By Jamie Morea
There’s nothing like a great night’s sleep: you go to bed just as you start to feel tired, fall asleep quickly, and doze the whole night long, waking feeling refreshed and ready to face the new day ahead.
Sounds dreamy, doesn’t it?
But, if you’re one of the nearly 35% of adults in America who struggle with insomnia — which can include difficulty falling asleep, difficulty staying asleep, and waking up too early in the morning — you know just how elusive quality sleep can be.
From your mood and immune function to your memory and cognitive performance, every bodily system depends on getting enough shut-eye.
Desperate for relief, millions of the chronically sleep-deprived turn to sleeping pills or other remedies in the hopes of getting just a couple more hours of precious zzzzs, but what if the solution for a better night’s sleep lies deep within your gut?
Sleeping With Your Microbiome
Human beings are true superorganisms — symbiotic collections of both human and bacterial cells that work together to keep us alive.
But did you know that the microbes in your body outnumber your human cells by 10 to 1, making you more bacterial than human?
It’s true, and the trillions of bacteria living in and on your body are so important to your overall health that scientists have dubbed their collective ecosystem — called the microbiome — another human organ.
What’s amazing about your microbiome is that it’s responsible for so many life-supporting functions within your body, from regulating your immune system and supporting your metabolism to optimizing your digestion, balancing your moods, and yes…even helping you sleep.
You see, the beneficial bacteria in your gut can communicate with your brain via the vagus nerve, a cranial nerve extending from the brainstem to the abdomen that serves as a communication superhighway for your microbial friends. It’s this constant dialogue between your brain and your gut that can help you get the snooze you need.
Let’s take a look at how a balanced gut microbiome can help you achieve that all-important good night’s sleep:
1. Keeping Stress and Anxiety at Bay
If you’ve ever laid in bed at night, staring at the ceiling and worrying how in the world you’ll get through the next day’s endless tasks (especially — yikes — without any sleep!), you know how easily stress and anxiety can derail a decent night of rest.
Fortunately, your beneficial bacteria work hard to produce and regulate hormones and neurotransmitters that can keep you feeling calm and relaxed.
Your gut microbes can even lower levels of cortisol, the notorious stress hormone that rears its head in times of anxiety and can keep you awake and anxious. Your good bugs also produce GABA, a calming amino acid that is crucial for restorative deep sleep.
And did you know that more than 90% of your body’s serotonin (the mood-regulating “happy” chemical) is produced in the gut and regulated by your gut bacteria? It’s a good thing, because ample amounts of serotonin maintain your mood and can even help to prevent sleep-disrupting disorders like depression.
2. Maintaining Sleep-Wake Cycles
Your sleep-wake cycles are largely regulated by melatonin, a hormone produced by your brain’s pineal gland in response to changing light each day.
As darkness begins to fall, the pineal gland secretes melatonin, which makes you start to feel sleepy.
Levels of this hormone stay relatively high throughout the night while you sleep, and then drop off again as light emerges in the morning, easing you into wakefulness.
The good news is that the beneficial bacteria in your gut — the probiotics — can boost your body’s supply of melatonin by increasing your blood levels of tryptophan, an amino acid precursor to melatonin that can keep your sleep-wake cycles in sync.
Tryptophan also converts to serotonin (remember the “happy” chemical?) in the body. Studies show that a deficiency of serotonin disrupts sleep-wake cycles, so having plenty of gut microbes to maintain steady levels of tryptophan in the body leads to more serotonin and better sleep.
3. Regulating Daily Rhythms
Our body’s circadian rhythms are the physical and mental changes that happen over a 24-hour cycle, and they help determine everything from our sleep-wake cycles and hormones to our body temperature and feeding times.
They are determined by our internal biological clock, which gets “set” depending on things like our work schedule and the amount of light in our environment.
Any disruption to our biological rhythms — from things like jet lag, seasonal affective disorder, or insomnia — can lead to problems with memory, cognitive function, irritability, metabolism, motor control, and disrupted sleep.
But, research shows that your gut microbiome has its own daily rhythms that are firmly intertwined with your body’s circadian rhythms. And, changes in either one (whether from diet, travel, or lack of sleep) can affect the other.
4. Easing Widespread Pain
Pain of any sort can make a good night’s sleep virtually impossible but visceral pain, which originates in your internal organs, is the kind of aching, relentless sensation that can have you counting sheep all night long.
Common in people with gastrointestinal issues like irritable bowel syndrome, visceral pain is hard to treat because it’s not always easy to pinpoint exactly from where the pain is originating.
Fortunately, research shows that a healthy microbiome brimming with a large majority of beneficial bacteria can decrease sensitivity to this type of pain, making quality sleep easier and more restful.
Fibromyalgia is another sleep-stealing condition characterized by stiffness and pain in muscles and joints all over the body. Sufferers often have a hard time sleeping due to pain, and the lack of quality sleep exacerbates their pain — talk about a double-edged sword!
Luckily, researchers are discovering that fibromyalgia patients often exhibit an overgrowth of bad bacteria in the intestine, which could actually be the cause of the condition in the first place.
In one study, 100% (yes, every. single. person.) of fibromyalgia patients studied had bacterial overgrowth in the gut.
By replenishing populations of good bacteria, probiotics may be able to curb the pain of fibromyalgia — thereby improving sleep — or even prevent it in the first place.
Improve Your Gut Health, Improve Your Sleep
It’s clear that a strong population of beneficial bacteria in the gut is crucial for restorative, health-enhancing sleep, so how do you make sure that your microbiome is ready to take on the challenge?
Besides maintaining healthy sleep habits, like keeping your room dark, establishing a sleep schedule, and staying away from blue light near bedtime, following a gut-healthy lifestyle will set the foundation for long-term vitality and sound, restful sleep:
Take a daily probiotic.
When it comes to replenishing and maintaining the friendly flora in your gut, supplementing with a multi-strain, time-release probiotic formula is the single most important step you can take on your path to a healthy gut.
The good microbes that set up shop in your digestive tract will work to produce and regulate sleep-inducing hormones and neurotransmitters, and crowd out inhospitable bacteria that can lead to dysbiosis and pain.
Feed your good bugs.
It’s not enough to simply get the good guys in your gut; you need to nourish and feed them as well!
Focus on a whole food diet full of prebiotics, indigestible fibers found in many plant-based foods that your probiotics just love to eat.
Prebiotics are like fertilizer for a garden — they give your beneficial bacteria all they need to really thrive in your gut. Apples, oats, asparagus, honey, and avocados are all good prebiotic sources, and you can also boost your intake with a prebiotic supplement designed to encourage the growth of healthy bacteria.
Avoid probiotic enemies.
Unfortunately, so many factors in today’s hectic lifestyles can deplete the good bacteria in your microbiome.
Antibiotics (both in food and as medicine), antibacterial cleaners, environmental toxins, pesticides, antimicrobial personal care products, processed foods, and even stress can all have a negative impact on the balance of good to bad bacteria in your microbiome, so choose natural products and food whenever possible and keep stress to a minimum.
Get outside and play!
Your microbiome needs to encounter all kinds of microbes in the environment to really operate at its best supporting your health and your sleep.
You see, exposure to different bacteria outdoors, from animals, and in the soil can help to train your immune system (80% of which resides in the gut), the foundation of your health and wellness.
So, get out there and take a camping trip, indulge in some gardening, go horseback riding, or take your dog for a walk, and don’t be afraid to get a little dirty!
Make time to exercise.
Exercise is wonderful for both your gut and your sleep!
Research shows that people who exercise regularly have more diverse populations of gut bacteria than people who don’t stay active. And, studies suggest that exercise can increase the amount of friendly microbes in your gut by a staggering 40%.
What’s more, moderate aerobic exercise has been proven to decrease the time it takes to fall asleep, increase sleep efficiency, and improve self-reported measures of feeling well-rested in the morning.
Find an exercise regimen that you absolutely love (like hiking, jogging, dancing, or yoga) and stick to it — your entire body (including your microbiome) will thank you!
Sleep is like many precious things in life — we don’t know how crucial it is to our everyday emotional and physical well-being until it’s gone. So, next time you’re up at 2:00 a.m. wondering why you just can’t sleep, think of your microscopic friends within.
Taking the time to nurture and nourish your beneficial gut bacteria may be just what you need to reset your sleep cycles and start experiencing restful, restorative nights so you can enjoy your healthiest, happiest days!