I doubt that I’m the only one here who spends hours on end staring at the ceiling trying to sleep. Like many insomniacs, I’ve tried everything. I’ve run out of sheep to count and my cupboards are now void of any herbal tea. But something that I never thought to consider is my gut. And yet, apparently, our gut can affect the duration and quality of our sleep… New research has suggested that prebiotics can help us to sleep better by altering the bacteria in our gut. Here’s the science behind it.
BBC The Truth About Sleep
A few months ago, the BBC aired a documentary on prebiotics and sleep. In it, insomniac Dr Michael Mosley found that the best way to fall asleep was to take a prebiotic fibre before he went to bed. For five days, he took a prebiotic fibre supplement about 20 minutes before he slept. He noticed that it increased the time that he was asleep and decreased the time in bed that he spent awake.
Not only did he find that the prebiotic supplement increased sleep and decreased awake time, but they also appeared to improve the quality of his sleep. The time he spent in the REM stage of sleep increased significantly. This is the stage when restoration and recovery happen, meaning that he woke feeling more refreshed.
Now, insomniacs like me are probably thinking: WOW. But before I get too excited, let’s see what science has to say about Dr Michael Mosley’s findings on prebiotics and sleep.
The Science of Prebiotics and Sleep
Prebiotics increase good bacteria in the gut. They are a type of carbohydrate that doesn’t get digested and so they can reach the gut to feed the good bacteria there. This helps us to absorb more nutrients from the foods we digest, which are essential for our body to function. But how can this increase in good gut bacteria impact our sleep?
When the prebiotic reaches our gut, the good bacteria break it down into something called short-chain fatty acids. These are what are improving your sleep. They help to regulate blood sugar and energy sources, which often fluctuate at night. These fluctuations can result in disturbed sleep and so by stabilizing blood sugar and energy, the prebiotics can improve the quality of our sleep.
But the benefits of prebiotics doesn’t stop there…
Prebiotics And Stress
Stress and sleep are interlinked. Stress can cause difficulty sleeping and a difficulty sleeping can cause us to be more susceptible to stress. Recent studies have found that prebiotics can help us to deal with stress and aid deep sleep during stressful times.
One study by the University of Oxford saw that taking prebiotics affected our tolerance of the stress hormone, cortisol. Another study by scientists at the University of Colorado found that “prebiotics can also have an impact on buffering the physiological impacts of stress.” The researchers say that “it is possible that a diet rich in prebiotics started in early life could help improve sleep, support the gut microbiota and promote optimal brain/psychological health.” According to the research team, that’s because “Mycobacterium vaccae blocked those sensitizing effects of stress […] creating a lasting stress-resilient phenotype in the brain.”
Previous studies have found the link between our moods and our gut. Medical News Today reported one study that suggested “stomach acid drugs may induce depression by disrupting the gut-brain axis”, and another that found a “link between gut health and post-traumatic stress disorder”. But scientists have now found that our gut can affect our levels of stress too.