This blog about sleep, mood and gut bacteria was originally published in November 2017. It was updated with more great information in February 2020.
It might surprise you how strongly connected good sleep and gut health are to maintaining good mental wellness.
Sleep well – your gut depends on it. (Eat well – your sleep depends on it.)
As a busy mom of three, I know that getting good, quality sleep is so important. Whether it’s one night of bad sleep because of a sick kid or an injured ankle I had to sleep with propped up for a few weeks, I’m a wreck whenever I go without good rest. I can’t think, I can’t focus, and my mood is all over the place.
I don’t know how I used to function when I had three little ones getting me up in the night, or before that how I use to stay up past midnight every night doing homework or talking with friends.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve become more attuned to how much sleep my body needs and what I can do to get more and better-quality sleep. I know that getting enough sleep, but not too much, is essential to supporting my mental wellness.
What took me time to learn, and what might surprise you, is how strongly connected good sleep and gut health are to maintaining your state of mind.
Sleep and Mental Health
For starters, studies show there are strong relationships between sleep problems and mental illness. The research confirms that if you have one, your chances of having the other increase.
People with mental health issues are more likely to have sleep problems than those without mental health issues.
Studies have found that between 65% and 90% of adults with depression and 50% of adults with anxiety also have sleep issues. There is also a link between difficulty sleeping and weight gain, which I wrote about here.
Another study found that people with insomnia were four times as likely to develop depression than those without insomnia. People with insomnia were also more likely to have anxiety.
And this is the worst part – people with sleep issues are less likely to respond to treatment for depression and PTSD and are more likely to suffer from a return of depressive symptoms.
All of these numbers might sound…well…depressing, but we are all more than just a statistic and there are ways to help ensure you don’t become one.
You may have heard of circadian rhythms. These are patterns of brainwave activity, hormones, cell regeneration and biological activities that occur on a daily basis. For example, our kidneys slow down at night, so we wake up less often to use the bathroom. Digestion also slows down at night.
Sleeping well at the right time each day is essential to keeping the circadian rhythms functioning properly. And when our bodies are function properly, we feel better all around.
Sleep and Gut Health: The chicken or the egg factor
The fact that our gut microbes are the regulators of sleep and that our sleep patterns directly affect our microbes should not surprise us. If your sleep patterns shift or are disrupted, your gut microbes become agitated.
If you’ve been reading my blog for a while you won’t be surprised to hear that the gut biome is related to pretty much everything in the body especially mental and brain health. Our microbes need us to rest so they can do their thing while we sleep and keep their balance.
So, what should you do? Should you work on sleeping better to help the microbes or should you work on your gut health to help you sleep better? The answer is to do both. There are a number of strategies that can help.
Circadian rhythms, sleep and stress.
Cortisol is one hormone that is part of your circadian rhythms. Under normal (non-stressed) conditions, cortisol levels increase before waking and slowly drop during the day.
And this pattern makes sense because we know that cortisol helps increase mental clarity as well as blood sugar to fuel your muscles. Both mental clarity and fuel for our muscles are most important when we are awake.
But we also need the effect of the cortisol to “wear off” by the end of the day so we can start getting tired and relaxed enough to get a good night’s sleep. In other words, in the evenings, we want to focus on resting and digesting.
But, when we are under stress, our cortisol levels stay high and may not decrease enough in the evening to support good sleep.
How to reset your circadian rhythm.
Go to bed at a set time and get up at the same time as much as possible – this means not sleeping in too late on the weekends
- Avoid bright lights near bedtime
- Avoid eating or exercising close to bedtime
- Sleep in dark space – too much light tricks the body into thinking it is time to be awake
- Develop a relaxing routine before bed whether it is taking a bath, doing deep breathing exercises or having a nice cup of herbal tea such as chamomile or valerian.
- For those who have irregular work and therefore, sleep schedules, consider talking to a practitioner about taking melatonin.
Support your sleep through diet.
Diet also plays a role in the relationship between sleep and the gut biome. In a study with mice, both high fat and low-fat diets played a negative role in the function of circadian rhythms and they also altered the microbiome.
In both cases, short-chain fatty acid production was lower, especially butyrate which is essential for circadian rhythm function. Butyrate is produced by beneficial colon bacteria from resistant starch found in complex carbohydrates such as potatoes, wheat, rice, legumes and sweet potatoes.
Ways to improve gut health:
- Eat prebiotic foods that feed gut bacteria like asparagus, green bananas (they only need to be slightly green), onions and garlic, beans and legumes, artichokes and apples.
- Eat foods with resistant starch like oats, rice, beans and legumes, green bananas, potatoes and sweet potatoes.
- Take probiotics that can help melatonin levels which can, in turn, help restore circadian rhythms.
- Butyrate supplements are available if you are unsure as to how well you are producing it.
Disturbed sleep is one more example of the potential problems caused by digestive disturbances that can affect our mental health. This relationship provides another reason why we should be focused on improving our gut health so we can have more energy and feel better.
Reduce stress to improve sleep and gut health
I’d love to help you manage your stress better so that you can reduce your cortisol levels, reset your circadian rhythms, and support your gut health. And you can do all three at once by reducing stress! There are really two main strategies to go about reducing your stress.
First off, you can reduce the amount of stress put on you by re-balancing some demands. Try:
- Saying “no”;
- Getting more support;
- Delegating to someone else;
- Re-negotiating deadlines that seem unreasonable;
- When working, focus on just one thing at a time (don’t multi-task).
Secondly, since you can’t completely remove stress from your life, you want to learn to deal with it better. You can improve your personal stress tolerance by trying practice self-care on a daily basis.
If you don’t think you have the time, or you aren’t sure how to practice self-care, you can download 60 Second Mood Boosters: Self-Care Cards for Moms on the Go. These cards will provide you with lots of quick and easy ways to improve your nutrition and reduce stress so you can get a good sleep and start feeling better.
Get more strategies to improve your sleep
in my interview with Sleep Coach Lana Walsh
Bergland, C. (2013). Cortisol: Why the “Stress Hormone” Is Public Enemy No. 1. Psychologytoday.com. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/the-athletes-way/201301/cortisol-why-the-stress-hormone-is-public-enemy-no-1
Circadian Disorganization Alters Intestinal Microbiota, Robin M. Voigt,1 et al, PLoS One. 2014; 9(5): e97500.
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