Insomnia: It’s All in Your Gut

To Sleep - Perchance to Dream

It’s dark. Your eyes are closed. You’re exhausted. But - for some reason you just can’t fathom - you can’t seem to fall asleep.

Nothing works.

You’ve counted all the sheep on the nearest fifty farms … and the cows and chickens too, for good measure. You made sure you ate turkey at supper, and stayed far away from cheese. Maybe you even turned off your iPhone two hours before attempting rest, and opted for a good book instead. (Although that’s probably not likely, right?)

You’d even change your workout routine if you had the energy to work out in the first place.

It’s been days - maybe even weeks - since you last had a good night’s sleep. You’ve forgotten what it feels like, and you’re starting to feel anxious.

Insomnia is a problem faced by many modern adults and children - and it’s on the rise. What is behind this growing problem, and how can you fix it (naturally)?

What Keeps You Up At Night?

If your battles with sleep have only just started, or only happen once in a while, it’s likely that you haven’t yet spotted a pattern. Perhaps you’ve been very busy at work, and the stress is keeping you up. Maybe money is tight as we all struggle to recover from the last decade’s recession, and thoughts of the future plague your mind. Possibly you ate too much at dinner - or had dinner too late.

Maybe the neighbour’s dog won’t stop barking, or your sleeping partner insists on doing her best imitation of a chainsaw in dire need of a service.

The list of things we blame for our insomnia is as endless and varied as the number of people on the planet. But one place we often forget to look is inside.

It’s What’s Inside That Counts

By now you no doubt realise that what goes on in your gut affects your body’s health beyond the belly, too. Previous articles have looked at the role healthy gut flora play in maintaining immunity and keeping you healthy overall.

Getting to the Heart of the Sleep-Gut Connection: Circadian Rhythms

Dr Michael J. Breus, Ph.D. is a clinical sleep specialist in Los Angeles. He’s also the author of “The Power of When”, and he explains it this way: “If your brain knows when to go to sleep, it goes to sleep much more quickly and you get into a deeper form of sleep.”

In other words, your body needs to know what’s expected of it, and when. You have a much greater likelihood of falling soundly asleep - and staying that way - when you honour your body’s natural circadian rhythms.  Circadian rhythms are the natural daily rhythms unique to each of us - our biological clocks, if you will. Your personal clock is like a switch in your brain, controlling the natural flow of your day. Are you an early bird? A night owl? Somewhere in between? All that is controlled by the circadian rhythms in your brain. And we can help keep those rhythms - well, rhythmic, just by eating regular (healthy!) meals, and going to bed at the same time every night.

But what if you don’t?

This is where it gets interesting. A study cited in the journal PLOS One found that when a group of mice was fed a diet high in both fat and sugar, as well as having their circadian rhythms disrupted, the gut bacteria in the mice was notably altered.

Scarily, medical journal Cell reported a study that seemed to altered intestinal flora to jet lag - with the result that jet lag sufferers appear to be more prone to both obesity and diabetes.
Another study in the journal Cell found that jet lag can alter gut bacteria and may even make a person more susceptible to diabetes and obesity.

As Breus points out, the question, then, is how the cyclical rhythm in the stomach coordinates with the cyclical rhythm in the brain (if at all). “And the answer is: nobody knows,” he concludes.

Sleep Smart

Missouri-based nutritionist Shawn Stevenson, author of “Sleep Smarter: 21 Essential Strategies To Sleep Your Way To A Better Body, Better Health and Bigger Success,” points out that there is actually more brain-type tissue in the gut than in the spinal cord. In fact, there are at least 30 types of neurotransmitters and over 100 million neurons in the gut.

Something like 90% of your body’s serotonin is found in the gut, and around 400 times more melatonin is found in the gut than in the brain. Melatonin - the sleep hormone - helps regulate the body’s circadian clock (remember her?), while serotonin is the building block for melatonin. Some of the natural, healthy bacteria in the intestinal tract are vital for producing serotonin … All of which is why some researchers call the gut “The Second Brain.”

Healthy Body, Healthy Mind - and Vice Versa

Stress plays a part, too. We keep hearing in the media about the damaging effects of stress on our bodies and minds, but there’s a growing body of evidence that the real damage done by stress is based on our perception of stress. If we believe it to be bad for us. If not, then - well, less so. Having said that, there is evidence of the effect of stress on the body’s health - especially gut health.

Over time, the effects of stress can actually wear tiny holes in the lining of the gut wall - a condition known as gut hyperpermeability. This damages the gut microbiome - that delicate balance of good and less good bacteria that balance our health so carefully. According to Breus, this damage to the microbiome can lead to digestion problems, pain, anxiety, and even depression. All of these things can affect your sleep.

Three Steps To A Good Night’s Sleep

1. Stay Regular

In our super-connected global economy, it can be hard to schedule our lives without taking into account different time zones. Late night Skype calls, 2AM deadlines, and round-the-clock connectivity make it hard to set a reasonable bed time. Harder still to stick to it.

On top of disrupted sleep, there are business lunches and rushing-out-the-door breakfasts or after-hours meetings that push your dinner plans out the window, and your meal plans are out of whack, as well.

It’s important, though, to stick as closely as possible to a routine that trains your body to get the (healthy!) sleep and meals you need. Over time, this can reset your circadian rhythms, and eventually lead to balance in your gut.

2. Supplement, Supplement, Supplement

A modern diet is usually high in fat, carbs, and sugar - and not much else. That means a surprisingly high number of seemingly well-fed, healthy people suffer from vitamin and mineral deficiencies. A common deficiency is magnesium. Magnesium takes care of many bodily functions - including sleep rhythms and insomnia.

To get the magnesium you need, a good first step is taking a balanced supplement. You can also increase the amount of magnesium you get from your diet. Foods like spinach and almonds are both excellent sources. Magnesium can be taken transdermally, using a magnesium spray. Or have a hot bath with Epsom salts.

3. Balancing the Biome

The best solution for a balanced gut biome - a magic bullet, if you will - is taking probiotics and prebiotics (which help probiotics work). Sauerkraut, kimchi, yoghurt, and kefir all provide excellent probiotics. Prebiotics can be found in onions, garlic, and even artichokes.

Dr Alain Sanua focuses on balancing gut health in order to balance the overall health of his patients. He specialises in understanding the unique challenges facing each of his patients, finding a solution tailored to their needs. Call Dr Sanua on 011 463 1614 or email him on to find out if a gut flora imbalance is causing your insomnia, and keeping you up at night.


« back to Articles