Do your gut microbes keep you up in the night?

We all recognise the importance of sleep. We know when we haven’t slept well, everything is a little bit harder. Many of us also know that we should be aiming for 8 hours, avoid blue light, get a consistent routine, avoid eating close to bed time. However, in reality – some of this is quite hard to do – particularly if you’re in a job where you are working most hours of the day.   This advice can therefore be somewhat demoralising.

However, there are things we can do to improve our sleep that can work with whatever our work and sleep routine and this starts with the gut.

What is the link between the gut and our sleep?

There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that the health of our gut microbiome, the trillions of microbes that inhabit our gut, influences our sleep. Whilst researchers are still determining the mechanisms behind the sleep-gut connection, there are some clear mechanisms – all of which are dependent on the health of our gut.

1.   Hormones: A key role of gut microbes is to produce hormones, such as serotonin. Serotonin regulates our mood and it is a pre-cursor for the hormone melatonin, which regulates our sleep. If the gut microbiome is not producing sufficient serotonin then normal sleep patterns maybe disrupted.

2.  Gut-brain communication: Our gut is connected physically to the brain via the vagus nerve – signals and messages are continually passing up and down this nerve, communicating when we are hungry, stressed, tired etc. Our gut microbes can interrupt these signals – changing them for the better or worse. If the gut microbiome is dysbiotic – a term used to describe an imbalance in microbial populations , it is possible inflammatory metabolites can travel up vagus nerve, disrupt the signals and influence the brains activity. As such, these metabolites have been shown to impact our heart rate and subsequently disrupt sleep.

3.  Immune system: 70% of our immune system is in our gut. However, if our body has to deal with stress either from food, toxins, bacteria or injury our immune system is disrupted and so is our sleep.

4. Circadian rhythm: Our sleep wake cycle follows a natural circadian rhythm. This is a 24-hour cycle that is part of the body’s internal clock. It is thought that the body’s biological clock works in synergy with our microbial clock. Therefore, lack of sleep can disturb the gut microbiome, but imbalances in gut microbiome can also affect our sleep.

 What’s the message?

There are loads of factors that influence both our sleep and mental health, some of which are out of our control and some of which we can control. When seeing the close association between our gut microbiome, the brain and sleep, there is no denying that improving our gut health will have a significant impact on all these factors. Small changes to your diet can have a huge influence over the state of your gut and therefore, your sleep.

What can I do?

1.  Diversity – a diet full of variety of unprocessed, whole foods, e.g.: different colour fruit and vegetables, different spices, different grains. Instead of having peas, carrots and broccoli try switching it up each day. Challenge yourself to eat 30 different varieties of vegetables and fruit each week.

 Just like our taste buds, our microbes in our gut prefer different things. Therefore, for us to get a good balance of microbial populations, we need to consider a diverse range of food option.

2.  Wholegrains, e.g.: whole grain oats, quinoa, buckwheat. Wholegrains are great for increasing fibre and also helping to promote healthy gut bacteria.

3.  Fermented foods, e.g.: kimchi, sauerkraut, sourdough bed, miso, kefir. These foods are rich in probiotic bacteria, helping to populate the gut with beneficial microbes and improve overall gut health.

4.  Prebiotics, e.g.: garlic, onion, asparagus, artichokes. Prebiotics help to feed the bacteria, providing them with energy so they can do their job.

5.  Exercise, e.g.: regular, moderate exercise such as walking, jogging, cycling, dancing. Exercise will not only improve sleep directly but it has also been found to lower inflammation by increasing the amount of good bacteria in the gut.

We are finding more and more out about the gut and the extensive benefits it has on the body when looked after. I understand that there is a lot of advice out their that can be hard to adopt when on a busy schedule. Try and work with what you can do and focus on being 1 % better than the day before. This may be adding a walk in at lunch time, or it maybe adding one extra vegetable in a day. These little changes over time amount to huge successes.

If you want more simplified advice, please feel free to get in contact:

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Melanie Wilkinson

I am a Registered Nutritionist, Nutritional Therapist, Neuroscientist, and former athlete. I specialise in weight management, chronic health conditions, and female and mental health, catering specifically to high-achieving, executive-level individuals navigating a busy lifestyle.