Your gut needs you to sleep
Body systems work synergistically, so a sleep-deprived, imbalanced gut can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.
“Sleep deprivation can reduce the effectiveness of how the gut operates and digests. This can lead to bloating, gas, and constipation and can also affect how sensitive a person is to food,” says Tamzin Morley, a naturopathic doctor.
Lack of sleep can cause an increase in pro-inflammatory molecules called cytokines, and it can also reduce the amount of beneficial anti-inflammatory short-chain fatty acids and bile acids.
Plus, sleep deprivation often draws us to all the wrong foods with a seemingly insatiable appetite, due to an increase in ghrelin (the hunger hormone) and a decrease in leptin (the satiety hormone).
The effects are amplified by the fact that sleep deprivation also reduces insulin sensitivity. The latter can happen after a couple of nights of poor quality or reduced sleep time.
How poor sleep affects gut health
Getting too little sleep or experiencing fragmented sleep can result in dysbiosis and the overgrowth of certain bacteria, which can ultimately lead to an increased risk of metabolic imbalance, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.
Changes in the microbiome can happen within 48 hours of insufficient sleep, so if you’re occasionally sleeping less on the weekend, make sure to support your gut with fiber-rich whole foods.
While dysbiosis is the general term for the imbalance caused by a myriad of factors such as aging, lack of exercise, an unhealthy diet, and, yes, sleep deprivation, the cascading effects are similar. Dysbiosis increases gut inflammation and can lead to a condition called “leaky gut,” where the gut lining becomes permeable to bacteria fragments and metabolites.
And poor gut health affects sleep
The connection between gut health and sleep goes deeper yet, as it seems that poor sleep may be a consequence of digestive conditions, such as microbiome alterations, gastroesophageal reflux, inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, and liver or pancreatic diseases.
But there is a silver lining, too, especially for those who have few choices due to job or life requirements. The impact of sleep deprivation on the gut is amplified by diets high in fat and sugar. Choose kale chips over ultraprocessed foods, and reduce grazing to allow your digestive system to rest.
The cortisol connection
Take a deep breath: this will also help engage the parasympathetic nervous system, since lack of sleep presents with yet another problematic (and compounded) issue. “Sleep deprivation can increase the amount of cortisol produced, which can lead to weight gain,” says Morley.
Our levels of cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone, are lowest when we go to bed and increase when we get up. Being sleep deprived keeps cortisol levels elevated, and yes, this will cause reduced sleep quality and affect our ability to get restorative, deep sleep.
Sleeping through the ages
Youthfulness comes with perks, including the ability to get restorative sleep, which lowers the risk of metabolic imbalances and gut disturbances. However, about two thirds of American high school students actually don’t get enough sleep.
With research linking poor sleep quality to insulin resistance in youth, ensuring adequate shut-eye may help prevent type 2 diabetes onset among youth, along with other lifestyle measures like following healthy nutrition habits and getting enough physical activity.
As for those who aren’t kids anymore, in adult life, with the many responsibilities (and distractions) that come with it, sleep often takes lower priority, which can affect well-being and increase the risk of chronic illness. Approximately 43 percent of men and 55 percent of women between the ages of 18 and 64 report having trouble falling and staying asleep.
Sleep quality can decrease with age, which can further accentuate digestion issues.
“The production of hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes decreases as we age, which makes digestion more difficult. Also, there are physiological age-related changes in the gut microbiome,” Morley says. These changes can lead to decreased absorption of nutrients, so make sure to consume a variety of nutritious whole foods daily.
Bottom line: prioritize sleep
Think of sleep as one of the highest return investments in your long-term health, and make seven to nine hours a night non-negotiable.
Start making changes today, no matter how small, toward better sleep. You and your trillions of gut bugs will be healthier and happier for it.
Women can have a 40 percent increased risk of insomnia due to fluctuating hormones during the menstrual cycle, as well as during pregnancy, postpartum, perimenopause, and menopause.
Men —through aging and sleep deprivation—can experience decreased testosterone levels, which can, in turn, affect sleep quality.
People in higher-income households are more likely to get the recommended hours of sleep.
Factors that interfere with quality sleep
- heavy dinners
- caffeine late in the day (past 2 pm)
- nightcaps (alcohol may cause lethargy, but sleep quality will suffer)
- blue light (yes, digital screens)
- activities that increase cortisol levels (intense physical training, stress—both acute and chronic)
Try this to improve sleep
- Keep your bedroom cool.
- Get exposure to natural light upon waking.
- Drink a calming herbal tea after dinner (peppermint, chamomile, lemon balm).
- Consume fermented foods like yogurt daily, or try a probiotic supplement to boost beneficial gut bacteria.
- passion flower
However, says Tamzin Morley, ND, “These supports need to be considered based on every patient’s needs.” She recommends consulting your natural health practitioner for the best course of action.