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Sleep Problems and Your Gut

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Sleeping is fundamental to our wellbeing and health, and I have my own experiences with sleep and health. In 2001 when my daughter Holli was born eight weeks early and weighed in at four pounds, I was a woman on a mission to help her. Babies born this early don’t get the mom’s immunities and Holli was no exception. The doctors and nurses scared me to death telling me what could happen to her lungs if she was to get something as simple as a cold. It could damage her lungs permanently and one of the only ways to give her immunities was to get them from me, through nursing. I already had planned to do this, but there was a problem . . .

Holli could only eat about two ounces of milk at a time, and nursing would tire her out pretty quickly, so I had to feed her every two hours around the clock to get her to gain weight. If she didn’t take all her feedings, the nurses would have to tube feed her and then she would have to stay in the hospital until she took all her feedings from me. So pretty much I didn’t sleep for three weeks. I just fed her around the clock. I was desperate to get her home and somehow I found a way to accomplish the task; but I barely slept, and it took a toll on me. This was right before I found cultured foods, and the lack of sleep was devastating to my body. I was desperate to keep her safe and healthy, but then I developed health problems and I believe that a lot of them were due to the lack of sleep I received. They sent out a nurse every week to my home to make sure Holli was doing okay. Preemies can spiral down quickly and they stressed to me how I should feed her every two hours, even if I had to wake her up, to keep her gaining weight. A thought kept nagging at me during those long months of little sleep. What if I let myself and Holli sleep longer. I think we were both sleep deprived; so one day I let Holli sleep five hours and then fed her longer, and she ate twice as much (I weighed her on a scale before and after feedings) and lo and behold she started to gain more weight and we both felt better. Shortly after this, I found cultured foods and then everything changed for the better.

Microbes and Sleep

Gut and Hormones

Later on in my life, as I got into perimenopause, I had new sleep problems and that was a whole new ball of wax. So I started seeking answers.  Once again, it was the 100 trillion microbes that reside within me that gave me the answers.

What’s going on in your gut greatly influences how and when you sleep. Your gut has over thirty types of neurotransmitters (like the ones found in your brain). The gut also contains 100 million neurons, which is higher than the amount found in our spinal cord! And those transmitters that have brain-like properties make at least 95% of our serotonin – an important neurotransmitter for sleep and cognitive function. Serotonin does many things for you throughout the day. They call it the “joy hormone” and many antidepressant drugs target serotonin. But serotonin also controls your body clock and sleep cycles. The body’s ability to make serotonin depends on many things such as the types of microbes in our gut, the foods we eat, and how much natural light and exercise we get.

Melatonin is a hormone that helps make us feel sleepy at night. It was thought that only the pineal gland made melatonin, but they have also found that the gut produces 400 times more melatonin than the pineal gland. Even if the pineal gland is removed, melatonin stays stable. And they have recently found that low levels of melatonin have been linked to leaky gut and IBS. So much happens in the gut that we are unaware of and taking care of what you put in the gut changes not only your waking hours but your sleeping hours too

The Vagus Nerve

What is the vagus nerve? The name “vagus” comes from the Latin term for “wandering.” The vagus nerve wanders from the brain into organs in the neck, chest, and abdomen. This nerve has two bunches of sensory nerve cell bodies, and it connects 90% of the neural fibers which transmit information from your gut to your brain. Essentially it is part of a long circuit that links the neck, heart, lungs, and the abdomen to the brain. It does so many things and is why I think the quote from the famous physician Hippocrates is so telling: ”All disease begins in the gut.”

Your gut bacteria can reduce serotonin levels from lack of sleep and other key hormones can change, such as melatonin, GABA, and dopamine. These all play a role in our mood and ability to sleep. The bacteria life within our bodies is in a constant state of flux, with microbes constantly being generated and dying every day. Some of this dying and renewal naturally occurs during sleep. Fifty percent of your detoxification comes through your gut and not your liver. What’s going on inside your gut can greatly affect your sleep.

There is some pretty fascinating research connecting the gut microbiome to circadian rhythms,  1 the 24-hour biological rhythms that regulate sleep and wake cycles. A growing number of studies now suggest that the vast and diverse microbial ecosystem of the gut has its own daily rhythms.

Studies on Gut and sleep

One such study was done in Japan  on a group of 100 fourth-year medical students who were preparing to take a national qualification exam for promotion to the next level. The study divided the students into two groups. For eight weeks prior to the exam, and three weeks after, one group drank a placebo beverage every day, while the other group drank a probiotic beverage containing the bacteria Lactobacillus casei. This bacteria is one of the beneficial bacteria found naturally in the human microbiome. It’s also found in kefir and some yogurts.

Both groups began to feel stress and anxiety as exam day approached. The placebo group began to experience problems with sleeping. They spent longer times getting to sleep and less time in the deep slow wave sleep that is most replenishing to the body.

The group taking Lactobacillus casei had a different experience. They too had stress levels rise prior to the exam, but they didn’t suffer the sleep problems that the placebo group experienced. In contrast, they didn’t have problems falling asleep, experienced deep slow wave sleep, and felt more rested and ready for the day than the placebo group. This study concluded that consuming the probiotic Lactobacillus casei may have helped protect the students’ sleep during an otherwise stressful time.

The rhythms of gut microbes are greatly affected by diet. What you eat and when you eat affects how strong and healthy your microbiome becomes and how well you sleep. A recent study 4 using rats found that eating a healthy diet full of fiber (food for bacteria in your gut) generated more beneficial gut microbes, and that the activity of microbial life in the gut followed a daily healthy rhythm with better sleep patterns and more hormonal balance.

What I Do

So here is what has personally made all the difference in helping me sleep like a baby. I was just in New York for a class and had a three hour time change. I found that the way to get back to normal sleeping was all dependent on how much kefir, kombucha, and fiber I consumed. One-half cup of kefir, if taken at bedtime, reduces cortisol that can come from perimenopause, menopause, or just good old stress. If you have high levels of cortisol at night, which happens to a lot of people, then you need to bring this down so your body can sleep and make melatonin and GABA that will relax you and allow you to sleep. Trust me, I know about this one. Kombucha helps my liver and having some kombucha sometime during the day greatly helps my liver to reduce the extra hormones that are circulating throughout my body. Having lots of fiber is also a way to feed my microbiome and allow those good guy microbes to grow and flourish. Remember, fiber is food for your microbes which are constantly being generated and dying every day. Some of this dying and renewal naturally occurs during sleep, so adding a few of these foods can greatly assist your body. These foods have helped me sleep in times when I normally wouldn’t be able to sleep.

Check it out for yourself  – nourish your microbiome and see what happens. It’s amazing what these trillions of microbes that live inside of us can do. Take care of them and then watch them take care of you.

How to Make Kefir

How to Make Kombucha

More About Prebiotics

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