Who has not had a restless night’s sleep? Everyone does on occasion, but for many, it is an increasingly frequent experience. The typical explanation is the unparalleled distractions of our modern lifestyle. We email compulsively, text our friends at all hours, and binge watch TV. Consequently, our sleep suffers. Studies show that the average amount of sleep that Americans currently get has fallen by between 1 and 2 hours each night over the last 60 years. Furthermore, the quality of that sleep has deteriorated. Some research even suggests that our irregular sleep patterns have led to a “dream” deficit that also takes its own individual toll over time.
The crux of the issue is that there are significant health problems associated with sleep disorders that go beyond feeling tired the next day. Chronic sleep deprivation is associated with higher incidences of heart disease, diabetes, weight gain and cancer. Many of us realize this and struggle to make adjustments. We experiment with changing our caffeine or alcohol intake or, in desperation, some turn to sleeping pills.
Most of us know from experience that there is some kind of link between our food intake and our sleep patterns. Sleep can be difficult if we are too full or extremely hungry. Yet our busy lifestyle and the temptations of snack foods continuously get in the way. One thing is clear: A good evening meal with sensible portions improves the prospect of a restful night of sleep.
We have long known that there are two fundamental states of sleep and each is regulated by a different part of the brain. Both are necessary for completely recuperative sleep. We have a sleep cycle, called our “circadian rhythm,” which is regulated by our brain and by metabolic cues governed by liver cells. All of these signals work together in a continuous feedback loop which is commonly called our “circadian clock.” New information adds a significant to factor to that mix. Our gut microbiome has a surprisingly crucial influence on our circadian sleep-wake cycle and our sleep quality. Experiments confirm that when specific microbes in our gut are altered, our fundamental states of sleep are disrupted. This limits our ability to recover from stress and is necessary to protect against neurological diseases such as dementia. To assist in that recovery process, we now understand that our gut microbiome and our own cells form an active feedback loop and our sleep patterns are part of it.
This continuous feedback between our gut and brain significantly modulates our responses to stress. When that feedback is suboptimal, it begins a cycle that leads towards metabolic health disorders such as diabetes. Our sleep-wake cycle is part of this loop. Impaired sleep disrupts our metabolism and contributes to inflammatory states and metabolic diseases, which can, in turn, further disrupt our sleep. When our gut microbiome is off-balance our capacity to achieve restorative sleep is profoundly affected.
Here are four tips to start you on the path to a great night’s sleep:
- Our microbes have internal clocks, just as we do. We are at our best when we find our optimal personal method of synchronizing and adjusting to each other. In effect, if you feed your microbes well, they will treat you right.
- Stick to a firm eating schedule and limit fat content. Both of these factors can improve sleep quality. There is an added benefit. These measures help with weight management, which is also mediated by the gut microbiome.
- Keep calories the same, but make your meals smaller and more frequent. Studies show that this improves sleep quality and metabolic parameters such as blood glucose or serum lipid levels.
- Try adding either prebiotics or probiotics to your diet. These offer your microbial partners the nutrients they need.
When you plan to get a good night’s sleep, you need to think of it as putting your microbes to bed. Feeding them properly is your best chance for normal recuperative sleep in the midst of our hectic modern lives.
Bill Miller, MD, has been a physician in academic and private practice for over 30 years. He is the author of The Microcosm Within: Evolution and Extinction in the Hologenome. For more information, www.themicrocosmwithin.com.