The link between sleep and digestion explained
Sleep issues are a common problem for many, but could your digestive functions be playing a part? From acid reflux, to an imbalance in gut bacteria – we discuss the potential problem areas and how home and herbal remedies can help.
Syncing digestion and sleep
Digestive troubles and sleep often go hand in hand. As we sleep our body is in ‘rest and digest mode’. This means inhibitory neurotransmitters are dominant and repair and regeneration processes are in full swing.
During this ‘rest and digest’ phase, your digestive system is hard at work – as the name suggests! It works away quietly throughout the night as your gallbladder, liver, and large intestine process your latest meals and facilitate the absorption and utilisation of nutrients, plus process the remainders for excretion as waste.
However, if your digestion isn’t working as it should, it could create a bit of fuss and could end up impacting your sleep.
What problems could be keeping you awake?
Perhaps you suspect you know what is keeping you up at night, or maybe you wake up at the same time each night but you’re not quite sure why? Here I explain what could be going on:
Acid Reflux – Acid reflux, indigestion or heartburn symptoms often flare up at night and may hinder your sleep. Acid reflux occurs when the acidic contents of the stomach travel back into the oesophagus causing pain and discomfort. Common risk factors for experiencing acid reflux at night include; overeating, eating fatty or protein-heavy meals, eating too close to bed time, eating too quickly, being overweight or having an imbalance in stomach acid (often too little rather than too much)
Candida or Leaky Gut – Candida and leaky gut are two conditions affecting the gut that often go hand in hand. Candida is associated with symptoms such as bloating, recurrent yeast infections, chronic fatigue and brain fog, and leaky gut is often part and parcel with other issues such as food intolerance and chronic inflammation. The inflammation associated with these conditions may disturb sleep, as symptoms from joint pain to headaches can all be linked. Leaky gut also has an impact on the liver; the overgrowth of yeast associated with this condition produces toxins, which, if leaky gut is also present, can easily leach into the blood stream. Your liver then has to work tirelessly to process them which can disrupt our sleep patterns too!
Liver – In line with Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) the functions of the liver are thought to peak between 1am-3am when it is busy working away, cleansing our system. If you typically wake at this time each night, then it could suggest that your liver is under some pressure. Alcohol, a diet high in sugar, prescription medication or leaky gut could all be contributing factors
IBS – IBS has links with troubled sleep too. Our large intestine is thought to become most active between 5 and 7am which is why a sign of a healthy gut is to wake up needing the loo! IBS symptoms such as pain, bloating, or altered bowel movements can all contribute to disturbed sleep. Then, we know that IBS is often linked with psychological issues which may also have a part to play
Is there another common factor?
As with all sorts of other digestive disorders there may be other contributing factors – we know that stress, for example, can have a big bearing.
As before, when we sleep our body is in ‘rest and digest mode’, however when we become stressed our body moves into ‘fight or flight’ mode instead. This means if we become overly stressed, don’t get enough sleep (or both!) our digestive functions can suffer as a result.
We know that stress can directly affect the functions of the stomach (chronic stress can contribute to reduced stomach acid which, contrary to popular belief is a common cause of indigestion, heartburn and acid reflux!), plus stress and anxiety also have a strong association with other conditions such as IBS.
What can be done to help?
If digestive issues are keeping you awake at night, what can be done to help?
1. Sort your eating habits.
Every little helps when it comes to sorting those eating habits to help get a better night’s sleep. Ensure you are eating at least a few hours before bed time, chew your food, don’t eat too quickly, and don’t overeat either – it may be useful to eat a larger meal earlier on in the day and a smaller, lighter in the evening if possible.
Also, something else that you may not have thought about; don’t drink with your meals as you’ll only risk diluting those all important digestive juices. Separate drinks from food by half an hour. Finally, take time over your food and enjoy it too! Cooking, preparing and finally eating your meals should be enjoyable and can even be therapeutic, which is especially useful if stress is a factor.
2. Bed time habits too.
Acid reflux is more common at night because we are lying down flat and gravity is playing a part. So, it often helps to eat earlier to help ensure your stomach isn’t too full when heading to bed but also make sure you are lying properly. Prop your head up with a pillow or two so that gravity is on your side and, if you are overweight, sleeping on your side may help to take some of the pressure off of your tummy.
If you feel as though you could do with a helping hand to fall asleep, you could try A.Vogel's Dormeasan. A gentle combination of Valerian and Hops, Dormeasan gradually enables you to drift off into a deep, natural sleep without any of the groggy side effects associated with traditional sleep medicines.
3. Support the stomach.
Particularly if indigestion, acid reflux and heartburn trouble you at night then bitter herbs could come in useful to help support the stomach. Digestisan contains a handy combination of bitter herbs including artichoke, dandelion, peppermint and boldo to help support the stomach and reduce feelings of fullness. Your liver will reap the benefits from this combination too, so a good choice all round!
You could also try our gentle Bowel Remedy, specifically formulated to help IBS symptoms such as diarrhoea or bloating, which are often impacted by external factors such as stress. Infused with tormentil, agrimony and pine, it provides support both emotionally and physically, enabling you to feel more like your old self.
4. Maintain gut health
We know that IBS can impact sleep, and together with other issues affecting the gut such as leaky gut, an imbalance in gut bacteria may be at the root of the problem. Research (which was highlighted on Dr Michael Mosley’s programme ‘The truth about sleep’) has shown that prebiotics may help to support our sleep, which highlights nicely the importance of a happy gut for nodding off! Molkosan is rich in L+ lactic acid to help you do just that.
You could try pairing Molkosan with a probiotic like Optibacs One Week Flat, which also contains preobiotic cultures. A short course, this probiotic contains 4 different strains of bacteria and is specifically associated with helping to relieve uncomfortable symptoms such as bloating.
However, for all you insomniacs out there, it’s important to remember that more than one factor may be at play. Although digestive troubles may seem like the likely cause, diet, lifestyle habits or other underlying factors such as stress, may actually be influencing your digestion, so it’s always best to look at the bigger picture.