratching the surface in this regard though.

What’s certain for now is that being kind to your gut and making sure you get proper sleep, pays.

To reap these benefits, you do not need to embark on some sort of convoluted exercise to match your circadian rhythm to the inner rhythm of your microbiome. That happens automatically when you eliminate habits such as drinking, smoking and afternoon coffee, you stay active and you pay attention to what you eat.

As far as nutrition is concerned: you may feel like you can take certain liberties in this regard every now and then, but the truth is that everything has a cost, and you will be held to paying every bit of debt in this regard.

I’ll conclude with one extremely easy to implement tip which might be all you really need in order to heal your gut and improve your mood, brain health and sleep. Eat more fiber!

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