All the systems in your body are designed to function best when they follow natural rhythms, in synch with the light and dark cycles of the external natural world. It’s how we – and our body’s own internal clock – evolved. When we do the activities of daily life, like eating and sleeping, out of step with those predictable rhythms, we confuse the body’s internal clock, and nothing works very well, especially your digestive system. And it plays a bigger role in sleep – and how well you do it – than you might realize. The cause and effects works in both directions: an out-of-rhythm lifestyle can throw off the gut and your sleep. And an out-of-rhythm gut can throw your entire life off-kilter – and screw up your sleep to boot. Conversely, good gut health can facilitate good sleep. So, the better you tend to your gut, the easier it will be to fall asleep and stay asleep. How to get your gut and sleep back into a healthier, sleep-supporting rhythm? Start here:
Your belly, brain and sleep all influence each other.
To understand the connection between sleep and your gut microbiome – aka the trillions of microorganisms, mainly bacteria, that live in your gastrointestinal tract – you need to understand that both your gut and your brain work in tandem. The gut digests your food, to be sure, but it’s also evolved its own nervous system, the enteric nervous system or “second brain,” which is constantly communicating with your brain (via the vagus nerve), influencing hormone production, immune system function, appetite, digestion, metabolism, behavior, mood, stress responses and, you guessed it, sleep. Though the exact process isn’t fully understood, the thought is that some of the gut bacteria, and the metabolites they produce from breaking down your food, send signals to the brain, which influence how well or poorly we sleep. So, when the gut is out of balance, it’s not communicating well, the brain isn’t getting the full story, and essential functions – like sleep – suffer.
Treat your microbiome right — have better nights.
Your body’s internal clock, or ‘Master Clock’, works in concert with your microbiome’s clock. Gut bacteria follow their own circadian rhythm by helping to produce multi-purpose chemical messengers that have a hand in a number of your body’s functions, including inducing sleep. The microbiome has the ability to create the same sleep-influencing neurotransmitters as the brain, namely dopamine, serotonin, melatonin, and GABA. But an out-of-balance gut can’t rise to the challenge, meaning it won’t make right amounts of the stuff you need to sleep well. So, if sleep is what you’re after, put treating your microbiome right at the top of the to-do list.
Timing is everything – and so is rhythm.
Your body’s internal clock, or ‘Master Clock’, works in concert with your microbiome’s clock. If one of these rhythms is disrupted, the other goes too. Gut bacteria create their own circadian rhythm by calling for the production of cytokines, multi-purpose chemical messengers that have a hand in a number of your body’s functions, including inducing sleep. The microbiome has the ability to create the same sleep-influencing neurotransmitters as the brain, namely dopamine, serotonin, melatonin, and GABA. But a out-of-balance gut can’t rise to the challenge, meaning it won’t sufficient amounts of the stuff you need to sleep either.
Better your microbiome, better your sleep.
Your microbiome begins to develop at birth and is affected throughout your life by many factors, including whether you were born vaginally or via C-section, if you were breastfed, if you smoke, drink alcohol, how well you eat, manage stress, move, sleep, antibiotic and medication use. Any and all can significantly affect the quality and diversity of your microbiome, for better and worse. So the good news here is that you can turn the ship around by weaving a few healthy habits into your routine to get your body, brain and belly back into rhythm. Exciting recent research suggests that a more diverse gut microbiome is associated with improved sleep quality and lower rates of sleepiness.
Getting your gut groove back.
Like all the systems and organs in your body, the microbiome is designed for predictable cycles of sleep, wakefulness, and eating. So as you bring yourself back into rhythm by adopting new habits, your gut will follow suit. But one of the biggest influencers on your microbiome’s health is your diet. If yours is less than ideal, you may have your work cut out for you but trust me, if you take care of your gut, it will take care of you – and you’ll likely sleep a whole lot better too. Your mission: get your gut in rhythm and keep it there. Here are a few of my Gut Rhythm Rules to Live By:
Pass on sugary, starchy, and processed foods.
If it’s sweet or starchy, and especially if it was produced in a food factory, it’s not good for you or your microbiome. High-in-sugar foods and easily-digested starch like pastries and processed breads mostly get broken down in the small intestine, which can result in the proliferation of harmful bacteria there, leading to SIBO, or small intestinal bacterial overgrowth. Adding insult to injury, processed foods contain nasty stuff like trans fats, preservatives, artificial sweeteners, artificial ingredients, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and industrial seed oils, all of which can wreak even more havoc on the microbiome – so as they say, fuggetaboutit.
What’s more, sweet stuff also messes with your sleep according to a 2016 study which confirmed that higher sugar intake is associated with lighter, less restorative sleep and more night wakings. And another study from Columbia University concluded that a diet high in refined carbohydrates—particularly added sugars—is linked to a higher risk of insomnia, especially in women aged 50 and over.
Avoid glyphosate sprayed crops.
Glyphosate is the active ingredient in the highly toxic pesticide known as Roundup, which is used not only to ward off pests on genetically modified (GMO) crops, but also on conventional plants (particularly wheat) to chemically expedite the dying process of these crops so they can be dried and harvested more quickly. In addition, glyphosate is a registered antibiotic, making the stuff awful for your body and even worse for gut health. Crops typically affected by glyphosate include corn, peas, soybeans, flax, rye, lentils, triticale, buckwheat, canola, millet, potatoes, sugar beets, soybeans, and edible legumes.
To sidestep this heinous stuff, choose organic at the grocery store or buy from your local farmers market. This will also ensure that you won’t be ingesting questionable fertilizers or other types of pesticides, most of which have been linked with being harmful to the beneficial bacteria in the gut and altering the microbiome makeup.
Pack in the prebiotics.
Prebiotics are food fibers that most of our digestive system can’t break down but the bacteria in our microbiome most certainly can. They’re like microflora superfoods, giving your good bacteria the high-octane fuel they need to do all the things that keep your gut healthy, like protecting the gut wall, digesting your food, keeping the bad guys in check, contributing to your immune system, and coordinating with your central nervous system.
Foods that are rich in prebiotic fiber include: garlic, onions, radishes, leeks, asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes, dandelion greens, broccoli, chicory root, lentils, and chickpeas.
And be sure to always eat the stalks! Those chewier, fibrous bites—especially broccoli and asparagus stalks—are particularly nutritious for gut bacteria. They thrive on stalks — so feed them what they love!
Another option is to take a prebiotic supplement, but be sure that it’s a real fiber source and contains one or more of the ingredients: inulin, FOS (fructo-oligosaccharides), pectin, arabinogalactan, chicory root, acacia fiber, artichoke fiber, and green banana fiber.
Don’t forget the fermented sides.
Fermented foods like sauerkraut, yogurt, kimchee (Korean fermented cabbage), miso, and kefir (fermented milk) come loaded with their own beneficial bacteria that join forces with the good stuff in your gut. The research suggests that the bacterial newcomers help the longtime residents do a better job of protecting your health – so add a few servings a week to your plate.
Skip conventionally farmed meat, poultry, dairy products, and eggs.
Conventionally farmed animals such as cows, pigs, and chickens are almost always fed large amounts of antibiotics to prevent them from getting sick and to fatten them up before slaughter. Those antibiotics then end up in your system when you consume those products. In addition, many of these animals are given hormones and likely fed GMO corn or soy too. Not exactly the recipie for a healthy gut.
Minimize antibiotic use.
Every so often a raging infection may warrant a round of antibiotics, but much of the time they’re unnecessary and can lead to potentially dangerous antibiotic resistance. Inside the gut, antibiotics take out the good bacteria along with the bad, throwing off the bacterial balance and undermining gut health. Instead, when possible, go with herbal “antibiotics” or anti-microbial herbs. They tend to be tougher on the toxic bacteria you want to get rid of and easier on your good bacteria.
Steer clear of the Proton Pump Inhibitors (PPIs).
Research shows that people who rely on stomach-acid-blockers (like Nexium, Prilosec, etc.) are less likely to have a diverse collection of bacteria in the gut. That means greater vulnerability to leaky gut and digestive or immunity problems. The primary goal should be to reduce your need for PPIs altogether, which can frequently be accomplished through diet.
Take advantage of a daily probiotic.
A probiotic is a supplement that provides your gut with more beneficial microorganisms. Although it’s always best to get your probiotics from food, you can also enjoy the advantages of fermented foods in easy supplement form, either a capsule or powder.
Filter your water.
Chlorinated water kills harmful bugs and tamps down many water-borne diseases. However, it can also do a number on the good bacteria in your microbiome. To protect your gut from some of the chlorine damage, invest in a good water filter that will leave the chlorine out of your cup.
Live the lifestyle.
Remember, your gut is a microcosm of your larger body. The habits that are designed to keep you in rhythm and improve your overall health—exercising, embracing consistency in your daily routine, cutting back in drinking, quitting smoking—will ultimately benefit your microbiome too.