How Your Digestion is Affecting Your Sleep

A deep dive on troubleshooting your digestive issues for a better night’s rest

By Ashley Little

Medically Reviewed by Dr. Ramprasad Gopalan, MD, Infectious Disease Specialist in Boynton Beach, FL.

While there are several potential factors that can lead to sleeplessness, a likely culprit can be digestive distress. Simply put, your gut and the functions of your digestive system can significantly impact your ability to rest.

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Understanding the Link Between Digestion and Sleep

While digestive issues and trouble sleeping are typically viewed as separate problems they often go hand-in-hand.

According to a recent survey reported in WebMD, over 40 percent of study participants who sought treatment for irritable bowel syndrome and other digestive disorders reported having insomnia, with 6 percent describing their insomnia as severe.

The link between poor digestion and sleeplessness has to do with the production of hormones. Digestive problems can cause your gut to ineffectively absorb the following nutrients: magnesium, omegas, and antioxidants.

As a result, these nutrients will no longer be sent to the brain, triggering the brain to stop producing hormones such as melatonin, serotonin, and sex hormones. Any imbalance of these hormones can then lead to problems falling and staying asleep, which is how the gut and our sleep habits are interconnected. 

Digestive Conditions that Can Negatively Impact Your Sleep Quality

Poor digestive health can have several adverse effects on sleep quality. There’s a wide range of indicators when it comes to spotting poor gut health with some symptoms being more evident than others. 

Symptoms of poor gut health include: 
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Bloating
  • Gas
Less common symptoms that can be indicative of serious gut health issues include:
  • Fatigue
  • Brain fog
  • Yeast infections
  • Food sensitivities
  • Recurring sinus infections

Here are just a few of the digestive conditions to consider when trouble shooting your symptoms. 

Irritable Bowel Syndrome 

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common disease that impacts the large intestine. Many have IBS and never display symptoms; in other cases, IBS can manifest as cramping, bloating, extreme gas pain, or diarrhea.

Research has found that complaints of insomnia and poor sleep quality are “extremely common” among those with IBS. These sleep problems often occur due to “flare ups” at night, which may include cramps, bloating, diarrhea, or other sources of discomfort that make restfulness hard to come by.

The good news for IBS patients is that several potential treatments exist. Clinicians have pointed to melatonin supplements as a way to balance hormones and provide restfulness. Meanwhile, nutrition experts like Richards advocate for decreasing fat consumption and looking for ways to minimize stress.

melatonin

Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) 

Those who suffer from GERD have stomach acid rising up through the esophagus. While occasional reflux is normal, those who experience extreme and persistent reflux may have a chronic condition.

Some factors that can contribute to GERD include obesity, smoking, pregnancy, and certain medications. Often, however, the exact cause of GERD is difficult to determine.

GERD can often cause coughing, choking, and discomfort in the chest and throat, symptoms that all tend to worsen when you’re lying down. As a result of these symptoms, those with this condition may find it difficult to fall asleep or to stay asleep.

One way to manage the symptoms of GERD is through diet modification.

One way to manage the symptoms of GERD is through diet modification. Heartburn trigger foods can vary per individual; however, common heartburn trigger foods are:

  • Caffeine
  • Alcohol
  • Fried foods
  • Spicy foods 
  • Chocolate
  • Citrus fruits (lemon, lime, grapefruit, orange) 
  • Tomato-products

These types of foods are acidic themselves, and they can increase the acidity in your stomach. All this acid in your stomach can bubble up and give you heartburn.

gerd graphic

Peptic Ulcer Disease

Peptic ulcer disease is a condition marked by the formation of painful ulcers in the line of the stomach, and potentially also in the intestine. While the stomach lining is typically protected by a thick layer of mucus, peptic ulcer disease can occur when that protective layer is destroyed. his can happen through several potential causes including overuse of anti-inflammatory drugs and overconsumption of alcohol.

As with many digestive disorders, peptic ulcer disease has a cyclical relationship to sleep: Ulcer pain can make it hard to get rest. Yet, regular rest has proven essential for minimizing ulcer formation.

Ulcer formation often begins with bacteria and can sometimes be cured with a prescription of antibiotics. Additionally, medications that curb stomach acid production can help promote healing of the stomach lining, but it is best to contact your doctor to see what the best treatment plan is for you. Hemorrhoids

Hemorrhoids

Hemorrhoids are swollen veins that develop around the anus or inside the rectum. These are quite common: about 3 out of 4 adults experience hemorrhoids at some point in their lives. Hemorrhoids can form for many reasons, including straining during bowel movements and sitting for long periods of time. They can cause pain and discomfort, making it more difficult to fall to sleep at night; however, simple lifestyle changes can minimize this pain.

Recommendations include:

  • Ample fluid intake
  • Fiber supplements
  • Regular exercise
  • Going to the bathroom as soon as the urge strikes

Gallstones  

The Mayo Clinic defines gallstones as “hardened deposits of digestive fluid that can form in your gallbladder.”

Gallstones can sometimes form and remain entirely asymptomatic, but in other cases, they lead to intense abdominal pain. That pain may even spread up into the back and shoulder blades. 

These eruptions of gallstone pain may last a few minutes or several hours; such pain can naturally be disruptive to a good night’s sleep, and may strike at any hour. It’s best for those who experience gallstone pain to consult with a doctor; typically, the only recommended treatment plan is gallbladder surgery.

Crohn’s Disease

Crohn’s is a form of inflammatory bowel disease that can trigger extreme abdominal pain and diarrhea. Those who have Crohn’s disease are often malnourished due to frequent diarrhea and may also battle fatigue. 

Signs and symptoms of Crohn’s disease can range from mild to severe.

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Studies confirm that inflammatory diseases like this one can disrupt hormone production and thus healthy sleep cycles, leading to insomnia and chronic tiredness. People who suffer from Crohn’s may need to consume small, frequent meals rather than a few large meals to help manage symptoms,” offers Miller. 

“I would recommend that anyone suffering from Crohn’s see a registered dietitian who can provide a personalized dietary plan. Dietitians can also help those with Crohn’s conduct an elimination diet to determine trigger foods and reintroduce problematic foods if possible.”

If you have Crohns it is also a good idea to check in with your general practitioner or gastroenterologist to come up with a plan to manage symptoms that is right for you.

Diverticulitis 

Diverticulitis involves the inflammation of pouches within the intestinal tissue. While the condition is often painless, some experience significant discomfort before passing gas or having a bowel movement. Blood in the stool is another common symptom.

The abdominal discomfort caused by diverticulitis can often impair sleep. If you are diagnosed with this condition, a doctor may recommend you take a few days to rest and stick to a liquid diet, allowing the intestines to heal. In really extreme cases, hospitalization and IV fluids are required, though this is uncommon.

Anal Fissures

Small ruptures or tears in the anal lining can sometimes cause pain and bleeding; in extreme cases, these fissures can keep you up at night. Most of the time, anal fissures are caused by the passage of large or hard stools. The good news is that they tend to heal on their own in a matter of weeks. To expedite the healing process, consider an increase in fluid intake and fiber consumption. Soaking in a warm bath may also help to alleviate discomfort.

Listen to Your Gut: Understanding the Functions of Your Gut & Digestive System

Doctors often use the “gut” as a catch-all term to encompass the digestive system’s various components, including the mouth, esophagus, stomach, intestines, colon, and rectum. Some scientists even include the brain as a part of the digestive system because the digestive system signals the brain to communicate when, what, how much, and how fast to eat. 

Additionally, the brain and the digestive system work together to control serotonin release and other hormones, which can have a massive impact on mood and stress levels. The gut is home to the “microbiome,” a swath of bacteria that helps combat disease and maintain overall health and wellbeing. 

As one Harvard study notes, the gut can contain diverse bacteria that impact bodily functions in different ways, and in a healthy body, those bacteria have a symbiotic impact. But if there is a disturbance in that balance—brought on by infectious illnesses, certain diets, or the prolonged use of antibiotics or other bacteria-destroying medications—dysbiosis occurs, stopping these normal interactions,” the study notes. “As a result, the body may become more susceptible to disease.

Dysfunction in the gut can impact the body in several different ways. Some examples include:

1. Sleep Issues

Insufficient sleep can deplete the microbiome and increase the risk of other serious health concerns. There is ample evidence linking gut disorders to circadian rhythm disruptions, such as those faced by shift workers. An unhealthy microbiome can alter the release of hormones associated with hunger, impulse control, and stress… all of which can make it harder to fall asleep at night.

2. Fatigue or Sluggishness

Abnormal levels of specific gut bacteria can be linked with chronic fatigue and daytime sleepiness. While the specific link is unknown, many researchers speculate that the connection has to do with hormone imbalances.

3. Autoimmune Disorders

Those who have poor gut health are at higher risk of autoimmune disease. That’s because the bacteria that live in a healthy gut help drive and direct normal autoimmune response; they help protect the digestive system from inflammation.

4. Sugar Cravings 

Poor gut health can contribute to unhealthy sugar cravings.

sugar cravings

In other words, the gut dictates which foods we crave… and an unhealthy gut can produce unhealthy cravings.

Managing Your Digestive Health for a Good Night’s Rest

The silver lining is that there are some basic lifestyle changes that can help keep digestive health in check, and potentially produce better sleep outcomes. Here are just a few examples:

1. Avoid Eating Large Portions Before Bed

One important guideline is to avoid eating or drinking too much just before bedtime. “Stomach distention is often caused by eating a large amount of food and/or swallowing gas bubbles,” says Miller. “This can make you really uncomfortable and toss and turn to relieve the gas pressure. If you eat a big meal or drink a lot of fluid too close to laying down, your stomach may hurt and/or you may feel really bloated. This can prevent you from falling asleep if you feel uncomfortable.”

2. Monitor Your Diet

Proper nutrition is also important. “Eating a healthy diet can help ensure that your gut is properly functioning,” says Allen. There are specialized micronutrient tests that can uncover any nutrient deficiencies that need to be fixed through nutrition and/or supplements. 

Limiting or avoiding inflammatory foods such as sugar, artificial sweeteners, refined carbs (such as white bread, pasts, pastries), processed meats, vegetable oils and excessive alcohol use also promotes gut health.”

3. Check in on Your Sleeping Position 

The right sleeping position can make a big difference, too. Back sleeping is often the best, but only if you keep the head elevated; otherwise, back sleeping can actually increase the likelihood of acid reflux. If acid reflux and heartburn are constant sleep disruptors for you, you may want to consider looking into an adjustable bed frame to help keep your body elevated.

4. Reduce Stress

Stress can be a huge contributor to digestive problems. Make sure you have healthy outlets for your stress, including regular physical activity or creative pursuits. A soothing bedtime routine can also go a long way toward minimizing stress.

5. Pass on the NightCap

Miller cautions against alcohol consumption before bed. “Research shows that alcohol before bed can actually decrease the quality of your sleep,” she notes.

The Takeaway 

The bottom line is that symptoms of insomnia, restlessness, and chronic fatigue can all be linked to poor digestive health; and, if left untreated, these symptoms may only become worse. The good news is that some lifestyle changes may be all it takes to improve your digestive system so that you can get the restorative sleep you need at night.


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