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How Gut Health Impacts Your Sleep

Stress • Recipe • Nutrition

Trouble sleeping? Your gut may have a role to play. Nutritional Therapist Eve Kalinik explains how gut health and sleep health are tightly interlinked (and how you can support the two).

There can be many reasons why we might have trouble falling asleep.

This could be related to a stressful event or worrisome waking thoughts. It can also be due to a few too many cups of coffee, a night out on the tiles, binge watching the latest box set or extraneous factors like babies and children waking, or a snoring partner!

And, while the odd sleepless night is one thing, chronic under-sleeping is something much different and with more long term and significant effects than just feeling a bit more tired and irritable the next day.

Sometimes we can quite easily pinpoint the cause of our restless night but there can be many underlying health factors that impinge on the quality and quantity of our sleep. One of these is the health of our gut, more specially the gut microbiota, that can have a real impact. Compelling scientific research is emerging which suggests there is a crucial connection and bi-directional relationship between the two. Here’s how…

Our gut is often referred to as the second or ‘little’ brain and it is indeed a very clever organ in its own right but also because it has its own brain called the enteric nervous system. It is this gut brain that is in constant communication with the brain in our head and the central nervous system that helps to regulate many processes in the body including our sleep.

Firstly, let’s look at our circadian rhythm which is our internal body clock that manages biochemical processes over a 24-hour period. This also regulates our sleep-wake cycle which begins in the morning with the hormone melatonin lowering and cortisol giving us that wake-up call. In the evening cortisol naturally falls and melatonin kicks back in to encourage us to sleep. However, there are other neurotransmitters and hormones alongside melatonin and cortisol that are involved in our sleep-wake cycle to include GABA, serotonin, ghrelin and leptin. What’s more is that these very same chemical messengers we produce in our big brain are also produced in our little one too. In fact, the production of some of them are higher in our gut than our brain. It is therefore imperative that we have a healthy gut microbiome so we can have a plentiful supply of these chemical messengers.

"A lack of sleep has been found to trigger increased levels of ghrelin, our hunger hormone, and decreased levels of leptin which is the hormone that tells us when we are full."

But this is not all our little and big brains are busy doing whilst we are snoozing away. In fact, both are working hard on what could best be described as a general ‘clean-up’ operation to eliminate toxins, turnover cells and secreting hormones such as human growth hormone that stimulates the renewal and replacement of damaged cells throughout the body. Our little brain and our gut microbes somewhat mirror the brain in this regard to do its own housekeeping.

The unfortunate reality is that many of us can impinge on the time spent for our brains to have this well needed time to clean up as we typically work against our natural circadian rhythm - that stereotypical ‘burning the candle at both ends’ or in modern day life more the addiction to blue light devices. However, endless night time scrolling, texting and emailing comes at a price in that repeatedly going against our natural internal body clock potentially sets up our entire system for multiple failures. The result of being ‘off’ our biological beat and the resulting build-up of sleep deprivation are typically more bouts of sickness, poor decision-making, and gut-related symptoms such as queasiness and general malaise just to name a few. Part of this discord also links with disordered timing of our food intake as we can literally have food at our fingertips 24/7. Eating at random times can put our circadian rhythm out of sync and that can impact on our gut, metabolism and also skews in appetite and food choices. And equally lack of sleep has been found to trigger increased levels of ghrelin, our hunger hormone, and decreased levels of leptin which is the hormone that tells us when we are full. This can therefore lead to skewed appetite responses and overeating which may then feed-back into a pattern of random timing of food intake.

Like the rest of our body our gut microbiome also has its own daily rhythms that work harmoniously with our circadian rhythms so that one has the capacity to alter and disturb the other. The daily rhythms of our gut microbiome are largely shaped by the timing and the type of foods we eat. It also works the other way in that disruptions to circadian rhythms such as crossing time zones and disjointed sleep can disrupt the rhythm and the health of our microbiome.

Another key part of the gut-sleep connection to consider is the influence that our gut microbiome has on mood and emotional well-being and the relationship between sleep and mood disorders such as anxiety and depression is well documented. This is also bi-directional in that poor sleep can trigger mood symptoms and vice versa.

It is therefore clear that there are many ways in which our gut and our sleep affect one another, so how can we better this connection?

Timing is everything

TRE aka Time Restricted Eating has been positively associated with supporting our circadian rhythms. Ideally, we want to aim for a 12 to 15-hour period of not eating or drinking anything other than water. So, from 8pm to 8am you may fast overnight. This allows our gut to perform the crucial process of cleaning up and clearing out rather than breaking down food. I would also go further and suggest broadly sticking to three meals a day that you try to eat around the same times. Remember our gut likes to work with rhythm and routine and the more we eat in an erratic way the more likely we are cultivating a gut and a sleep cycle that is out of sync.

Eat the rainbow

Include plenty of colour and diversity with your vegetables and fruits as well as whole grains and nuts and seeds as these all provide brilliant sources of fibre and polyphenol (special plant chemicals) which are crucial ‘food’ for our gut microbiome. The more varied our intake of these, the more we can support a healthier and stronger gut and gut-sleep relationship.

Include fermented foods

Such as live yogurt, cheese, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha and kefir that provide sources of beneficial bacteria to support the health of our gut. Research demonstrates that taking a probiotic such as the KÄLLA REPAIR can also support and nourish the gut-brain connection which can have a favourable impact on sleep.

Breathe and breathe…

Using some kind of mindfulness breathing or meditation practise helps to support the gut-brain connection and also help us to better cope with the stressors in our life that might be contributing to restless nights. We cannot always change some of these stressful factors but we can cultivate a mind that is better equipped to deal with them. Journaling just before bed can also be a really useful tool so that swirling thoughts at night can be brain dumped onto the page rather than going around and around in our heads.

Gentle movement

Lack of physical exercise can affect the way we sleep and also impact on our gut health. Sitting for long periods may also result in us not being physically tired. We don’t need to be working out to the point of exhaustion but regular movement can help to support sleep. Avoid high intensity forms of exercise like running and spinning late into the evening which can spike cortisol. Walking is fantastic because it also gets us outside and in natural light especially first thing in the morning to support our natural circadian rhythm.

Digital curfew

Probably the biggest sleep stealer in our modern lifestyles is the virtual world. Blue-light exposure messes with melatonin and the ebb and flow of the sleep-wake cycle. There is a definite need to put a curfew on this stuff and to engage only at certain points of the day. Give a buffer of around an hour (or more) before you are wanting to go to sleep to shut off devices entirely and have them out of the bedroom altogether. Use an old fashion alarm clock to wake you up instead.

Prioritise pillow time

Create a dedicated sleep ritual that gives your body ample time to wind down. Take the hour before bed (without devices) to journal, read or engage in some mindful breathing or meditation. Create a soothing cocoon by taking a bath or a foot bath and applying some nourishing oils. Set the tone with lighting a candle or dimming the lights and ensure that you have the right ambiance conducive to sleep with curtains or blinds that shut out the light. You might also want to use an eye mask and perhaps some ear plugs if you have a snoring partner or noisy neighbours to really detach from the buzzing of the outside world.

Eve Kalinik, Gut Health Specialist

Nutritional Therapist, Author and Podcaster, Eve Kalinik believes that having a healthy gut is fundamental to our overall well-being. She is a registered member of (BANT)(CNHC) and accredited by (IFM).