Exciting new discoveries about the health benefits of sleep (and the impacts of not getting enough) just keep on coming. But the most significant finding of all could be the emerging connection between the quality of our sleep and the health of our gut.
We already know a lack of sleep can increase our risk of obesity, weight gain and type 2 diabetes. Sleep disruption also negatively affects our appetite and insulin sensitivity. But sleep researchers are now exploring how sleep impacts our gut microbiome—and vice versa.
How sleep affects gut health
Recent research has shown that losing sleep may have a negative effect on the health and diversity of the microbes residing in our guts. So, given that microbial diversity is one of the key indicators for good health—a lack of sleep could be costly. Other studies suggest that our gut microbes may actually influence how well we sleep, too. For instance, it has been discovered that our gut microbes have their own internal clocks or circadian rhythms and these rhythms appear to have an effect on the sleep-wake cycles of their human hosts.
Another study found that beneficial gut microbes may also help to protect us from the effects of stress—which as we know, contributes to poor sleep. The study found that a diet rich in prebiotics (for example, the insoluble fibres found in onions, leeks, artichokes and other fibrous vegetables) feeds our microbes which in turn, helps to regulate our stress response and possibly improves our sleep quality as a result. On the flip side, the researchers discovered that even short-term exposure to stress can alter the balance of our gut microbes.
It’s important to note too, that the beneficial bacteria in our gut can also boost our body’s supply of melatonin—our sleep hormone—helping to maintain and support our body’s natural sleep cycles. Given that melatonin has the ability to help protect the gut from stress-induced lesions, getting enough sleep is integral to not only our gut health, but overall wellbeing as well.
It’s no wonder then that experts agree that taking care of your gut health may just be one of the most supportive sleep habits of all.
How to cultivate better gut health
To improve your gut health as well as your sleep quality, it’s important to first address what you’re putting on your plate. Begin by eating a diverse range of low human intervention foods—unprocessed, wholefoods, as close to their natural state as possible. Think high fibre, prebiotic plant foods such as fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, pulses, legumes and plenty of probiotic-rich lacto-fermented foods such as full-fat yoghurt, miso, sauerkraut and kimchi.
At the same time, try to avoid processed foods, refined sugars, pesticides and unnecessary antibiotics which can all have a detrimental effect on the health and diversity of your microbes.
And, to supercharge the effects of your healthy diet—indulge in daily exercise, which has also been shown to improve the quality of your sleep and change the composition of your gut microbiome.