Bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa—oh my! All these things are what make up your gut microbiome (aka the microorganisms that naturally live in your digestive tract). It may sound kind of gross—or creepy—but it's totally normal to have too-small-to-see microbrial life hanging out in your belly. In fact, your gut microbiome actually has a huge impact on the health of the rest of your body—including how well you sleep, according to a new study.
Basically, no two people’s gut microbiomes are exactly alike. And the more diverse your gut microbiome, the better sleep you may get, according to the study published in the journal PLoS One.
And the relationship goes both ways—poor sleep can harm your gut microbiome, too, which isn’t ideal since the microbiome impacts your overall health, says Jaime Tartar, Ph.D., a professor and research director in Nova Southern University's College of Psychology, who was part of the research team for the study. For example, a lack of diversity in your gut microbiome is linked to Parkinson’s disease, autoimmune diseases, and mental health problems like anxiety and depression.
To determine these results, participants in the study wore an "Apple Watch on steroids" to bed, says Dr. Tartar. That device monitored how well each participant slept through the night, researchers also tested the gut microbiome of each person, finding that those with more diverse microbiomes slept better.
"We know that sleep is pretty much the 'Swiss Army Knife' of health," Dr. Tartar says. "Getting a good night's sleep can lead to improved health, and a lack of sleep can have detrimental effects. We've all seen the reports that show not getting proper sleep can lead to short term (stress, psychosocial issues) and long-term (cardiovascular disease, cancer) health problems. We know that the deepest stages of sleep are when the brain 'takes out the trash' since the brain and gut communicate with each other. Quality sleep impacts so many other facets of human health."
Can You Change Your Gut Microbiome?
So now you're probably wondering: Can I make changes that improve my gut microbiome’s diversity, and therefore improve my sleep and overall health?
It's a tricky question because multiple factors affect your gut microbiome’s makeup, said Robert Smith, Ph.D., an associate professor and research scientist at Nova Southeastern University. Genetics are one factor, and unfortunately, you can't change your genes. But other controllable factors can make a difference, too. For example, certain medications can impact your gut microbiome's diversity, including antibiotics. That's why your doc may recommend you take a probiotic when you're on antibiotics, to help replenish some of the "good" bacteria that may be eliminated during the course of drugs.
The food you eat also plays a role in the diversity of your gut microbiome, says Dr. Smith. Research finds that eating a plant-based diet can help improve the diversity of your gut microbiome, according to the Physicians' Committee for Responsible Medicine.
"The preliminary results are promising, but there's still more to learn," Dr. Smith says of the sleep-gut study. "But eventually people may be able to take steps to manipulate their gut microbiome in order to help them get a good night's sleep."
Other Ways to Improve Your Sleep
While this study looked specifically at the gut microbiome’s impact on sleep quality, there are other steps you can take to improve your sleep. One of the main ways to do this? Practice good sleep hygiene. Here are the basics, per the National Sleep Foundation:
- Nap wisely. Naps can be a great way to get an extra energy boost during the day, but know that naps don't make up for too little sleep at night. Keep naps to 20-30 minutes for optimal benefits to your performance without disrupting nighttime sleep during the nighttime further.
- Optimize your sleep environment. Comfy mattress and pillows? Check. Blackout curtains? Check. Temperature between 60 and 67 degrees? Check.
- Ban electronics before bedtime. The bright lights from cell phones and TV screens can make it hard for you to get a good night's sleep. Instead of using your phone as an alarm, opt for an old-school alarm clock and keep your bedroom tech-free.
- Put together a bedtime routine. Maybe you take a warm shower, read a book, or do some light stretches. Maybe you even light a calming candle (just remember to blow it out before you fall asleep!). Whatever you choose, it can help to take steps to wind down and relax before bed as part of your ritual—this will signal your body that it's time for sleep!
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol too close to bedtime. These substances can make it harder for you to fall—or stay—asleep.