How Digestion Affects Your Sleep Quality

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Quality sleep is vital for health. Sleep is when your body repairs itself, and your brain consolidates information to learn. When you don’t get enough rest, you’re more likely to experience a variety of health challenges, including heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.

But what happens to your digestion when you don’t sleep? And perhaps an even more important question is what happens to the quality of your shuteye when your digestion isn’t functioning at its best? This article takes a look at digestion and sleep while also providing helpful tips on how to optimize your gut health for better rest.

Does Food Digest When You Sleep?

Your digestive system continues to work even when you’re asleep. However, it significantly slows down because you’re not eating or drinking when you’re unconscious.

During this time, the tissues in this area also grow, repair, and rebuild themselves. The digestive system uses the glucose consumed during the day to fuel these processes.

However, if you’ve eaten a large meal immediately before going to bed, you’re not giving the digestive system adequate time to rest. As a result, you may wake up with heartburn, indigestion, acid reflux, or other unpleasant, sleep-disrupting symptoms.

How Sleep Deprivation Affects Digestion

Vulnerable to Inflammation

Various digestive disorders are due to inflammation in the gut. These include irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s, and ulcerative colitis. Often, an immune response triggers bouts of inflammation because the person ate or drank something that the body did not like or recognize.

The immune system is also closely linked to sleep. When a person is sleep-deprived, the immune system creates an excess of pro-inflammatory cytokines, resulting in even more inflammation. If this sounds like a chicken and egg type of scenario, it’s because it is.

If you’re prone to digestive challenges, you’re likely to have trouble sleeping. And, if you have trouble sleeping, your digestion is likely to worsen.

Crave More Sugary Foods

Have you ever noticed that you feel hungrier when you’re deprived of shuteye? It’s not all in your head. This biological response has been proven.

The reason for this is that insufficient rest results in a hormonal imbalance. The hormone ghrelin, which makes you hungry, becomes more prevalent than the hormone leptin, which signals fullness. When you also consider that lack of sleep affects judgment, that extra trip to the vending machine after lunch to grab a Snickers all of a sudden makes sense.

Illustration of a Woman Thinking about Food

Predisposed to Stress

When people don’t get enough shuteye, they may feel more stressed, especially if the reason they tossed and turned all night was due to anxiety. However, the more stressed you are, the more you throw off your digestive system.

The reason is that when you’re experiencing stress, your body is in “fight or flight” mode. Most of the blood and your energy resources are being diverted to your limbs and certain parts of your brain. Digestion literally stops, resulting in constipation or diarrhea.

Read More: How To Cope With Stress and Sleep

Affects Neurochemicals

The body maintains a delicate balance of hormones and chemicals that cycle through the body each day. Two of the primary hormones that affect sleep are melatonin and cortisol. In the evening, melatonin levels rise, preparing the body for sleep.

The levels tend to peak between one and four in the morning. Then the body begins to replace melatonin with cortisol, a stress hormone. A boost of cortisol is what helps you jump out of bed and start your day.

Related to this cycle is the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that is the precursor for melatonin. Serotonin is mostly found in the gut, so when there are digestive challenges and obstacles, it harms serotonin, preventing it from being converted to melatonin. When that happens, melatonin production drops, cortisol levels increase, and it begins a cycle of sleepless nights.

Stomach Problems that Cause Sleep Difficulties

Illustration of a Woman Having Stomach Ache

Indigestion

Indigestion encompasses a wide range of symptoms from heartburn to gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). As you can imagine, or maybe you’ve experienced, having indigestion makes sleeping difficult, if not impossible. It can be tough to find a comfortable sleeping position, and you may need to get up multiple times during the night to use the bathroom.

Constipation

If you’re having trouble sleeping and feeling constipated, the two could be related. Assuming that you’re getting plenty of fiber in your diet, what you’re experiencing could be either neurological or stress-related.

Another possible cause of constipation is dehydration. Not drinking enough water can slow down your digestive system, making it difficult to fall and stay asleep.

Heartburn

Heartburn is extremely uncomfortable when you’re trying to sleep. It’s a symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease, and the cause is acid reflux entering the esophagus. Doctors once believed it stemmed from too much acid production, but they have now found it’s exactly the opposite.

Heartburn is caused by the digestive system not producing enough acid. When this occurs, the body doesn’t know to signal a dedicated valve to close off. That’s because the valve only closes when there are a lot of juices circulating to break down food.

As a result, the valve is almost always open, allowing the acid to make its way to the stomach. Gravity doesn’t help, making the symptoms worse when you lie down and try to sleep.

Illustration of a Woman Having Heartburn

Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease

GERD is surprisingly common, with about 10 to 20 percent of Americans regularly experiencing uncomfortable symptoms like heartburn and acid reflux. People who are trying to sleep with GERD not only have trouble falling asleep but they may also be woken up with fits of coughing or choking.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Abbreviated as IBS, irritable bowel syndrome often comes with complaints of sleep disturbances. In fact, the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders shares that 40 percent of IBS patients report difficulty sleeping. Furthermore, research has shown that when someone with IBS has a night of restless sleep, they’re more likely to experience symptoms the following day, including stomach pain, tiredness, and anxiety.

Ulcerative Colitis

Ulcerative colitis (UC) is a type of inflammatory bowel disease in the colon and rectum area. This condition is incredibly uncomfortable.

In addition to having to follow an extremely restrictive diet, people who struggle with ulcerative colitis are often doubled over in pain due to cramps. Unpredictable bouts of diarrhea are also commonplace, making it difficult to plan social outings.

Though studies are ongoing, an out-of-sync circadian rhythm can trigger bouts of ulcerative colitis. The immune system also plays a role as inflammatory cytokines are observed in patients that experience UC.

Crohn’s Disease

People with Crohn’s Disease typically experience sleep issues, even those who are in remission. Furthermore, poor sleep can exacerbate the issue, creating a cyclical effect. According to health experts, not getting enough shuteye can worsen Chrohn’s disease symptoms because the reduced rest impairs the immune system.

How to Improve Digestion While Sleeping

Quality sleep and digestion are closely connected. Poor sleep quality can cause different digestion problems, while poor digestion can make it difficult to get quality sleep. Although some things like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis require more care and medical attention, there are some things you can do to improve your digestion while sleeping.

Avoid Big Meals Before Bedtime

Remember that your digestive system needs time to rest and heal, so don’t overload it with a heavy meal right before bed. If you’re hungry at night, eat a small snack like an apple with nut butter or a slice of avocado toast.

Better yet, consume most of your calories earlier in the day so that your body can take a break from digesting food at night.

Learn more: Risks of Eating Before Bed

Check Your Sleep Position

Avoid sleeping on your stomach as this sleeping position compresses the organs of your digestive system It compresses the organs of your digestive system. The best position is on your back with your head propped up by a wedge pillow. Alternatively, sleeping on your left side can increase blood flow and aid in digestion.

View Our Guide: How to Properly Sleep On Your Back

illustration of a lady sleeping with her neck properly supported

Relax

Try to wind down at night and enjoy your evenings. Relax with a warm bath, a cup of hot tea for sleep, or a chat with a friend or loved one. Instead of getting immersed in television, social media, or work emails, consider curling up with a good book to help your body and mind relax before bed.

By going to bed in a calm and relaxed mood, you’re more likely to be able to fall asleep faster and get a quality night of rest.

Herbal Supplements

Natural supplements can soothe tummy troubles, helping you get shuteye. Look for brands with all-natural ingredients that give your body the nutrients it needs to heal itself. Chemical-laden solutions only cover up symptoms and can make the situation worse in the long run.

Follow a Bedtime Routine

A natural and effective way to fall asleep is to follow a bedtime routine each night. By doing the same set of activities in the same order each night, you train your brain to feel sleepy. A nightly routine could be as simple as washing your face, brushing your teeth, and performing other grooming activities, or you might want to do something relaxing like take a bath or meditate.

Prepare for Nighttime Disruptions

If you have chronic digestive issues, it’s important to understand that they won’t typically go away overnight. In most cases, you’re likely to experience some nighttime disturbances.

Try to do your business and go back to bed without fretting about missing out on sleep. The more you worry, the worse the situation becomes.

Pay Attention to Your Diet

People with conditions like GERD, Crohn’s, and IBS usually have sensitivities to specific foods, often gluten. Monitor your diet carefully, and then try to avoid anything that causes a reaction.

What Foods Are Easy to Digest and Help You Sleep?

It’s best to avoid eating right before bed, but an occasional snack should be fine if you’re feeling too hungry to wait until the morning. One of the best snacks to enjoy is almonds because they’re a good source of melatonin that helps signal your body that it’s time to sleep. Turkey is also a good choice as it contains tryptophan, which increases melatonin. Consuming a bit of turkey or other protein before bed should promote tiredness, improving sleep quality. Kiwi is one of the best foods to eat before bed as it’s rich in fiber and carotenoid antioxidants, helping digestive health, lowering your cholesterol, and reducing inflammation.

Foods that Help You Sleep Circle

Reduce Stress

Stress is seldom helpful, and there’s no place for it in the bedroom.

Take moments to breathe and relax during the day and at night. The more stress you have in your life, the harder it could be for you to sleep. And, as you now know, the less sleep you get, the more you’re likely to experience digestive troubles.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can insomnia and sleep apnea cause digestive problems?

Yes, both of these conditions can lead to digestive problems. When someone is sleep-deprived, as is often the case with insomnia and sleep apnea, the digestive system doesn’t get allotted a proper amount of time to heal itself, grow, and repair damaged tissues. Therefore, not getting enough rest can exacerbate existing problems, and even cause new ones to emerge.

What causes nighttime bowel movements?

A digestive system that’s not operating properly can lead to a nighttime bowel movement. The conditions discussed thus far don’t typically cease to exist just because you close your eyes at night. While a normal digestive system would slow down and work on restoration while you sleep, a troubled one may continue to churn, making it likely that you’ll have to get up in the middle of the night.

How can I digest food at night?

Your digestion continues even at night and during sleep. The trick is to help ease the process. Here are some things you can do to accelerate and ease the process:

  • Drink plenty of water, at least 64 ounces daily.

  • Consume fresh, unprocessed foods.

  • Eat slowly, chew your food, and relax while you eat.

  • Don’t overeat.

  • At night, keep meals small.

Can anxiety cause gas pain?

Yes, anxiety puts the body in a fight or flight response, temporarily halting digestion. As a result, undigested foods can sit in the stomach causing gas pain and other forms of discomfort.

What is the best sleep position for digestion?

The best sleeping position for digestion is sleeping on your left side. Sleeping on your left side helps coordinate your digestive system and gravity. The natural position of the stomach is on the left side, where it digests food easily and effectively. Gravity plays a role here, helping the waste travel from the small intestine to the large intestine.

Conclusion

The link between sleep and digestion may seem surprising, but it makes sense when you think about it. After all, there are two subdivisions of the nervous system: parasympathetic, also known as “rest and digest,” and sympathetic, known as “fight or flight.” When the nervous system is off balance, it affects every function in the body, including sleep and digestion.

So, if you needed yet another reason to get a restful slumber each night, you can add digestive health to the list.

Our team covers as many areas of expertise as we do time zones, but none of us started here as a so-called expert on sleep. What we do share is a willingness to ask questions (lots of them), seek experts, and dig deep into conventional wisdom to see if maybe there might be a better path towards healthy living. We apply what we learn not only to our company culture, but also how we deliver information to our over 12.7M readers.

Sleep research is changing all the time, and we are 100% dedicated to keeping up with breakthroughs and innovations. You live better if you sleep better. Whatever has brought you here, we wish you luck on your journey towards better rest.

Sleep Advisor