Do you feel like you’re always having to deal with multiple health issues? But having to go to several different specialists takes up so much time, and the medication just masks your symptoms – not to mention that the nasty side effects are no joke!
Maybe you have trouble sleeping, or you wake up without feeling refreshed. Perhaps you always have a morning headache, or have difficulty concentrating. And your digestion hasn’t been good for a while – you feel bloated most days, and worry you’ve developed sensitivity to some of your favorite foods.
What if I told you that your gut and brain are connected, and that your gut could be contributing to your lack of sleep? And that if we look at your health systemically, we might find that you are also dealing with a sleep airway disorder? Everything in your body is linked, and your airway has a surprising effect on your gut – and your gut has a huge influence on your health.
Your Gut-Brain Connection
When you were taught biology at school, you probably came away with the impression that where the brain leads, the body follows. In actuality, your brain plays an important part, but the different systems can signal changes in the brain, too.
Your gut is a sophisticated organ, not only responsible for the breakdown and absorption of food. Incredibly, your gut has neural tissue and neurotransmitters embedded in the walls, that make and release hormones such as serotonin. Your gut microbiome is just as fascinating: the colony of bacteria cells that live in your colon actually outnumber the entirety of your human cells by a factor of 10.
Your gut and brain communicate in two main ways:
- Through the vagus nerve – the longest cranial nerve in your body, which passes from your cranium to your abdomen. The vagus nerve is a information superhighway, communicating both sensory information and movement commands. As it lines such a large section of your body, the vagus nerve has many functions, including the stimulation of the muscles in your heart to make it beat. But the vagus nerve also stimulates the movement of your gut needed in order to digest food.
Your gut also uses the vagus nerve to transmit information up to your brain. The brainstem of the vagus nerve interacts with your hypothalamus and limbic system which interestingly also govern the regulation of your emotions. Studies show that depression and anxiety can often start in the gut.
- Through hormones. Your gut microbiome also has a say in the working of your body and brain, through triggering the release of hormones or producing them. The bacteria can communicate with your nervous system, and certain types affect your production of serotonin. By reducing your serotonin levels, the gut bacteria can interfere with your sleep. Your brain and your guts can enter a vicious circle when it comes to sleep, as poor sleep can have a bad effect on your gut health.
These paths of communication allow for subtle changes in your body, but sometimes the impact of the gut brain connection is more serious, especially regarding your sleep.
8 Ways Your Gut Affects Your Sleep – and Vice Versa
Although modern medicine tends to forget the bigger picture, all of our bodily systems are connected and entwined – nervous, digestive, endocrine, cardiovascular, and so on. While digestion issues or food allergies only appear to affect your toilet habits, they often have a knock on effect, either through your gut’s communications with your brain, or interactions with your immune system.
Your gut and sleep issues interact in the following situations:
- Sleep apnea and other sleep airway disorders can impair your gut microbiome. When your microbiome is less diverse, it can affect production of serotonin and melatonin which affects your ability to sleep. In an animal study this disruption caused inflammation and insulin resistance – precursors to heart disease and diabetes.
- Changes in the microbiome can provoke inflammation in the body and immune system. and go on to affect your ability to sleep.
- The process of dysbiosis, where your gut microbiome is imbalanced or disturbed, can affect the working of your gut, and result in irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), ulcerative colitis, and more.
- If you don’t have a healthy circadian rhythm (through insomnia or poor eating habits), it can badly affect your microbiome.
- Sleep deprivation also increases production of B cells that contributes to the body’s defense system, but excess can increase allergies and asthma. Sleep loss and inflammation are intimately linked. Sleep airway disorders can also provoke your immune system to go on overdrive. Dr. Steven Park points out “…if you have a sleep-breathing problem, your immune system is overly active. And so is your nervous system. This is why your body overreacts to weather changes, certain foods, emotions, pollens, chemicals, and even certain sounds.” Ultimately, a sleep disorder can contribute to food allergy and subsequent gut discomfort.
- Increased levels of cytokines created by your immune system make it harder for you to sleep, as they signal for the release of the stress hormone cortisol. If you have insomnia this can cause a vicious cycle. The impact of stress on the gut is huge – it can trigger IBS.
- When inflammation is provoked by leaky gut (where bacteria is allowed through the gut wall) or other gastrointestinal disorders, sleep disordered breathing can contribute to the inflammation further.
- There is a direct link between a healthy microbiome, good sleep, and good scoring in cognitive ability for older patients. Dysbiosis leads to poor sleep – and poor cognitive abilities.
As you can see, many of these disruptions have a cascading effect, and as such it’s rare to only struggle with one or two of these health concerns. Everything is connected!
How Do I Improve My Sleep and Gut Health?
Because of the way in which your gut health and sleep are entwined, it’s crucial to not just treat your symptoms with sleeping tablets, gastrointestinal medicines, or CPAP machines. I propose treating the underlying causes of your illness, through a change in habit as much as specific solutions.
Consider improving your lifestyle in order to heal your body through your diet. Avoiding processed food and opting for an organic, mostly plant-based diet helps you avoid inflammation of the gut lining. Reducing carbohydrate and sugar consumption ensures your gut microbiome is more balanced, as some of the bad bacteria tend to feed on sugar. Avoid gluten, as it can seriously contribute to leaky gut.
Alter the time of day you eat your evening meal, as eating late at night disturbs the circadian rhythm of your gut microbiome. I recommend eating at least four hours before bedtime, and avoid snacking before you go to sleep.
Supplement with probiotics and prebiotics. Probiotics are healthy bacteria you can use to improve the balance of your microbiome, and can be found in live yogurt, kimchi, and sauerkraut. Prebiotics are a type of food indigestible to you, but they feed the good bacteria in your gut.
Prebiotics can be found in:
- The allium family (onions, garlic etc)
- Oyster mushrooms
- Green tea
- Good quality dark chocolate
Prebiotics have a positive effect on the quality of your non-REM and REM sleep, while a combination of probiotics and prebiotics can improve your metabolism, reducing inflammation.
Target the underlying cause of poor, interrupted sleep. As I explained above, a sleep airway disorder can have an adverse effect on both your gut and immune system. If you start to awaken many times a night, or wake up feeling more tired than when you went to bed, maybe it’s time to get your sleep and airway checked out. Contact an Airway Health dental practitioner in order to be checked over by a sleep airway disorder expert, who pays attention to your body as a whole, not just your mouth and airway.
Using the AirwayCentric® approach we use specialized dental appliances to keep your airway open – transforming your airway to transform your health.
If you’d like to learn more about our AirwayCentric® approach, pick up a copy of GASP!: Airway Health – The Hidden Path To Wellness by Dr. Michael Gelb and Dr. Howard Hindin. If you’re struggling with insomnia or poor sleep in the New York area and suspect disordered breathing is to blame, fill out our contact form, or call to make an appointment with Dr. Gelb on (212) 752-1662.