Many people I see in clinic struggle with the effects of poor sleep. As well as experiencing an effect on mood and ability to focus, you might be surprised to learn that regular insomnia can have a detrimental impact on gut health and digestion as well.
Why is a good night so important?
A good night’s sleep is as important to health as eating the right things and getting adequate exercise. Your physical and emotional wellbeing depend on sleeping enough. Yet we’re living in sleep-deprived times. Scientists say we’re now getting an hour or two less shut-eye each night than we were 60 years ago. And the effect on our bodies is far from ideal.
The purpose of sleep is to rest and recover – and to allow the body to repair itself. These maintenance and repair processes take 7 to 9 hours, meaning that adults need between 7 and 9 hours per night, regardless of what you think you have trained yourself to get by on.
How much sleep do I need?
The amount of sleep each person needs varies. Waking up feeling refreshed in the morning is a good indicator that you’re getting enough. So is being able to wake without an alarm – if you need an alarm to wake up, chances are you need a bit more.
If you don’t get enough sleep, you may not be able to concentrate properly and feel irritable or agitated during the day. You may also have blurred vision, feel disorientated or slow to respond, and have decreased motivation. On top of that, if you’re tired and cranky, you are significantly less likely to make the best food choices. Sleep-deprived people regularly opt for sweet, carbohydrate-rich foods and caffeine to keep them going.
You might be surprised to learn that, in a computer simulated driving test, those who had had just a few hours’ sleep were more dangerous on the (virtual) road than the people who had had a few drinks! In fact, the majority of road accidents are caused by tiredness.
How can poor sleep impact my gut?
While abdominal pain from IBS and other digestive conditions can impact quality of sleep, scientists now believe that poor sleep can have a direct effect on digestive health. One study showed that people with IBS who had a bad night’s sleep also reported more severe symptoms the following day. One possible reason for this is that lack of sleep heightens pain receptors within the body, and especially within the digestive tract, making people more sensitive to pain and discomfort during the day.
Another consequence of recurring insomnia is that it raises stress within the body. Stress is a well-known cause of IBS and digestive disorders, so it’s not surprising that raised levels due to lack of sleep will also have a knock-on effect on symptoms.
But just how do you get a good night’s sleep?
The most common cause of insomnia is a change in your daily routine. For example, travelling, change in work hours, disruption of other behaviours (eating, exercise, free time etc.), and relationship conflicts can all cause sleep problems.
Establishing good sleep hygiene is the most important thing you can do to maintain good sleep. It might also be helpful to keep a sleep diary to help pinpoint any particular problems.
- Try to go to bed at the same time every day. Your body thrives on routine.
- Keep the temperature in your bedroom comfortable; not too hot, nor too cold.
- Keep the bedroom completely dark, so you’re not disturbed by light, which your brain detects even when your eyes are closed. Eye masks can be useful.
- Spend time outdoors during the day to soak up the sun. Getting early morning sunlight is even more beneficial as it helps your body set its circadian rhythm.
- Try to take some gentle exercise every day. There is evidence that regular exercise improves restful sleep. This includes stretching and aerobic exercise. A brisk walk ticks both boxes.
- Make an effort to relax for at least 5 minutes before going to bed – a warm bath, massage, meditation.
- Keep your feet and hands warm. Wear warm socks and/or mittens or gloves to bed.
- Consider getting a traditional alarm clock so your smartphone can stay out of the bedroom (see below). Better still, work out how much sleep you need by going to bed 15 minutes earlier until you find that you wake up naturally before your alarm.
- Engage in stimulating activities just before bed – playing a competitive game, watching a thriller, or having an important conversation with a loved one. Even using smartphones and tablets can interfere with sleep, because they emit the same kind of light as the morning sun.
- Eat a heavy meal within four hours of going to bed.
- Drink caffeine after lunch – coffee, tea, green tea and cola.
- Use alcohol to help you sleep. Alcohol can make sleep more disturbed.
- Go to bed too hungry. If necessary have a small snack before bed – a glass of milk or banana are ideal.
- Take daytime naps.