The connection between food and sleep is pretty well-known. Even if you haven't dived into the hard science of how different foods (and when you eat them) affect your sleep quality, you probably know quite a bit.
The tryptophan in turkey can you sleepy, especially combined with Thanksgiving Day carbs.
Coffee late at night can wreck your sleep quality.
Having spicy food late at night can keep you up with heartburn or give you some strange dreams.
But all of these examples — and a lot of what people know about the food-sleep connection — is one-sided: it's all about how food impacts your night. But it turns out that sleep can turn around and affect your stomach. Specifically, your microbiome.
What's a microbiome?
Your microbiome, or your gut bacteria, is all of the communities of bacteria and microorganisms in your digestive system (and your body in general). The genetic makeup of the microbiome should be diverse: healthy types of microorganisms can regulate functions in your body ranging from digestion to hormones and even happiness.
However, unhealthy microorganisms or unhealthy balances of microorganisms can affect you, too. Since your microbiome can perform or manage a lot of cellular activity, many scientists consider microorganisms to be akin to a whole organ by itself.
Its genetic makeup is continually changing as different types of bacteria are introduced to the microbiome, thrive, or die off completely. The dynamic composition can include up to 1,000 types of bacteria, and getting a varied population of bacteria is essential. While most research into the microbiome has focused on bacteria, other microorganisms in the system include archaea, fungi, and viruses.
Similar to other organs in your body, poor sleep, stress, and a host of other factors can impact its health. In turn, its excellent performance or poor functioning can affect your whole body.
How does sleep affect your microbiome (for good or for ill)?
When you sleep at night, your body does a lot of resetting. It transcribes some of your memories for long-term, more accessible storage. It can take advantage of the pause in activity to repair broken or worn tissue. It also slows down your digestive system.
Regularly missing out on sleep, or even just shifting your sleep schedule because of jet lag or a new job, can change the bacterial community in your system. This is because certain bacteria will die off due to your prolonged wakefulness or because of stress on your system. Even just a small shift, based on this sleep study with mice, increased tissue inflammation. Prolonged disruption to your circadian rhythm (like we get from being exposed to electronics with blue light too late at night) is even worse.
While there's still more studying to be done, especially about why certain bacteria continue to thrive and others die out when we don't sleep well, there's a lot of science saying that even short-term disruptions can upset the balance. Even two nights of poor sleep can change the microbiome for the worse.
What can you do about it?
There's all this bad news, and the apparent solution is the only one: get more (consistent) sleep. Unfortunately, there's no shortcut around your body's demand for rest. If you have less time than you like to go home and get some shut-eye, all the research in the world can't change your work schedule or your other responsibilities.
But there are some changes you can try out to make sure that, when you can sleep, you sleep better:
- Keep your electronics away from your bed. It's even better if you avoid blue light entirely for one hour or two before bed. But if that's hard to do, at least maintain a strict 'no browsing in bed' policy. This will also help train your brain to see your bed as a place for sleeping and winding down.
- Don't change your schedule when you get free time. When the weekend hits, it's definitely time to party — but not late into the night. Try to stick close to your regular bedtime. The consistency helps keep your microbiome in better shape. If you can swing it, it's even better to go to bed a bit earlier and avoid sleeping in.
- Make your bedroom perfectly equipped to get good sleep. Everything in your bedroom impacts the quality of your sleep. The curtains, the lighting, the ventilation, and humidity — all of it comes together to decide how deeply you can sleep. Arranging your bedroom with cool air, thick curtains, and comfortable bedding can make even too-few hours as restful as possible.
What does your microbiome do for your sleep schedule?
It all comes back full circle. Sleep can impact your gut bacteria, and your gut bacteria will influence everything else. That includes sleep, which means taking the wrong step can send you on a spiral of poor rest and microbiome with little variation.
But that also means making a positive change can send that spiral upward. If fixing your sleep quality is a work in progress or you want to attack the problem from the other side, here's what you need to know about your microbiome's power over your sleep:
- Changes in the bacterial makeup of your microbiome change your hormones. The hormones that control your sleep-wake schedule will also change. So it's not just that eating vinegar chips right before bed can keep you up. It's that too much vinegar can negatively impact the diversity of bacteria keeping your hormones operating correctly.
- Your brain isn't the only thing controlling the release of dopamine and serotonin. While they may be called neurotransmitters, your intestines are what initially signal the release of those chemicals. Without a well-regulated release of these chemicals, your body can undergo stress and you can feel anxious. That, in turn, results in restless sleep, difficulty falling asleep, and poor sleep quality.
Eating a healthy diet isn't a replacement for good sleep, and good sleep can't entirely fix a poor diet. But focusing on both angles can help make up for the unavoidable rush of daily life.
Read more sleep and lifestyle tips on our blog or contact us to see how else you can start getting a more comfortable, restful sleep.