Lauren is a board-certified adult-gerontology primary care nurse practitioner. Lauren has done NP clinical practicums focusing on the adolescent, adult, and geriatric populations in internal medicine, long-term care, and in outpatient oncology/bone marrow transplant. Lauren received a BA from Assumption University, a BSN from Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, and her MS in Nursing from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. She is certified by the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners (AANP).

Your gut is more than just your body’s natural waste system. It is a system of organs that keeps the body safe from the dangerous bacteria, viruses, and fungi that can take root in the body and cause severe health issues. It also works in conjunction with the nerves and hormones to communicate with the brain. 

A healthy gut has also been proven to positively affect other critical parts of the body, including your immune system and mental health, while also safeguarding against autoimmune diseases, endocrine disorders, skin conditions, and even cancer. Few people realize the impact that gut health has not just on health, but your sleep, as well. 

When you feel it in your gut, it might be time to take action about your health. This is what you need to know about gut health and the gut-sleep connection so you can rest better and enjoy improved health.

Why is Gut Health so Important for Sleep?

With the help of your body’s natural gut microbiome, the natural bacteria and microorganisms within your body work to counteract harmful bacteria. Though there are good types of microorganisms and bad types. Some live naturally within the body, fighting disease, while others prey on healthy systems. According to Healthline, your body holds up to 500 different types of biological species of bacteria that work quietly behind the scenes to fight off viruses and other harmful bacteria that can affect your health. Collectively, these microorganisms are called gut flora

It’s critical that our bodies maintain a proper balance of microorganisms, or dysbiosis may occur. Also known as gut microbiota dysbiosis, intestinal or gastrointestinal dysbiosis refers to an imbalance of microorganisms in or on the body. When dysbiosis is present in the body, it often leads to immunity and digestion-related issues. However, there are some things you can do to enhance your body’s natural gut microbiome and improve overall gut health. 

One major factor is your diet. Studies show that the Standard American Diet, also referred to as the Western Diet, is full of over-processed foods and additives that fail to provide the body with sufficient nutrients. Unable to function properly, the body is now susceptible to serious health conditions, such as inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, obesity, atopic eczema, rheumatoid arthritis, and Type 2 Diabetes. By adopting a healthier diet, you can improve your gut health and enjoy better digestion, improved metabolism, and increased weight management. 

Sleep is another critical area for gut health.

The Gut-Brain Axis

New studies out of Japan suggest that the connection between gut health and the mind is so strong that it can actually impact our sleep each night. 

Lead researcher Professor Masashi Yanagisawa of the University of Tsukuba explains, “We found that microbe depletion eliminated serotonin in the gut, and we know that serotonin levels in the brain can affect sleep-wake cycles. Thus, changing which microbes are in the gut by altering diet has the potential to help those who have trouble sleeping.”

Our sleep cycles are regulated by several factors that tell the body when it’s time to sleep, such as the body’s natural circadian rhythm and even mealtimes. As Professor Yanagisawa shares, changes to your diet can upset your gut’s natural balance, thereby disrupting the natural sleep-wake cycle that regulates our sleep. 

How Your Diet Affects Your Body’s Crucial Neurotransmitters 

A healthy microbiome with the right level of neurotransmitters can help you achieve regular rest. For optimal microbiome health, there must be the presence of several critical neurotransmitters that affect our sleep, such as these.

  • Dopamine: Dopamine is a natural transmitter created by the body and used to send messages back and forth between your nerve cells. It is also what helps us think, learn, process, and feel pleasure.  
  • Serotonin: Serotonin is a mood-stabilizing hormone that also sends signals between your nerve cells. It focuses more on emotional effects by fighting depression and reducing anxiety while also helping healing within the body. 
  • GABA: Considered an inhibitory neurotransmitter, gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a natural amino acid that, when attached to GABA receptors in the brain, can not only prevent seizures but also help prevent negative feelings of anxiety, stress, and fear.
  • Melatonin: This hormone reacts to darkness, regulating your internal clock. That way, the body knows when to be active and when to rest. 

Your diet can have an enormous impact on the levels of these neurotransmitters within the body. For example, serotonin is found mostly within your stomach and intestines, which is where gut health again becomes so important. 

Without a healthy microbiome, you can suffer from unhealthy levels of these neurotransmitters, thus severely impacting your ability to feel, think, and function. With the disruption to the body’s natural circadian rhythm, insomnia can easily follow. 

Signs and Symptoms of Poor Gut Health

According to John Hopkins Medicine, about 15% of Westerners experience irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a severe form of gut sensitivity. That is just one symptom of poor gut health. In addition to potential mood disorders, poor gut health can also cause several other symptoms, such as these:

  • Upset stomach: An unhealthy gut can show itself in a series of symptoms such as gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, heartburn, and abdominal pain. 
  • Unintentional weight gain: If you notice sudden weight gain, that could be a sign of gut issues, especially when you have not made any significant changes to your diet or exercise routine. When the gut has an imbalance, it cannot absorb the right nutrients and maintain proper function. This can lead to unhealthy levels of blood sugar and fat.
  • Sleep disturbances or chronic fatigue: With most serotonin produced in the gut, poor gut health can easily cause sleep diseases, such as insomnia and chronic fatigue. Poor sleep health can also result in fibromyalgia.
  • Skin irritation: An inflamed gut can also affect your skin, with the increase in proteins irritating and inflaming the skin. This can lead to eczema and other skin disorders.
  • Autoimmune conditions: Studies are increasingly showing evidence of a direct link between gut health and your immune system. Over time, it can cause systemic inflammation that leaves the body vulnerable to more serious autoimmune diseases.
  • Food intolerances: A diet high in sugar or lots of processed foods are difficult for the body to digest. They can quickly eat away the good bacteria you need in your body to maintain healthy function. 

However, just because you have gut issues doesn’t mean that you are destined to have poor health forever. Some minor lifestyle changes can make an enormous difference in your long-term health. 

Lifestyle Changes To Support Your Gut Health for Better Sleep 

Maintaining a healthy gut can be easy with a few lifestyle changes that can quickly pay off over time.  

Optimize Your Diet 

A critical part of maintaining a healthy, balanced diet is ensuring that you eat enough whole foods instead of added processed sugar, excess fat, and salt. Additives and processed foods often lose most of their nutrition value, so sticking to more natural foods will give your body the nutrients and healthy bacteria that it needs. This means plenty of fruits and vegetables. A healthy diet should also skip refined carbohydrates like white bread, rice, and pasta and instead opt for whole grains.

This trusty guide can help you make better decisions at mealtimes.

Replace these…With these…
White rice
White bread
PastaFried foods
Red meat
Regular, high-sugar peanut butter

Brown rice
Whole Wheat  bread
Leafy greens (spinach, kale, collards)
Lean proteins (white meat chicken, turkey, fish) 
Legumes (beans, peas, lentils)
Powdered peanut butter
Avocado

All of these foods help promote healthier digestion and, in turn, help create a healthier gut.

Supplementation 

In addition to a healthy diet, some supplements can help you improve your gut health. These supplements can give your regular diet an extra boost to reinforce your gut health.

  • Prebiotics: These are a kind of dietary fiber that promotes healthy bacteria in your gut. To better support your body’s microbiome, infuse your diet with prebiotics, like garlic, onion, leeks, chicory root, dandelion, and Jerusalem artichoke, also known as sunchoke. 
  • Probiotics: These contain a good kind of living organism that helps improve digestion, relieve indigestion, and even help reduce IBS symptoms.
  • Fiber: Fiber has been proven to enhance the production of healthy bacteria in the body. In addition to promoting a healthier gut and better sleep, fiber can also prevent allergies, arthritis, and Type 2 Diabetes.
  • Collagen: A leaky gut can happen when toxins and infectious material move beyond the intestine and into the bloodstream. This can cause chronic inflammation over time, but several studies point to collagen as a natural aid that can stop the leak by stimulating healthy tissue growth.

Fermented Foods

Fermented foods like kimchi are excellent for gut health because they can retain their probiotics. These foods provide the body with essential bacteria and yeast that break down harmful sugars before they have a chance to damage the body. Fermentation better preserves food in its natural forms, so important nutrients and bacteria that the body needs are not lost before consumption. Therefore, a well-rounded diet with fermented foods can lead not only to improved digestion but also to improved weight management and a stronger immune system. 

  • Kimchi: Important nutrients are often lost in the cooking process, but that is not the case with kimchi, which is packed full of probiotics.
  • Apple Cider Vinegar: Apple cider vinegar has many medical benefits, including improving your gut health. Made of both bacteria and yeast, it supplies the body with increased acidity to fight infection and inflammation while improving overall digestion.  
  • Greek Yogurt: In addition to serving as an excellent source of calcium for bone health, greek yogurt is also rich in probiotics to strengthen your digestive tract.
  • Kefir: A tart drink similar to yogurt, kefir has even more probiotics than regular yogurt to soothe an upset stomach and improve digestive health.

Practice Healthy Stress Management

We all know the connection between stress and sleep, but stress impacts your gut health, too. It interferes with the communication between your gut and the rest of the body, creating confusion and preventing your body from functioning properly. With the gut also affecting your mood, it is an endless cycle of stress that can easily lead to poor sleep and other health issues within the body.

To practice healthy stress management in your life, consider some minor changes that can make a huge difference.

  1. Eat slowly and intentionally: Eating quickly can interfere with portion control, causing you to eat more. When you eat slower, you give your body a chance to digest your food and fully process nutrients.
  2. Stay hydrated: Water helps wash away harmful toxins in the body, so there is a better balance of good bacteria in the gut.  
  3. Avoid substances: Substances like nicotine and alcohol can interfere with your body’s microbiome, so limit the use of these substances or, better yet, avoid them altogether.

How to Cope with Stomach Discomfort During Sleep

When you suffer from gut irritation or pain, it can be tough to sleep. Chronic bloating, gas, and heartburn can keep you tossing and turning long into the night, but there are some things you can do to alleviate your discomfort so you can sleep better.

  1. Don’t eat before bed: Big meals before bedtime can keep you up late at night, with the body busy at work digesting your food rather than winding down for rest. Be sure to eat your last meal a few hours before bed and stick to healthy snacks if you get hungry before you go to sleep.  
  2. Side sleeping: Side sleepers should invest in a firm mattress and pillows to support the body while sleeping.  According to the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology, sleeping on your left side helps prevent acid reflux by helping your stomach digest food more easily. 
  3. Sleeping on your back: Back sleepers benefit from less pressure on the body, with many enjoying reduced pain and improved acid reflux management.
  4. Avoid stomach sleeping: This is not typically recommended by experts, as it can put added stress on your back and neck. Instead, consider sleeping on your back.
  5. Invest in a new mattress: No matter how you sleep, it may not matter if you sleep on a worn, bumpy mattress. Consider investing in a new mattress to improve your sleep each night and, in turn, your overall health. You don’t have to spend a fortune, either, with several affordable options for the best mattresses

Final Thoughts

Your gut is responsible for far more than just intuition or a “gut feeling.” It is an integral part of your body’s overall operations, reducing bad bacteria and filtering out toxins that can harm the body. When you have a healthy gut, you can sleep better, reduce stress, and enjoy better health. It does not have to be difficult, either. Maintaining a healthy diet, promoting a regular sleep schedule, and introducing the use of supplements are all ways to keep your gut happy so you can benefit from better health, not just today but tomorrow and the day after, too.