Dr. Josh Axe, DC, DNM, CNS, is a doctor of chiropractic, doctor of natural medicine, clinical nutritionist and author with a passion to help people get well using food and nutrition. He operates leading natural health website DrAxe.com and is co-founder of Ancient Nutrition, a health supplement company. He’s also author of the books Eat Dirt, Essential Oils: Ancient Medicine, Keto Diet and Collagen Diet.
By Dr. Josh Axe
If you’re familiar with the impact that your microbiome can have on your overall health, you likely already understand how your gut affects things like your digestion, appetite, nutrient absorption and immune function.
But did you know that the microbes living in your gut can also impact your sleep? That’s right — recent research indicates that the ratio of different bacteria, yeasts and other organisms that populate your microbiome is capable of affecting whether you may get the right amount, or not enough of, restorative sleep.
How exactly is gut health linked to better sleep? It all comes down to how your microbiome and central nervous system (your brain and spinal cord) communicate.
There are actually hundreds of millions of neurons located in your gastrointestinal tract, and these neurons send signals back and forth to your brain that affect your mood, energy, capacity to handle stress, and yes, your sleep.
How to Help Build Your Gut for Better Sleep
Your microbiome is home to trillions of microbes that play numerous roles in maintaining your physical and mental well-being.
The relationship between sleep and the microbiome has been described as being "complicated and dynamic.” While there’s still lots to learn on the topic of the microbiome-gut-brain axis, it’s generally accepted that sleep and gut health are capable of impacting one another, since chemical communication between the brain and gut is a “two-way street.”
One very important job that microbes in your gut have is facilitating production of certain neurotransmitters and hormones — including dopamine, serotonin, GABA and melatonin. These chemicals help to determine your mood, motivation and sleep-wake cycle.
We know that your microbiome is regulated in part by your circadian rhythm (or your “internal clock”), and that an imbalanced gut can also negatively impact your sleep and energy.
Many aspects of your lifestyle — such as your diet, exposure to the outdoors and level of stress — impact the types and amounts of microbes that populate your gut. Genetics and age can also play a role in forming your unique microbiome.
By purposefully exposing yourself to a diversity of microbial organisms, such as by eating a variety of plants and spending more time outside in nature, you can support both your brain and gut’s ability to make sleep-supporting chemicals that can help you get adequate, restful sleep.
Here are steps you can take in order to get better sleep by focusing on gut health:
1. Start with the basics: your diet
First and foremost, make sure your diet is a healthy one that supports robust gut health. A diet brimming with essential nutrients seems to be linked to getting adequate and quality sleep, circadian alignment, and more.
Therefore, be sure to help “feed” the healthy bacteria in your gut by filling up on real whole foods, including fermented/probiotic foods, high-fiber foods, prebiotic foods, and plenty of veggies and healthy fats. These foods can help maintain a beneficial ratio of probiotics, or “good guy” bacteria in the gut, versus the “bad guy” microorganisms.
There’s evidence that probiotic foods may be especially helpful, since they provide bacteria such as Lactobacillus casei that some studies have demonstrated can help you fight the effects of stress. Feeling less stressed may translate to sleeping better overall.
Eating a wide variety of plant-based foods is also a powerful way to introduce more microbes and nutrients into your gut.
Make an effort to limit or avoid added sugar and processed foods (especially at night, close to bedtime), which can throw your gut bacteria out of balance. As best as you can, pay attention to lists like the Dirty Dozen and the Clean 15, and opt for organic foods as much as possible to limit pesticide/chemical exposure.
2. Get a handle on stress
Chronic stress, as well as even acute stress, can obviously keep you up at night tossing and turning, but they can also take a toll on your microbiome by altering how some “stress hormones” are produced.
Do what you can to keep calm during stressful periods, such as by keeping up with exercise and hobbies including yoga, meditation, reading, journaling and socializing. Limiting screen time in the hours before you go to sleep is also recommended to doze off more easily.
Regular exercise can be especially beneficial for sleep and gut health, since it has natural calming effects, plus it’s capable of positively altering the composition of the microbiome independent of your diet.
3. Garden and spend time outdoors
Gardening is not only a great way to help lower stress, but it also allows you to gain exposure to beneficial soil probiotics. Even short?term, direct contact with soil and plant materials can contribute to an increase in diversity of microbiota within your body, which is a smart way to help support a healthy immune response.
Another interesting finding is that camping outdoors may help to reset your circadian rhythm, potentially thanks to not only exposure to dirt and microbes, but also due to exposure to daytime sunlight that can help you sleep more deeply at night.
4. Supplement widely
Certain nutrients and botanicals, such as adaptogen herbs including ashwagandha, can help to promote a sense of calm. Ashwagandha may also help to boost your ability to respond to stress and tension in a healthy way.
Even better, combine adaptogens with compounds such as collagen protein — which you’ll find in Ancient Nutrition’s Multi Collagen Protein Beauty + Sleep formula — and you’ll be supporting your gut health, too, since, overall, collagen can help to promote gut lining integrity.
5. Last but not least, prioritize sleep!
Just like how a poorly functioning gut can reduce sleep quality, sleep deprivation can take a toll on an otherwise healthy gut.
Related: 7 Sleep Myths Busted
While more studies need to be conducted, some studies indicate that when adults are partially sleep deprived for as little as two nights they can experience a significant decrease in types of beneficial bacteria in their guts. This again comes back to the “gut-brain-connection.”
You’re likely not going to consistently sleep better unless you make a strong point to, which means fitting enough sleep into your busy schedule. Aim for 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night, ideally sticking to a consistent sleep-wake-schedule throughout the week if possible.