Insomnia is an ongoing problem for many people. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 50 to 70 million adults in the United States have some form of disordered sleep.
There’s a powerful connection in your body, known as the gut-brain axis, which affects things like your immune system, hormones, brain health, and sleep. Developing science suggests the key to achieving a good night’s sleep may actually reside in your gut.
Our gut microbiome affects the health of our brains in a variety of ways, according to a review paper by Leo Galland, MD, published in the Journal of Medicinal Food:
An imbalance in your gut may lead to systemic inflammation or nervous system inflammation.
In the 2014 review paper, Galland reported that the gut microbiome communicates with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis to form the different stages of sleep you cycle through each night. Certain microbes in your gut can stimulate our body to produce inflammatory substances called cytokines, which create a state of low-grade inflammation in your body or nervous system. Low-grade inflammation also decreases the levels of adrenal outputs, stress hormones, and cortisol and disrupts the intricate balance of the HPA. Essentially, an imbalance in your microbiome can cause an abundance of cytokines in the body, which contributes to disordered sleep.
Gut microbes may produce byproducts that are toxic to the nervous system.
The same study noted that when your microbial ecosystem is in a state of dysbiosis, gut bacteria can produce substances like D-lactic acid and ammonia, which can exert neurotoxic properties and impede the function of the nervous system. Increased levels of neurotoxins may be a factor in diseases like chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, and – you guessed it – conditions like insomnia. In fact, the typical chemical processes that induce sleep can be interrupted when high levels of neurotoxins are present in your brain, even though the problem may stem from your gut.
Your gut bacteria can create and communicate with the hormones and neurotransmitters in your body.
There’s a symbiotic relationship between your gut and your brain by way of the vagus nerve, the longest cranial nerve in your body. The vagus nerve acts as a highway transporting sleep-inducing chemicals like serotonin and gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA) to the brain. When your gut flora is in balance, the transportation system works efficiently, and you’re more likely to fall into a restful slumber.
The microbiome can become impaired, however, by stress, lifestyle choices, and medications. Suddenly, you may have a barrage of bacteria producing stimulating chemicals which can leave you wide-eyed and alert, instead of catching some zzz’s.
Galland concluded that there are ways to foster the comprehensive health of the microbiome and improve the symptoms of sleeplessness and insomnia. For starters, your diet can alter the microbiome’s ability to properly function, so the food you consume may be an integral part of improving your sleep.
“Prebiotics, probiotics, and fermented foods such as yogurt may influence the impact of the gut microbiome on the CNS (central nervous system) and have shown significant effects on brain function in a number of experimental trials and clinical studies,” reported Galland.
Studies like this one get us one step closer to understanding the deep connection between the gut, the brain, and sleep. You may need to make a few lifestyle adjustments to beat insomnia and poor sleep quality, but, in the long run, a better night’s rest will improve your overall health and well-being.
Jenny Lelwica Buttaccio, Guest Blogger
Jenny Lelwica Buttaccio, OTR/L, is a medical, health, and lifestyle writer, and a licensed occupational therapist. Her areas of expertise include health conditions, wellness, and chronic illness management. Her work can be found on several leading publications and on her personal blog, The Lyme Road.