Starting your personal health journey often begins with two common steps: diet control and regular exercise. While what you eat and how you use it are certainly predictors of your physical and mental wellbeing, there is another relationship you should regularly check on when determining your overall health: your sleep and your gut.
Simply exercising and eating vegetables is not enough to perfect your overall health. Sleep deprivation can lead to grogginess, irritability, insatiable hunger, and unnecessary stress. Bacterial dysbiosis, or poor gut health, can lead to bloating, abdominal pain, indigestion, constipation, diarrhea, and joint pain. One of these symptoms alone can be enough to deter someone from a healthy meal or early morning workout.
A pivotal moment in any health journey is understanding the symbiotic relationship between your sleep and your health. Sleep, or more specifically your circadian rhythm, regulates your hormones. Quality sleep increases the production of hormones responsible for your ability to overcome stress, satiate hunger, and even increases your creativity and productivity. But that’s not all; healthy sleep hygiene improves the quality of your gut microbiome.
How can your sleep your way to a healthier gut? Let’s talk about it…
The Gut-Sleep Connection
Your sleep and your gut are in an intimate relationship; when one fails, the other does too. According to a study published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, a key role of your circadian rhythm is “regulating the gut microbiome and host responses to gastrointestinal pathogens.” Simply put, your circadian rhythm is your sleep-wake cycle. It consists of thousands of tiny indicators throughout the day that tell your body what to do and when to do it, including when to sleep and when to be awake (hence, sleep-wake cycle).
When you disrupt your circadian rhythm, say through jet-lag after traveling, you become sleep deprived. Sleep deprivation decreases the beneficial strains of bacteria in your microbiome. This leaves room for the two forms of bacterial dysbiosis: small intestinal bacterial growth (SIBO), and small intestinal fungal growth (SIFO).
Your gut microbiome is comprised of millions of bacteria that absorb the food you eat and turn it into energy. These bacteria hold immense influence over your digestion, metabolism, immune system, regulating your mood, and you guessed it, your sleep cycle. When your microbiome is imbalanced, so is its ability to regulate each of these functions.
If you have ever suffered from insomnia or sleep apnea, you may have received the advice to refrain from over-eating spicy foods before bed. Why? Your body is either too busy digesting to wind down, or you may experience painful symptoms like acid reflux or heartburn. These forms of gut discomfort are parasomnias, meaning they make it difficult to fall asleep. An imbalanced microbiome heightens these symptoms, making it more challenging to recover from a heavy late-night snack.
Unfortunately when your sleep is interrupted by gut discomfort, your body feels the need to energize itself with food. What follows is a vicious cycle of insatiable hunger and poor sleep.
Sleep, Hunger, and Weight Gain
As mentioned earlier, sleep is responsible for regulating the hormones associated with hunger. These hormones are leptin and ghrelin.
When you get a recommended 7-9 hours of quality sleep, your leptin levels increase. Leptin is the hormone that makes you feel full. This means that when you sleep well, you feel the need to eat less. Your body takes sleep as a chance to recover from injuries and rejuvenate depleted energy. If you are starting the day at only a half-tank of gas, you are going to feel the need to fill up more as you use energy throughout the day.
When you eat food, you are attempting to satiate this deficit of energy. Now the second hunger hormone, ghrelin, comes into play. Ghrelin makes you feel hungry. Often times when your body is craving energy, you will reach for a quick fix such as caffeine or sugar for a quick energy boost, and carbs to make you feel full. Over-intake of caffeine, sugar, and carbs has a negative impact on (you guessed it again) your sleep cycle.
What we have identified is a seemingly endless relationship between how you sleep and how your gut processes your food. But never fear, there are ways to break this cycle and improve both your sleep and your gut health.
3 Ways to Improve Your Sleep for a Healthier Gut…
Getting your gut health in check can seem daunting when there are so many factors at play. From watching what you eat and when you eat it, to making sure you are using enough energy during the day, to ensuring you are sleeping through the night is hard to do on a busy schedule. Here are a few basic tips to integrate into your day to improve your gut-sleep connection.
#1 Eat a well-rounded diet
Eating diverse foods offers a range of benefits. Primarily, diet diversity provides your body with natural sources of the vitamins and minerals necessary for optimal bodily functioning. Not only that, but diverse foods, especially those that have live cultures like greek yogurt, bolster your gut microbiome.
It is important to eat food that energizes you early in the day. Foods that have high sugar content like fruits, and foods with high caffeine content like coffee and chocolate are best kept to the morning when your body can use the energy effectively.
Certain foods such as nuts and tart cherries are great natural sources of melatonin, a sleep-regulating hormone. These foods, in conjunction with complex carbs like oats and lean proteins such as poultry are an excellent meal for later in the day. Lean proteins contain another helpful amino acid called tryptophan that, with the help of complex carbs, enters the bloodstream and stimulates the release of serotonin. Tryptophan, serotonin, and melatonin are the dream team for a quality night of sleep.
If you feel your diet could use a boost, consider taking a probiotic as a dietary supplement. Eating the right foods at the right time during the day keeps your circadian rhythm on track, which means a happier life and a happier gut.
#2 Re-evaluate your sleeping environment
Similarly to parasomnias that come from your gut, where you sleep has a major impact on your quality of sleep. Just imagine trying to fall asleep on a lumpy mattress with itchy sheets in a hot room with a baby crying and cars whizzing past your window. Sounds terrible, right?
In order to get your best rest, provide yourself with a restful environment. Short term fixes include finding a temperature that keeps you comfortable, investing in your bedding, getting dim lights for nighttime, and hanging heavy curtains to deter exterior noises. More long-term investments include replacing your mattress every 7 to 10 years, and developing morning and nighttime routines including things like reading, yoga, meditation, and herbal teas.
#3 Use Your Energy Effectively
Here we go again: diet and exercise. Now that you are checking in on what you are eating and when you are eating it, you should also evaluate how you use what you eat. If you are consuming more food than you can expend during the day, you may be sabotaging your own sleep and gut health.
Expending energy early in the day through exercise is a great way to stimulate your microbiome and ensure your body is actually tired when you lay down in bed. Health benefits include increased metabolism, a release of mood-boosting endorphins, and increased energy during the day. Be careful not to work out too close to bedtime as this increased energy may leave you restless when it’s time to sleep.
Though a busy day may leave your mind exhausted, excess energy can manifest as parasomnias such as restless leg syndrome. As we know, sleep disruptions can wreak havoc on your hormones and your gut. No need to start that cycle up–just get any workout in you can during the day to help you sleep.
All-in-all: what you eat matters, how you sleep matters, and what’s in your gut matters. As you venture out on your health journey, be sure to keep all of these factors in mind. You will find that you are eating better, sleeping better, and living better.
Stephanie Annon is a personal trainer in training in Raleigh, North Carolina. When she isn’t at the gym, you can find her hiking with her goldendoodle Ollie.