Digestion and Rest: Learning More About the Sleep-Gut Connection

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You may have noticed that there’s been a lot of talk about our gut health lately. On the news, in books—why the obsession?

Collectively, the organs of the gut, or gastrointestinal tract—the esophagus, stomach, and intestines—do a lot more than break down what we’re eating. Recent research shows a connection between the gut and the entire body: the bacteria living in our guts can affect mood, weight gain and loss, skin conditions, and more. And, as it turns out, our gut health can also impact our sleep (and vice-versa).

According to Jamie Morea in Thrive Global, some of bacteria that lives in our guts communicates with the brain via the vagus nerve. These microbes can help boost the body’s supply of melatonin and serotonin, two hormones that help keep sleep-wake cycles in sync, effectively telling our brains whether and when we need to get some shut-eye.

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The relationship between the gut and sleep can also work in reverse. When scientists altered the breathing patterns of mice to mimic obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), found the rodents had experienced significant changes to their gut microbes. And research suggests disruptions to human circadian rhythms (jet lag, staying up too late, working swing shifts) disrupt our gut’s microbial ecosystem—which may have a circadian pattern of its own—resulting in metabolic imbalance, glucose intolerance, weight gain, and more.

So how do we ensure a healthy sleep-gut connection?

On the gut side, Morea recommends taking a daily probiotic as “the single most important step you can take on your path to a healthy gut.” The probiotic will help replenish the “good” gut bacteria that might have been negatively affected by our diets or lost due to a course of antibiotics. Morea also recommends a diet rich in prebiotics—non-digestible components of certain foods that help stimulate the growth of good gut microbes—like apples, oats, and honey.

And as for sleep, the quality is key:

  • The Mayo Clinic recommends turning your bedroom into the ultimate restful environment: keep it “cool, dark, and quiet” and consider investing in blackout shades or a white noise machine or good earplugs to make it that way.
  • Avoid the things that keep you up at night or keep you from sleeping well, like the blue light that’s emitted from your phone or tablet, an afternoon cup of coffee, or exercising too close to bedtime (but don’t let that be an excuse to not exercise at all—you’ll sleep better with regular activity).
  • Invest in a good mattress and pillows that are optimized for the way you sleep—the firmness of your mattress and the fill of your pillow have been shown to impact your shut-eye.
  • Cancel out ambient sounds that can keep you from falling or staying asleep with a fan or white noise machine/app.
  • Consider adopting a bedtime ritual, like dimming the lights half an hour before you go to bed or taking a few minutes to meditate or journal, to help your body and brain prepare for sleep.

When you sleep well, your gut stays happy…and if your gut stays happy, your sleep is bound to improve.

Jillian Ashley Blair Ivey

Jillian Ashley Blair Ivey is a Philadelphia-based writer, editor, and communications strategist. She has a BA in English from the University of Pennsylvania, an MFA in Creative Writing from Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey at Camden, and has published under her own byline at publications including DAME Magazine and The Frisky.