WHO HAS NOT HAD trouble sleeping? Everyone does on occasion, but for many, it is an increasingly frequent experience. The typical explanation is the unparalleled distractions of modern lifestyles. We email compulsively, text friends at all hours, and binge-watch television. Consequently, our sleep suffers. Studies show that Americans’ current average nightly sleep has decreased 1 to 2 hours over the last 60 years. Furthermore, the quality of that sleep has deteriorated. Some research even suggests that irregular sleeping patterns have led to a dream deficit that also takes its own individual toll over time.
The crux of the issue is that there are significant health problems associated with sleeping disorders that go beyond feeling tired the next day. Chronic sleep deprivation is associated with higher incidences of heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and cancer. Many of us realize this and struggle to make adjustments. We experiment with changing caffeine or alcohol intake, or try supplements, like melatonin. In desperation, some may turn to sleeping pills. Most of us know from experience that there is some kind of link between our food intake and our sleep patterns. Sleeping can be difficult if we are too full or extremely hungry. Yet, busy lifestyles and temptations of snack foods continuously get in the way. One thing is clear: A good evening meal with sensible portions improves the prospect of a restful night of sleep. Two fundamental states of sleep exist, each regulated by a different part of the brain—rapid eye movement (REM) associated with the brainstem and nonREM associated with higher brain centers. Both are necessary for completely recuperative sleep. Our circadian rhythm, is regulated jointly by the brain and metabolic cues governed by liver cells. All of these signals work together in a continuous feedback loop which is commonly called the circadian clock. New information adds a significant to factor to that mix. The gut microbiome has a surprisingly crucial influence on the circadian sleep-wake cycle and sleep quality. Experiments confirm that when specific gut microbes are altered, fundamental states of sleep are disrupted. The ability to recover from stress is necessary to protect against neurological diseases such as dementia and this process is limited by disrupted sleep patterns. Research has identified an active feedback loop formed between the gut microbiome and cells throughout the body. Sleep patterns play an important role in optimal operation of this system. The continuous feedback between gut and brain significantly modulates response to stress. When suboptimal, a cycle leading toward metabolic-health disorders, such as diabetes, begins. Impaired sleep disrupts metabolism and contributes to inflammatory states, which can, in turn, further disrupt our sleep. When the gut microbiome is off-balance, our capacity to achieve restorative sleep is profoundly affected.
When you plan to get a good night’s sleep, you need to think of it as putting your microbes to bed. Feeding them properly is your best chance for normal recuperative sleep in the midst of hectic modern lifestyles.
Bill Miller, MD, has practiced in academic and private settings for over 30 years. He is the author of The Microcosm Within: Evolution and Extinction in the Hologenome. For more information, visit themicrocosmwithin.com.