What happens to your digestive system when you sleep?
One of the reasons that sleep is considered so important is that it allows your body time to rest and repair; it gives your brain the time it needs to consolidate new memories, it increases the blood supply to your muscles and it even gives new tissue time to grow. Your digestive system is one of the many systems in your body that benefits from this process, in several different ways.
Firstly, it gives your digestive system a chance to rest. During the day your body will be crying out for glucose, your main source of energy, to fuel your muscles, joints, nervous system and healthy digestion. This means that your digestive system will be working constantly to break down your food to meet this demand however, when you sleep, your need for glucose is greatly reduced. As a consequence, both your metabolism and your digestive system will gradually slow down.
It provides energy for your digestive system to function: Sleep gives you a chance to replenish your energy levels which, as I’ve just mentioned, are essential for your digestive system to function properly. Without an adequate supply of energy, your digestive system won’t be able to break down your food as efficiently, leading to a wide range of unpleasant symptoms.
Does poor sleep play a role in worsening digestive disorders?
Sleep deprivation is closely linked to a variety of symptoms, a few of which can have serious repercussions for your digestive system. Sufferers of IBD, Inflammatory Bowel Disorder, for example, sometimes experience a flare-up after experiencing a poor night of sleep and several possible symptoms could be to blame.
- Sleep deprivation makes you more vulnerable to inflammation: Digestive disorders such as IBD and IBS, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, are sometimes known as inflammatory disorders. IBD, for example, refers to a collection of digestive conditions, such as Crohn’s, and is believed to have a close link to inflammation. Some forms of IBD are often caused by a problem with the immune system, whereby the immune cells start to attack the intestinal tissue causing widespread inflammation. Unfortunately, sleep deprivation may exacerbate this problem. In my blog, ‘Is poor sleep making you more sensitive to pain?’ I explained how poor sleep can enhance your pro-inflammatory cytokines, resulting in higher amounts of inflammation throughout your body, including your muscles and joints, and your gastrointestinal tract.
- Sleep deprivation makes you crave more sugary foods: Ever found yourself craving more sugary, carb-heavy snacks after a poor night of sleep? There is a good reason for these newfound hunger pangs. Firstly, since sleep is so essential for healthy energy levels, your body will be crying out for more food to help supply the fuel you need. Secondly, your levels of ghrelin, the hunger hormone, will be elevated after a poor night’s sleep while your levels of leptin, an appetite suppressor, will be reduced. This can result in bingeing on unhealthy snacks which will definitely impact your digestive system. Refined, processed carbohydrates are harder for your digestive system to break down, which may cause symptoms such as constipation. Sugar is also another substance to be wary of as it can feed the unfriendly bacteria in your gut, resulting in widespread symptoms such as bloating and diarrhoea.
- Sleep deprivation makes you more predisposed to stress: Sleep deprivation can definitely have an impact on your mood and there’s no question that it can make you more vulnerable to stress. Stress, unfortunately, is the enemy of your digestive system, with conditions such as IBS and leaky gut often being exacerbated. This is mainly because your body has no sense of moderation – it cannot distinguish between you worrying about a work presentation and you facing down an angry tiger. Your fight-or-flight instincts will be triggered, prompting your body to redirect nutrients to organs such as your heart, lungs and muscles, while shutting down other bodily functions. Your digestive system is one of these functions – digesting food isn’t really a priority if you’re about to fight for your life – which can result in a bout of constipation or diarrhoea. Since waste products and undigested food will be sitting in you digestive tract, it can cause unfriendly bacteria to proliferate and stimulate inflammation.
- Sleep deprivation affects neurochemicals like serotonin and melatonin: Your sleep-wake cycle is supported by delicate balance of cortisol, a stress hormone, and melatonin, the sleep hormone. Ideally, your levels of melatonin should increase in the evening, while cortisol should start to peak in the morning, allowing you to wake up feeling reinvigorated and refreshed. However, sleep deprivation can impact this balance which can be problematic for the health of your gut. Serotonin, an important neurotransmitter and regulator when it comes to your sleep-wake cycle is found primarily in your gut, and is also considered to be essential for how your digestive system functions, affecting your bowel movements and pain sensitivity.1 If poor sleep is upsetting your balance of melatonin and serotonin it may also impact your digestive functions!
My tips on how to rest so you can digest
Whether or not you suffer from a digestive disorder like GERD, IBD or leaky gut, it’s always important to consider your digestive health when organising your bedtime routine. Certain habits or sleeping positions can have a big impact on your digestive system so below I’ve listed a few of my top tips so you can avoid upsetting your digestive system at night.
1 – No big meals or heavy snacks before bedtime
Sleep gives your digestive system a chance to rest so whatever you do, don’t go and eat a big carb-heavy meal or indulge in sugary snacks before bedtime. Not only will your sluggish digestive system struggle to break down your food, resulting in symptoms like constipation, but this process may keep you awake at night resulting sleep deprivation the next day.
Not to mention, eating right before you lie down can trigger acid reflux and heartburn. This is because, when you lie down, the digestive juices that should be breaking down your food can brush against your oesophagus, irritating the delicate lining and causing a bout of reflux. If you really must have a snack before bedtime, keep it light and avoid sugar – check out my blog, ‘6 surprising foods to avoid before bedtime’, for more details.
2 – The position you sleep in matters
Do you sleep lying on your stomach or curled up on your right side? If so, you may want to reconsider these positions as both can have unforeseen consequences for your digestive system. Sleeping on your stomach, for example, doesn’t leave your internal organs much room, including your stomach, which can upset symptoms such as acid reflux. Sleeping on your right side also has its drawbacks too – it’s believed that this position can worsen side-effects like heartburn.
Overall, the best thing to do if you suffer from any digestive concerns is to sleep with your head elevated. If you sleep at an inclined angle it will help to prevent your stomach acid from reaching your throat during the night. It’s also thought that sleeping on your left side may have some benefits too –some believe that if you sleep on your left side it encourages healthy circulation and digestion, enabling better elimination and supporting your spleen function.2
3 – Take some time to relax
If you go to bed right after eating a big meal or in a stressed state of mind, you definitely won’t have a good night of sleep. That’s why it’s important to try and make the hours leading up to your bedtime a relaxing experience. You should try to avoid stimulants such as caffeine or electronic devices such as your laptop and instead pursuing soothing activities. Indulge in a long hot bath or curl up on your favourite chair with a good book and a nice hot cup of chamomile tea.
If you want to learn more about how you can achieve a better night’s sleep, I go into more detail here with my favourite sleep hygiene tips.
4 – Don’t dismiss herbal helpers
If you are struggling to get a good night’s sleep or are worried about a digestive complaint, it might be worth considering a natural remedy.
Digestisan is one of our favourite remedies, specifically aimed at tackling the symptoms of indigestion, feelings of fullness and flatulence. It contains a number of soothing ingredients, including artichoke, dandelion and peppermint, gently helping to relieve abdominal discomfort.
If you suffer from a pronounced digestive disorder, such as IBS, it might be worth trying our Digestisan remedy in combination with Silicol gel. Rich in silicic acid, this formula helps to protect your digestive tract by binding a variety of toxins and pathogens to help reduce IBS symptoms such as diarrhoea, nausea and abdominal pain. It can also help to ease acid reflux and heartburn by gently coating the digestive tract, reducing the damage caused by stomach acid.
Finally, if you are struggling to get a good night’s sleep, you could try our herbal sleep remedy, Dormeasan. Prepared using a combination of Valerian and Hops, Dormeasan helps relax your nervous system, allowing you to gradually drift into a deep, natural, restorative sleep. Unlike conventional sleep remedies, Dormeasan also has the added benefit of being a non-drowsy formula, meaning that you shouldn’t wake up feeling groggy or disorientated.