15 Jun The Gut-Sleep Connection: How Balancing The Gut Activates Deeper Sleep
Sleep is essential for overall good health, yet 35% of adults don’t get even seven hours of sleep each night. (1) So, what happens when you’re sleep-deprived? You step in a vicious cycle, that’s what. There are several reasons one might have insomnia, and each one becomes more exacerbated by that very insomnia.
Your Gut and Insomnia
You’ve probably heard a lot about how your gut health can support your overall health. The same is true of an unhealthy gut adding to general unhealthiness, disease and illness. The diversity of your microbiome is what determines your gut health. The term human microbiome refers to the collection of microbes living in and on us, and it’s made up of:
- Other microscopic organisms
The largest collection of microbial life lives in the intestines, aka, your gut. (2) Some of these bacteria fight inflammation, while others promote it, so an imbalance can introduce discomfort, pain and irritation to your system, making it hard to sleep. When you can’t sleep, your gut health is more affected, and when your gut health is affected, you can’t sleep.
Let’s talk about the symptoms you might feel when your gut isn’t healthy and that could keep or wake you up, which can then lead to insomnia and worsening of these symptoms.
Gas and Bloating
When your gut health isn’t at its peak, you can suffer from painful and embarrassing gas and bloating. Gas can keep you awake, and the pain of bloating and gas can even wake you up in the middle of the night. The hallmark of this kind of gas is a pain in the lower stomach that can travel up and even climb into the rib cage area.
Bloating can be very uncomfortable at night. As you settle down for the evening, just the stillness can make bloating worse, making it difficult to get comfortable. This makes falling asleep challenging and could cause you to wake up after you fall asleep.
Diarrhoea, Abdominal Pain and Nausea
These three symptoms, depending on the last meal you eat, can present themselves just as you lay down to sleep. When this is a result of poor gut health, it may be because you’ve developed food intolerances. This means you have a difficult time digesting certain foods. These can come on suddenly, so what used to be your favourite food that never bothered you can keep you up all night with stomach pain and diarrhea because your microbiome is unbalanced.
If you don’t have the right bacteria in your gut, you can have an immune system reaction to foods, which can make you feel awful everywhere.
Your Gut’s Circadian Rhythm
Circadian rhythm is the 24-hour biological rhythm that regulates our sleep-wake cycle. We each have one, and no two are exactly alike. Through various studies, it’s now thought our microbiomes and their diverse microbial environments have their own daily rhythm. It appears these rhythms are tied tightly to our wake-sleep cycles. These studies show that microbial and circadian rhythms influence and impact each other. They can also disrupt each other, proving even further the deep connection between gut health and sleep. (3)
The daily cycle of your microbiome is affected by what you eat and when you eat it. When you eat healthy foods and allow your digestive systems to rest at night, your gut will support your circadian rhythm. There’s something to be said for not eating 3-4 hours before you sleep. Your entire body will be ready to shut down, not just your mind. What you eat needs to feed the good bacteria in your system. There are foods to avoid if you want your gut to support your sleep:
- Processed foods
- Artificial sweetener
- Simple carbohydrates
- Fatty or low-quality meats
That probably seems like a list full of your favourite things, and there’s the reason most people’s guts aren’t as healthy as they should be. Once you’ve eaten well for a few weeks, you’ll feel your body start to balance. Each night, it will become easier for you to fall asleep and stay asleep. You won’t have gas, bloating, diarrhea and other stomach and intestinal issues keeping you awake.
Sleep and Your Gut’s Cycle
You now know how your gut affects your sleep, and it seems pretty straightforward – you don’t feel good, you can’t sleep. But even if you get your gut microbiome under control, you can throw it out of whack just by throwing your sleep schedule off. If you get jet lag or have stayed up too late a few nights in a row bingeing your favourite shows, you might feel those old symptoms coming on again.
If you don’t get enough sleep, you’re not allowing your gut enough time to run its 24-hour cycle. As a result, you could suffer new food intolerances, metabolic imbalance, glucose intolerance and even weight gain, all because you’ve thrown your sleep rhythm for a few days.
There’s evidence to suggest that women have a stronger microbiome 24-hour cycle than men and therefore can be more sensitive to fluctuations. Each one of us has the connection between our sleep and gut – the balance may just be more delicate between people. (3)
Stress, Sleep and Your Gut
Just about everything is connected to your gut, not just sleep. When you add stress in the mix, this becomes a more nefarious vicious cycle than before. Let’s talk about sleep and stress first.
When you’re feeling anxiety, it’s hard to shut down your brain and just go to sleep. It’s easy to toss and turn, ruminating over what’s causing you stress. This leads to people not getting enough sleep and falling into a sleep deficit. What does a sleep deficit do to you? Well, it causes more stress. Not sleeping has these cognitive effects: (4)
- Impaired memory
- Mood swings and lack of patience
- Difficulty paying attention
- Increased errors at work or school
- Difficulty focusing on tasks and remembering instructions
- Ongoing worries about sleep
These symptoms in and of themselves cause stress. Now, you’re going to bed with whatever anxiety kept you up the night before. Then you’re adding the extra errors you made at work and the argument you had with a friend because of your short temper and your general irritability. Chances are, you’re going to have even more trouble sleeping now.
Let’s bring your gut to the party. Often called the “second brain,” our gut guides more of our overall function than we realise. Gut health seems to be an important factor in the onset of anxiety, depression and other mental health issues, and it definitely plays a role in feelings of stress. This relationship is also very delicate. Research shows that stress negatively affects your gut health and poor gut health contributes to anxiety and the body’s stress response. (5)
The first thing to do to help your body, sleep schedule and stress level is to stabilise your gut. Watch your diet and give your gut plenty of time to rest at night. Eat as clean as you can and drink plenty of water. You should be working on your sleep schedule simultaneously because one being out of balance will throw the other one off.
Your Sleep Schedule
It’s not easy to commit to getting your sleep schedule under control. It may sound simple, but if it was, you’d already have it under control. First things first – you have to commit to a plan. That means setting an alarm to turn off the TV, shut down your laptop and phone and focus on your plan.
A great practice is to expose yourself to light first thing in the morning because this tells your whole body to wake up. At night, prime yourself for sleep by turning off or dimming bright lights early and turning off all cell phones, tablets and laptops for several hours before bed.
Make sure your bedroom is as comfortable as possible. Add a diffuser with lavender oil, turn on a white noise machine if there are sounds to drown out and turn the temperature to somewhere between 15 and 19 degrees Celsius. Anything lower than 12 and higher than 24 could wake you up.
Keep a Tight Routine
Yes, it’s going to be tempting to watch one more episode, make one more call or return one more email – don’t do it. Set a sleep schedule and stick to it. Work with the time you have to get up in the morning and count backward by eight hours. Start your sleep ritual 30-60 minutes before. A sleep ritual can include:
- A warm bath
- Gratitude list
- Laying out what you need for the next day
- Checking that all the doors are locked
- 7 interlinked factors of a perfect deep sleep
And, when you have a day off, it’s tempting to throw caution to the wind and stay up all night – we strongly suggest not doing that. Just one night can put you on a trajectory to stress, gut imbalance and sleep trouble.
It’s All Connected
When you feel really good, you can tell your body is working at its optimal level. Working diligently to eat well and sleep well will give you endless days of looking and feeling great while maintaining peak performance.