Embracing the Connection Between Sleep and Gut Health with Dr. Zach Bush
Strengthen Your Gut For Better Sleep.
Dr. Zach Bush is a triple board-certified physician specializing in internal medicine, endocrinology, and hospice care. In addition, he’s an internationally recognized educator and thought leader on the microbiome related to health, disease, and food systems. We recently sought his expertise on a myriad of questions: Can what you eat during the day keep you awake at night? Are nutritional deficiencies to blame for insomnia? Is melatonin the best sleep supplement to reach for when you can’t sleep? His answers rē-spun everything we thought we knew about sleep.
The conventional approach to treating sleep issues often centers around prescribing medications like Ambien and working on relaxation techniques. But, when patients come to Dr. Bush with a sleep disorder, he immediately zeros in on their gut health. This is because gut disorders make it difficult for sleep initiation to begin. “If you become deficient in gut microbiome, your serotonin and dopamine reserves deplete and will reduce their function,” he recently told rē•spin. Of course, it’s well-known that serotonin levels in the brain affect your sleep-wake cycles. But, the fact that the microbes in your gut, being altered by your diet, have the potential to keep you awake at night is a relatively new connection being made.
Sleep is vital for your long-term health, and according to Dr. Bush, rē-thinking your diet and rē-considering your probiotic supplement use can help you achieve consistently good quality sleep. Yes, you read that right. Instead, he wants you to put the probiotic supplements down and focus on nourishing your gut bacteria through whole organic foods.
Probiotics and Monocultures
When it comes to healthy gut bacteria, variety is key—the greater the diversity, the healthier the microbiome. Likewise, the healthier the microbiome, the better you sleep. The issue Dr. Bush has with the current approach to probiotic use is that typical probiotic supplements repeatedly provide 35-50 billion copies of the same bacteria, which creates a monoculture in your microbiome. “While some products contain up to 24 species of bacteria, that’s still a far cry from the diversity we know to be optimally healthy,” he explains. “You might call them good bacteria, but if you’re using them chronically, you could create real problems.”
Probiotics are a 40 billion dollar industry. In an online poll Dr. Bush conducted for physicians, 70% prescribed them to their patients. When you flood your gut with only a few species of healthy bacteria, you’re going to feel better initially, but then you hit a plateau. The benefits of probiotics can only last for a couple of weeks. Your microbiome needs more than just a handful of good bacteria. It requires thousands of different species, provided naturally by consuming organic, whole foods.
“It is important for you to start backing off, to let the carbon redox system- the communication system between the bacteria in the gut- reestablish a healthy balance in the gut. What I’m saying is, we need to stop trying to micromanage the gut,” he urges. When you stop taking probiotics and focus on nourishing your body with a gut-healthy diet, your microbiome flourishes on its own, and healthier sleep naturally occurs.
Essential Amino Acids: The Building Blocks of Life
One of the key nutrients you need enough of for quality sleep is amino acids. They’re the building blocks of all the proteins and hormonal processes in our body, including the production of serotonin and dopamine. So two essential hormones are needed to both fall asleep and stay asleep. Every protein in our body comprises these 22 amino acids, 9 of which are called essential amino acids because our bodies don’t produce them independently.
All mammals, including humans, rely entirely on getting these essential amino acids from our foods. Quinoa, eggs, mushrooms, and lentils are some of the best dietary sources to get them from. When your diet is rich in essential amino acids like tryptophan, you naturally produce more serotonin and have an easier time falling asleep.
Fiber: The Most Overlooked Nutrient
Another key nutrient you’re looking for to improve your gut matrix is what Dr. Bush refers to as the most overlooked nutrient in the American scientific community and at the consumer level of understanding. “There’s so much discussion and argument around fats and proteins in the nutritional community, but it’s fiber in the food that allows for a coral reef-like structure to develop in the gut lining where you’re supporting this complex ecosystem of bacteria and fungi alike.”
You’re going for the diversification of bacteria specific to developing serotonin and dopamine, chemicals necessary for quality sleep. Fiber supports good gut bacteria and, therefore, better sleep. Root vegetables like beets, carrots, radishes, and sweet potatoes are rich in soluble and insoluble fiber. Nuts and fruits like apples and berries are also good sources of fiber.
Organic Produce is Key
According to Dr. Bush, eating as much organic as possible is essential because modern farming practices are engineering the fiber out of our food. In addition, genetically modified foods are now being engineered for consumer preferences. For example, apples are modified to snap just right or have the sweetest flavor. But, this leads to fruits and vegetables that are undermined in their ability to support the gut microbiome. This can lead to chronic sleep disorders.
Glyphosate is one of the main chemicals used in Roundup, an herbicide used in non-organic farming production. Dr. Bush says that this gut disrupting chemical limits access to the essential amino acids needed to produce necessary chemicals for sleep. Glyphosate is found in non-organic foods. Ingesting it targets protein structures in our cells which causes damage to the gut lining and increases inflammation. This can lead to chronic diseases like cancer and Alzheimers and disrupt our body’s natural ability to regulate our sleep-wake cycles.
“Lack of sleep has a profound impact on your brain. If you don’t get enough sleep, your cognitive function is reduced, your ability to learn is impaired, your memories don’t get stored in a way you can access them when you need them, and you have slower reaction times,” explains Dr. Bush. Unfortunately, the conventional approach of taking prescription sleep aids like Ambien isn’t solving the root cause of the real issue. Most sleep deficiencies occur because we aren’t providing the right ecosystem for our gut bacteria to thrive. rē•spin your path toward better sleep by consuming more natural fiber, eating organically as much as possible to maximize essential amino acids, and pausing on the probiotic supplements for a more diverse microbiome.