We spend nearly a third of our lives asleep, but most of us don’t know why sleep is so important to our well-being. Much more than just an intermission from the stressors of our busy, waking lives, good sleep is crucial for our overall physical, emotional, and mental health.
Researchers are discovering that the duration and quality of our sleep affect everything from our cognitive performance, mood, and memory to the health of our immune and endocrine systems. In fact, drowsiness is so prevalent (50 million Americans report not getting enough shuteye) that hundreds of thousands of crashes, injuries, and accidents each year are attributed to a lack of sleep.
Quality sleep can improve your memory, reduce temporary inflammation, sharpen your focus, control your weight, and lower your stress levels. So, how does your body know when and how much to sleep?
Our Circadian Rhythms
Contrary to the feeling that we are “shutting down” for the night when we go to bed, sleep is a very active physiological process. Indeed, we usually pass through all five stages of sleep four to six times every night! From healing and repairing the heart and blood vessels to balancing hormones and supporting growth and development, sleep is a critical time of restoration and renewal.
When we sleep is largely dictated by our body’s circadian rhythms (fluctuating body temperature and hormone levels, for example) regulated by our internal biological clock over a 24-hour period. Our clock determines when we feel tired and when we feel awake, and external factors like light and darkness in the environment and our work and social schedules help to “set” the clock.
Any disruption to the circadian system, like pulling an all-nighter or flying across the country through different time zones, can result in a confused inner clock and exhaustion. Poor memory, low-quality sleep, irritability, slower reflexes, and impaired motor control are often soon to follow.
Although external cues play a big part in telling your inner clock when it’s time to slumber, your microbiome plays a surprising role as well.
Gut Health and Sleep
The microbiome is the collective trillions of microbes living in your body and on your skin. When in balance, this vast ecosystem of bacteria works in harmony with your body’s cells to support your health by (among other things) regulating your immune system, helping you digest and absorb nutrients, and supporting your metabolism.
Most of the bacteria in your body reside in your gut, but they can communicate with your brain via the gut-brain axis. Some beneficial microbes—termed psychobiotics—even have a positive effect on your memory, emotions, cognitive functions, and mental state.
We know that bacteria can talk to our brain—is it possible then, that a good night’s sleep begins in the gut? The answer is yes, according to new research.
Probiotics (beneficial bacteria) produce and regulate a number of neurotransmitters and hormones that impact our sleep:
Tryptophan and Melatonin: Probiotics can increase blood levels of tryptophan, an amino acid that converts into serotonin and then into melatonin, the hormone that regulates how sleepy you feel1.
Serotonin: Dubbed the “happy” chemical, serotonin helps to regulate mood and plays a significant role in sleep quality. Researchers found that serotonin deficiency in rats led to disrupted circadian rhythms and sleep-wake cycles (aka restless sleep)2. The vast majority of serotonin in the body (over 90%) is manufactured in the gut, and gut microbes regulate the amount produced3.
GABA: Good bacteria help to produce GABA, the calming brain chemical, as well as enhance its brain receptors4.
Cortisol: If temporary stress and anxiety are the cause of your sleepless nights, rest assured that probiotics can lower levels of cortisol, a hormone that becomes elevated during times of stress5.
Gut microbes also have their own daily rhythms that influence our circadian rhythms, affecting our metabolism and how we sleep. In one study, mice fed a typical Western high-fat, high-sugar diet that depleted beneficial bacteria showed circadian rhythm disruptions that led to a host of other problems, like weight gain6.
Healthy Sleep Hygiene
If you find yourself spending more time counting sheep than recounting your dreams, take these steps to create a supportive sleep environment.
The truth is that everyone has a night of poor sleep now and then. Whether you have trouble turning “off” your brain the night before a big meeting or are tending to a child who is under the weather, a temporary lack of sleep can make you feel out of sorts. Setting yourself up for long-term sleep success will help you weather these temporary bouts of sleeplessness and put you well on the way towards vibrant health for all your waking hours.References:
Emily Courtney is a Writer and Editor at Hyperbiotics and mom to two fun and active boys. Emily is passionate about natural wellness and helping others learn about the power of probiotics for vibrant health! For more ideas on how you can benefit from the power of probiotics and live healthier days, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter.