7 reasons why poor digestion could be disrupting your sleep

Could your gut be to blame for keeping you up at night?

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Nutritional Practitioner, BA (Hons), DN, DNT (Distinction)
Ask Ali

05 November 2018

1 - You’re eating too late

You’d think this one is more obvious, but actually, many of us don’t realise that the time at which we eat our last meal of the day could have a major impact on how well we sleep at night. As you eat your body spurs into action releasing a whole host of chemicals and hormones in order to digest the food and fuel your body efficiently. This means you’ll see peaks and troughs in blood sugar, the release of insulin and the release of cortisol soon after. Research has shown that cortisol in particular can peak around 30 minutes to one hour after eating1 so eating too closely to bedtime could easily coincide with this. 

So, I think we can agree that metabolically, there is a lot going on soon after eating, plus that’s not to mention the fact that we could potentially be feeling a little uncomfortable if we’ve eaten a bit too much! Ideally by the time we go to bed, we want those cortisol levels (this is one of our main stress hormones) to be at its lowest level of the day, so we’re much more able to get into relaxation mode and wind down towards an undisturbed slumber.

2 - You’re eating too much 

Now, when it comes to eating too much, the obvious issue is that your stomach is left feeling uncomfortable and fit to burst – not exactly the time you want to snuggle down in bed and get settled for the night!

Next, all the chemical mechanisms that we’ve just talked through will be more pronounced if you’ve overindulged. You’re blood sugar will be more likely to spike, a bigger dose of insulin will be required to try and manage the crazy influx of macronutrients and the cortisol spike thereafter will also be more exaggerated.

As we’ll also go on to discuss in more detail, if you’re routinely eating too much (especially before bedtime), this can also make problems like acid reflux more likely and can put unnecessary pressure on your liver too. 

Then, there’s also the question of what you’re eating. Meals heavy on stimulants including sugars or spices, or those with copious caffeinated or alcoholic beverages on the side, will unsurprisingly only add to your digestive woes. Caffeine can take up to 8 hours to vacate your system and contrary to popular belief, alcohol can disrupt the quality of your sleep so you may wake up feeling groggier than ever.

3 - You’re eating too little 

Although this isn’t such a common problem nowadays as generally we are all eating too much, going to bed hungry can also be a disruptive factor when it comes to sleep. 

Whilst we sleep our parasympathetic nervous system is more dominant and we call this our ‘rest and digest mode.’ This means your digestive system should be happily working away quietly in the background, digesting the remnants of today’s food and processing the relevant portions ready to be excreted as waste. 

However, if your system is too empty and there’s not enough substance to keep things ticking over, you may become aware of stomach rumblings or hunger pangs which could wake you from your slumber. This is especially common in the morning. Your early morning awakenings may even be coupled with bouts of anxiety, which could suggest that you aren’t eating enough, or enough of the right types of foods such as protein or healthy fats, to get you through until morning. 

4 - You suffer with acid reflux 

Dyspeptic symptoms including indigestion, acid reflux or heartburn are on the rise and unfortunately lying down flat won’t do much to help your symptoms! This is why people often suffer, or have more noticeable symptoms as they retreat for the night. As you lie in bed, gravity goes against you and the acidic contents of your stomach are much more likely to creep up into your unprotected oesophagus and, as a result, you can end up experiencing pain. 

Now, a long list of bad habits can make acid reflux more likely such as eating in a rush, eating slumped over, eating whilst stressed or eating too much. For many of us these factors can build up over time and we find we need to really focus on some proper digestive support to help get things back to normal.

Nowadays doctors are pretty quick to prescribe acid-reducing medications but did you know that for the majority of us, low stomach acid is much more likely to be causing an issue? This is more common as we get older and in times of stress. Low stomach acid can create similar symptoms to too much – cue the acid reflux and a feeling of fullness as gastric emptying is slowed!

To help confirm your suspicions, why not try some simple home tests to help figure out the strength of your gastric secretions? Then if you suspect low stomach could be the issue, why not try taking a bitter herbal tincture such as Yarrow 5-10 minutes before your meals, to help support those gastric secretions going forward. 

5 - Your liver is under pressure

Did you know that according to Traditional Chinese Medicine, waking up between the hours of 1-3am is a classic sign that your liver could be under pressure? Your liver is one of our key digestive organs, so if it isn’t working optimally you can soon suffer as a result!

Lots of modern-day habits can put your liver under pressure; from indulging in sugar and alcohol to relying heavily on medication, but actually, other common conditions such as PMS or constipation could also be contributing. 

A sluggish bowel means a backlog of toxins will be redirected to your liver, and unfortunately it’s becoming increasingly more common for people not to the loo regularly enough! In terms of PMS, your liver has to recycle any excess hormones therefore if your monthly symptoms are a little hard to handle, a hormone imbalance could be at a play which means your liver has to work extra hard to help keep things in balance.

Read more in my blog on this topic to help support your liver health going forward – this could be especially useful in the lead up to the festive season!

6 - You have some underlying inflammation 

Whilst conditions such as IBS aren’t technically considered inflammatory – we know that subclinical inflammation is on the rise and this isn’t something that is commonly recognised by allopathic medicine. Subclinical inflammation, in many cases, is thought to originate in the gut and can crop up as a result of weak digestion. As food isn’t broken down properly in the stomach, partially undigested food can become a target for immune cells further along in the gut, which can ultimately create this low-grade inflammatory response. 

As low-grade inflammation builds, the structure of our gut can become compromised and this can create what we call ‘leaky gut’. Leaky gut can create further inflammation as larger molecules of food or pathogens can pass into our system, ready to come under fire from our frantic immune system. This can easily turn into a vicious cycle, plus other symptoms such as stress or lack of sleep will only add to the problem.

7 - Your gut bacteria are out of balance

Recently, we’ve been hearing more and more about the proposed health benefits of pre- and probiotics – it’s all very exciting! Our founder Alfred Vogel was very much a believer that our overall health stemmed back to the health of the gut and, with the magnitude of benefits that pre and probiotics seem to bring, this certainly seems to ring true!

New research has suggested that the bacteria in our gut may also be able to have a direct influence on the quality of our sleep. The findings suggested that prebiotics could help to improve both REM and non-REM sleep, so basically covering all the different stages of sleep that we need in order to feel properly rested. It seems that the bacteria that resides in your gut could be successfully influencing our sleep by releasing beneficial by-products that can have effects on our brain function2 – amazing! 

Bearing in mind that prebiotics help to effectively feed our good bacteria, prebiotic foods worth stocking up on include vegetables such as onion, garlic, leeks, artichokes and bananas. Then if you feel you need something a little extra, you can always up your prebiotic dose with the help of Molkosan. 

Molkosan contains L+ lactic acid which helps to support the internal environment of the gut, perfect for assisting the growth of your good gut bacteria and limiting the proliferation of the bad. Then, once you’ve supported your gut sufficiently with prebiotics, topping up with probiotics such as those from the Optibac range (the bacteria themselves, that is) this may help to boost some of those benefits further.


1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3033415/

2. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnbeh.2016.00240/full

Yarrow complex for digestion


£ 10.85

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Combination of freshly harvested 'digestive' herbs including Yarrow, Dandelion and Gentian.
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Molkosan® Original – A prebiotic for good gut bacteria


£ 6.25

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Prebiotic whey drink, rich in L+ lactic acid, for good digestion. Also available in 500ml size.
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