On World Sleep Day, Gut UK’s Julie Thompson and nutrition expert Petronella Ravenshear join us to discuss the gut health and sleep connection and how we can nurture our gut to get those all-important Zzs
Ready to put those sheep back in the field where they belong and leave those bags from under your eyes just for shopping? Nurturing your gut could help you to achieve better quality sleep and wake up feeling refreshed.
Despite recent research revealing that 44% of people do not believe a healthy digestive system can benefit sleep, there is increasing evidence to support that gut health and sleep are closely linked, plus poor sleep is very common in those with gut disorders. A 2018 study found that people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) suffered from sleep disorders more regularly than those without IBS. Irritable Bowel Disease (IBD), undiagnosed bile acid malabsorption, undiagnosed microscopic colitis — which can both sometimes be mistaken for IBS — chronic digestive infection Helicobacter pylori (H. Pylori) and pinworm are among gut conditions also known to negatively impact sleep.
But, it’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation — just as poor gut health can disrupt sleeping patterns, poor sleep has been shown to contribute to gut issues and affect our bowel habits.
However, a significant amount of research is still required; the link between gut health and sleep is extraordinarily complex which is probably why it is not yet fully understood.
There’s no need to stay awake worrying about this though! On World Sleep Day and with more than half of British adults having struggled with sleep during lockdown, information manager for charity Guts UK and volunteer for The IBS Network, Julie Thompson and nutrition expert and author of The Human Being Diet Petronella Ravenshear share their specialist insight and five proven ways to enhance your gut health for a better night’s sleep.
Reset your internal clock
Our gut is heavily influenced by our circadian rhythm — circadian what now? Well, while it sounds like a funky dance move, they are actually 24-hour cycles tied to your internal body clock. One of the most essential and well-known circadian rhythms is the sleep-wake cycle; this rhythm is influenced by environmental cues, such as light and dark, as well as other factors. Fascinatingly, connections between circadian control and the gastrointestinal system date back to the second or third century BC, a time when hunger was used as a time signal.
Disrupted circadian rhythms have been proven to contribute to and even linked to gastrointestinal symptoms and conditions including IBS. This is a particular problem for shift-workers; multiple survey results show nighttime workers have complained of constipation.
But, what can we do to get our circadian rhythm back on track? Petronella suggests waking and going to bed at the same time every day, eating at regular meal times, getting outside as soon as you can when it’s light and avoiding using your phone, tablet or watching TV at least two hours before bed. The blue light emitted from these devices prevents the production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, she says.
Up your sleep hygiene
Get those visions of scrubbing your mattress out of your head — while the term ‘sleep hygiene’ is slightly misleading, the Sleep Foundation explain it’s simply the act of creating healthy sleeping habits that set yourself up for better sleep. Although the term was developed in the ‘70s, it has become increasingly discussed in recent years as more people realise the importance of having good quality sleep for our mental and physical health. Good sleep hygiene is a vital part of regulating your circadian rhythm. Following a pre-bed routine will help quality sleep become more automatic. Top tips for this include:
- Maintain a consistent routine: actions like putting on your pyjamas and brushing your teeth can act as signals to your body that it’s time to sleep.
- Set aside at least 30 minutes to unwind before bed: use this time wisely to read, take a bath, colour or listen to gentle music, for instance.
- Dim your lights: as darkness increases, so will the production of melatonin which is vital for gut health. Julie explains the chemical serotonin (a mood-boosting hormone) is produced by microbes and converted to melatonin within our gut reinforcing the relationship between gut health and sleep. ‘There is actually more melatonin and serotonin found within the gut than in the brain!’ she adds.
- Try relaxation techniques: as we know, stress is a major cause of gut disruption. Doing relaxing activities such as meditation, breathwork, progressive muscle relaxation or gentle yoga can help to calm your mind, gut and body ready for sleep. Unwind with this box breathing technique tonight.
- Make sure your bedroom is at a comfortable temperature: being too hot or cold can disturb your sleep. 18.3°C is considered the optimal temperature for good sleep.
- Don’t watch TV, read or use your phone in bed: doing other activities in bed encourages you to associate your bed with wakefulness.
Nip late-night snacking in the bud
As tempting as heading to the kitchen for that midnight munch on cheese and crackers might be, you might want to think again. Evidence shows eating right before you head to bed can play havoc with your digestion; lying down straight after eating can trigger heartburn (I’m sure many of us have had this regret at some point) while nighttime eating also poses the risk of indigestion and upset stomach which in turn can affect your quality of sleep. Petronella advises eating dinner early, and to ideally be done by 7pm, to allow you a good two to three hours before going to sleep so that your body has finished digesting and has entered repair mode.
“We want insulin levels to be low by bedtime, otherwise we store more of our food calories as fat,” she adds.
It’s also important to bear in mind the size and contents of your evening snacks or meal if you’re suffering from gut disruption. Remember, bigger meals take longer to digest. If your work schedule doesn’t allow for eating earlier, why not try eating your main meal at lunchtime and a smaller meal at dinnertime?
The takeaway here: if you’re eating late at night, it doesn’t feel good for your tummy and you’re having trouble sleeping, there’s most likely a connection.
Treat your gut condition directly
If you have a gut disorder, such as IBS or IBD, like myself, you’ve probably experienced difficulty in sleeping due to stomach cramps or bloating etc. Julie agrees people’s sleep can be disturbed because of symptoms.
“Therefore, lack of sleep can, to some extent, be treated by treating the disease itself,” she says.
Of course, finding a suitable ‘treatment’ isn’t always easy; it can be a matter of trial and error and what works for one person might not for another. For one person, taking peppermint oil capsules could be a solution, whereas reducing stress levels or following the low-FODMAP diet could be the key. Using a diary to keep track of things that do and don’t help can be a good way to identify a suitable treatment for yourself. Seek guidance from your GP about potential treatments and visit Guts UK for more information.
Look after your immune system
Surprisingly, around 70% of the body’s immune cells are found within the gut; this has peaked interest around how “the microbes that live in our gut might also influence the relationship between health and sleep,” claims Julie.
Similar to gut health and sleep, the immune system and sleep have a two-way connection; immune activation (caused by illness such as cold, fever or flu) can impact sleep while consistent sleep strengthens the immune system. During sleep, your immune system releases certain cytokines, which increase with infection or inflammation, to combat illness. If the body is deprived of sleep, production of these cytokines may decrease resulting in less effective immune function, meaning you could be at higher risk of developing illness or diseases such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease as well as breast and colon cancer, explains Julie.
Petronella continues: “When we have inflammation in our gut, or anywhere in our body, our immune system is activated and when this happens, we automatically notice a drop in energy.”
By getting sufficient rest and doing things to boost our immunity, including staying hydrated and eating plant-based foods, we can expect improved gut health and overall health in addition to increased energy levels during the day and better sleep at night.
Petronella’s sleep-encouraging diet dos and don’ts
Eating healthily and maintaining a varied, balanced diet to promote a diverse gut microbiome is key to good sleep, but here Petronella sheds light on specific foods that encourage sleep along with those that don’t
- DO limit dark chocolate intake — while it can be good for us and evidence shows it can be beneficial for our gut health, Petronella says this treat is best enjoyed earlier in the day due to the caffeine content.
- DON’T drink too much coffee —just as the high-caffeine content in coffee can keep us awake, it can also trigger an IBS flare-up. If living without caffeine sounds unbearable, try limiting it to 2-3 cups per day or less and avoid consuming it after 2pm.
- DO eat more vegetable fibre— not only does this nurture our gut microbes, but fibre intake has been linked to deeper, more restorative sleep. Fibre-rich vegetables include broccoli, carrots, beets and spinach.
- DO drink green tea — drinking this can promote sleep quality and quantity. Be aware that green tea does contain some naturally occurring caffeine, so is probably best avoided after midday.
Here are some sleep-friendly dinner recipes to get you started.
What is World Sleep Day?
World Sleep Day, organised by the World Sleep Society, is an annual celebration of sleep and a call to action on important issues related to sleep. It aims to reduce the burden of sleep problems on society through better prevention and management of sleep disorders.
Found this useful? Have any sleep remedies that have worked for you? Get in touch.
The Gut Choice advise consulting a medical professional or dietitian if you are having trouble sleeping or if you are experiencing gut issues, before taking medication or making any alterations to your diet.