There are very few things in this life quite as annoying as lying in bed awake, watching the time go by, and counting down the hours until your alarm is going to go off. Feeling lethargic and in need of a good sleep is the worst. What do you blame? Caffeine? Alcohol? Stress? Prolonged hours in front of a screen? There's lots of possible causes, but I rarely think of my physical health as the reason I am not getting a good eight hours. Especially when it comes to my gut. But can gut bacteria cause insomnia?
While my digestive system is certainly not the first thing that springs to mind when I am looking to blame my sleepless nights on something, your gut health can really impact your quality of sleep. Research published on The Sleep Doctor — a site run by Michael J. Breus, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, a diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine, and a fellow of The American Academy of Sleep Medicine — suggests that your gut health affects your sleep in a big way, and it has an impact on your mental health, too.
Speaking to the Guardian in 2018, Breus said:
“There is no question in my mind that gut health is linked to sleep health, although we do not have the studies to prove it yet. Scientists investigating the relationship between sleep and the microbiome are finding that the microbial ecosystem may affect sleep and sleep-related physiological functions in a number of different ways: shifting circadian rhythms, altering the body’s sleep-wake cycle, affecting hormones that regulate sleep and wakefulness.”
Gut health can be a little complicated, and that may be the reason why more research is being dedicated to understanding what goes on in our gut than ever before. Healthline explains that “the term 'gut microbiome' refers specifically to the microorganisms living in your intestines” and, in each of our digestive tracts, we can have 300 to 500 different types of bacteria. Some microorganisms are harmful to our gut, and some are crucial to maintaining a happy, healthy body.
The BBC reported that gut bacteria can have a serious influence on how we behave because of the 100 million neurons located there. It is for this reason that some have dubbed the gut the 'second brain.' Dr Davinder Garcha, a medical advisor at Bio-Kult spoke to Harpers Bazaar about the link between gut health and behaviour. She said:
"The friendly bacteria within our gut, known as our gut microbiota, are vitally important to our wellbeing, including our sleep. In fact, they produce hormones and chemical neurotransmitters that help calm and relax us. They also reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol – and we already know how bad stress can be for sleep. So when our microbiota is damaged (for example by antibiotic use or a tummy bug), this can have knock-on effects on our sleep."
If the experts are to be believed, it would seem gut health is pretty fundamental to getting all the rest you need. But how do you improve your gut health? While going to the gym might work out your body, and reading can keep your brain alert, improving your gut health can be as simple as being more conscientious at meal times. Mind Body Green suggests taking probiotics as a really good way to break down and absorb food faster. It also writes that stress can have a serious effect on our gut health and having lots of greens on your plate at meal times is a super positive thing.
You’re taught from a young age that looking after your mind and body is crucial, but I never thought my gut health would be so important. If your sleep schedule is seriously messed up, this might be a good place to start. As always, though, it's worth speaking to your GP about the best course of action for you.