Remember how fast you usually doze off after that tryptophan-packed Thanksgiving dinner? You may know that some foods like turkey, oatmeal and Greek yogurt can help you snooze, whereas others like greasy cheeseburgers and French fries can keep you up at night (hello, heartburn). And according to the National Sleep Foundation, gastrointestinal reflux (GERD) is, in fact, one of the most common issues that can cause sleep disruptions.
But did you know that your gut health, also known as the microbiome, plays a major role in sleep, too?
Sleep Stems From the Gut
“Our gut is called the second brain because it actually has a significant number of nerves.”
According to Raphael Kellman, MD, author of The Microbiome Diet: The Scientifically Proven Way to Restore Your Gut Health and Achieve Permanent Weight Loss, the best way to sleep better is to improve the health of your microbiome.
“Our gut is called the second brain because it actually has a significant number of nerves, and there are trillions of bacteria, which outnumber our own cells that help with keeping us healthy and preventing disease,” Dr. Kellman says. “The gut produces upwards 95 percent of our body’s serotonin, the neurotransmitter that influences mood and healthy sleep patterns,” he adds.
During the day, our cortisol levels (the stress hormone) are high, but in the evening, they take a dip. The rise and fall of these cortisol levels play an important role in our circadian rhythm (the body’s internal clock). But according to Dr. Kellman, our microbiome also follows a circadian rhythm that is directly associated with our sleep homeostasis.
How so? It’s all about serotonin, says Shawn Stevenson, founder of popular podcast The Model Health Show, and author of Sleep Smarter: 21 Essential Strategies to Sleep Your Way to a Better Body, Better Health, and Bigger Success. “Serotonin is the building block for melatonin, the sleep hormone. There is 400 times more melatonin in our gut than in our pineal gland.”
That’s why nourishing your microbiome with essential nutrients is key to a better night’s rest, beyond sleeping more hours and improving our nighttime shutdown routine. The foods we eat influence the production of neurotransmitters that control our sleep patterns, and ultimately, the balance of good and bad bacteria in our gut.
Eat Smart to Sleep Better
So what should you stock up on first? “It’s best to take multi-prong approach: Avoid things that damage the microbiome environment in the first place, like processed foods, chlorinated water and pesticides. On top of that, you want to create a healthy belly by eating probiotic foods, like yogurt and kimchi,” Stevenson says.
“There is 400 times more melatonin in our gut than in our pineal gland.”
Dr. Kellman recommends green leafy vegetables, dark chocolate (without added sugar), whole grains, legumes and even coffee. “The foods we eat are integral to the function of the microbiome. When we’re lacking in specific nutrients and minerals, it creates an imbalance in the gut, which in turn affects bodily functions like sleep.”
People who have an imbalance in the microbiome experience classic slumber troubles, including insomnia, overtiredness and sleep disruption. But a simple blood test won’t track nutritional deficiencies easily.
Dr. Kellman explains that a person may have normal levels of magnesium, for example, but when you look at their nutritional profile from an intracellular level (the level in each body cell), they are deficient. Here are Dr. Kellman and Stevenson’s picks for the top nutrients for optimal sleep.
5 Essential Nutrients for Gut Health
Magnesium is a mineral that many people don’t realize they’re deficient in, Stevenson explains. If you’re lacking in magnesium, you might be feeling more exhausted or tired than usual, and you may also experience muscle cramps, which can keep you up at night. “Without it, our body can’t balance blood sugar, regulate blood pressure and calm the nervous system. Magnesium has a very calming effect,” Stevenson says. It’s one of the biggest anti-stress minerals for the heart.”
Get it from: Leafy green vegetables, Brazil nuts, pumpkin seeds, spirulina and cacao nibs
Studies have shown that potassium may help people who have trouble sleeping through the night. Dr. Kellman recommends incorporating more potassium-rich foods into your diet to help specific neurons in your brain that facilitate sleep.
Get it from: Bananas, sweet potatoes, yogurt, fish, soybeans and beet greens
You might have heard that calcium is good for bone health, but Stevenson also recommends it for better sleep. Calcium may help prevent disturbances in REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, where you’re most likely dreaming and your breathing becomes faster, he says.
Get it from: Leafy greens, seafood, like sardines, and sea vegetables, such as kelp and seaweed, milk, yogurt and cheese
4. Vitamin D
Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to excessive daytime sleeping or hypersomnia. Dr. Kellman says we need to start looking at vitamin D as a hormone. Why? Because people who have low thyroid levels also have low levels of vitamin D. Vitamin D is needed in the cells for thyroid hormones to function.
Get it from: Salmon, mushrooms, oysters and fortified milks and cereals
5. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
A study from the University of Oxford shows that omega-3 fatty acids can help with melatonin production and can help you get deeper sleep. Omega-3 fatty acids have already been shown to help improve depression and anxiety symptoms, which are also connected to sleep issues.
Get it from: Chia seeds, flaxseeds, salmon, walnuts and avocados
One last word of advice: Talk to your doctor before introducing any new supplements or vitamins into your diet, Dr. Kellman says. “You could be taking all these vitamins and minerals, but if something is wrong with the microbiome, you will not see much improvement. Testing needs to be done on an intracellular level to confirm any deficiencies.”