Insomnia and poor sleep are some of the most common problems that I see among new patients. People are busy, stressed, and up late watching blue light emitting screens. They think that last episode of whatever show they are watching, while drinking a glass of wine, will help them to sleep better; in reality, both actions are doing the opposite.
This is a relatively new problem. It the 1940’s, Americans slept an average of 8 hours per night. Now we are down to 6.8 hours per night. This is significantly below the recommended minimum of 7-9 hours. Worst yet, the CDC estimates that 40% of Americans are getting a dismal 6 hours of sleep or less, creating a sleep deficit that has been shown to cause cognitive impairment, mood swings, anxiety, depression, and lead to overeating and weight gain.
How many hours are you sleeping per night?
The way people react when I tell them that we are going to have to work on their sleep, is interesting. Usually, I am greeted with staunch resistance, even though EVERYONE that is not getting enough sleep, wants to get more. They resist because they feel like sleep is not a habit that they can change. Yes, they think, I can eat more broccoli and cut back on sugar. No, I literally cannot sleep through the night without waking up at 3am!
Unfortunately, I would have to say, that in a way they are right. There is no on-off switch for a good night’s sleep. However, there are many habits around sleep, that we can change or modify, that can have a major impact on the hormones that control our sleep/wake cycles and ultimately our ability to sleep and sleep well through the night.
Over time, you can train your body to sleep more and to sleep better.
You probably already know that getting to bed at a decent time, is an important component of good sleep hygiene. You may also know that those blue rays emitted by your screens and that night cap are doing you no favors. But did you know that the health of your gut also plays a role in your sleep? I find that most people respond with some degree of shock and disbelief when I share this little tidbit.
Yes, the microbes in your gut impact your sleep!
This should not be such a surprise. There are literally trillions of microbes living in our gut, some good, some bad, and ALL ACTIVE. They do not sit around minding their own business. Rather, they have a significant impact on the body, contributing to or detracting from overall health through a wide variety of mechanisms.
In the West, we are finally starting to respect and appreciate the fact that the body is not made up of a bunch of isolated systems. The gut does not operate in a silo. The brain does not operate in a silo, We even have a name of this; it is called the Gut Brain Connection (GBC). The GBC is a two-way street. The gut communicates with the brain via hormones and neurotransmitters that are produced by or triggered to be released by gut microbes. In fact, about 95% of our serotonin is produced by gut microbes.
Serotonin is kind of an important hormone….
“Serotonin is the key hormone that stabilizes our mood, feelings of well-being, and happiness. This hormone impacts your entire body. It enables brain cells and other nervous system cells to communicate with each other. Serotonin also helps with sleeping, eating, and digestion.” (1.)
LET ME JUST EMPHASIZE: SEROTONIN IS OUR WELL-BEING AND HAPPINESS HORMONE. IT ALSO PLAYS A CRITICAL ROLE IN OUR ABILITY TO GET A GOOD NIGHTS’ SLEEP. WE DEFINITELY WANT TO BE PRODUCING ADEQUATE AMOUNTS OF SEROTONIN.
The brain also communicates regularly to the gut. Like I said, it’s a two-way street. This is accomplished via the Vagus nerve. This nerve is super important. It is a major component of the parasympathetic nervous system and impacts a large range of organ systems in the body, like the heart and lungs. It also impacts the gut by stimulating gastric emptying and peristaltic movement. Without the Vagus nerve, food would just sit and rot in our gut, a condition known as gastroparesis.
And while we do not have a large body of research to reference regarding the impact of sleep on the microbiome, one study conducted with a group of healthy male test subjects, is worth considering. In this study, researchers divided up the group and subjected half of the participants to sleep deprivation, while the other half were allowed 8 hours of sleep per night. The sleep deprived subjects experienced negative changes to their gut microbiomes within 48 hours (2.)! On top of of the very well documented negative outcomes of sleep deprivation on cognitive health, it looks like it may also cause gut issues, which can then turn around and make sleep worse. That my friends, is what we call a downward spiral.
Clearly, we want to get enough sleep, and for the brain and gut to be in synch. We also want to make sure that we have lots of the good kinds of gut microbes, so that the right messages are communicated up to the brain. And when it comes to happiness and sleep, serotonin production (which is a precursor for melatonin) is key. Remember, 95% of serotonin is produced in the gut by our gut microbes.
If you fall into the exceptionally large population of adults not getting adequate sleep, and suspect that gut and inadequate serotonin production might be to blame, then these tips are for you. And while there are lots of habits that we can put in place or modify to improve sleep, it is generally best to tackle one thing at a time. Today, we are just going to focus on serotonin production in the gut.
Ways to boost serotonin:
1. Exercise daily: Exercise does wonders for happiness and sleep, as it has also been shown to raise serotonin levels in the brain. It also tires us out, making it easier to fall asleep at night.
2. Feed your gut bugs: Eat more fiber-rich and probiotic foods like Jerusalem artichoke, cruciferous vegetables, raw bananas, oats, onions, leeks, and garlic.
3. Promote a healthy gut lining: by drinking bone broth regularly, reducing your intake of inflammatory foods & medications (alcohol and NSAIDs), watching your sugar intake, and taking probiotics.
4. Make sure you have the right building blocks: Eat a healthy diet and include foods that are rich in tryptophan, an amino acid required for producing serotonin in the brain. Some tryptophan rich foods include salmon, turkey, eggs, spinach, seeds, and nuts. Include some healthy carbs as well, as they seem to help tryptophan cross the blood brain barrier. Lastly, vitamins B12 and folic acid are also important for the conversion of tryptophan to serotonin. Taking a good multivitamin can ensure that you are getting all that you need.
5. Boost your vitamin D levels: Get sunshine daily and take a vitamin D supplement. Exposing the skin to light naturally raises vitamin D levels and helps to set the biological clock. Getting light on the skin early in the morning and using dim light in the evening and blue ray blocking glasses can dramatically impact your ability to get a good nights’ rest.
What is Serotonin? www.hormone.org. Dec 2018.
Benedict C, Vogel H, Jonas W, Woting A, Blaut M, Schürmann A, Cedernaes J. Gut microbiota and glucometabolic alterations in response to recurrent partial sleep deprivation in normal-weight young individuals. Mol Metab. 2016 Oct 24;5(12):1175-1186. doi: 10.1016/j.molmet.2016.10.003. PMID: 27900260; PMCID: PMC5123208.