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Sleep is vital for health. It’s when your body repairs itself, and your brain consolidates information to learn. When you don’t get enough rest, you’re more likely to suffer from 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 optimal rest.
What Happens to Your Digestive System During Sleep?
Even when you’re asleep, your digestive system continues to work. However, it does get to slow down quite a bit because when you’re unconscious, you’re not eating or drinking.
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, and your digestion continues while you’re asleep. 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
A variety of digestive disorders are due to inflammation in the gut. These include Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s, and ulcerative colitis. Often, bouts of inflammation are triggered by an immune response, often because the sufferer 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 when you’re deprived of shuteye, you feel hungrier? It’s not all in your head. This biological response has been proven.
It’s because a lack of 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.
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, which can cause constipation or diarrhea.
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. It’s found mostly 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
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 have the need to get up multiple times during the night to use the bathroom.
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. If you’re not drinking enough water, it could also slow down your digestive system, making sleep difficult, too.
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. Once upon a time, doctors believed it stemmed from much acid production. However, 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’s 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. thanks to the wonders of gravity, symptoms worsen when you lie down and try to sleep.
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 sufferers often complain of sleep disturbances. In fact, other than digestive troubles, patients report sleepless nights as their number one health challenge. Studies have also shown that when someone with IBS has a night of restless sleep, the chance of having a bad IBS day increases.
Ulcerative colitis 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, patients 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.
People with Crohn’s Disease also need to pay attention to their sleeping habits. Not getting enough shuteye can double the risk of an active case, even for people in remission.
Sleep Tips for Better Gut Health
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 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.
Check Your Sleep Position
Try to wind down at night and enjoy your evenings. Relax with a warm bath, a cup of hot tea 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 instead.
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.
There are natural supplements on the market that can soothe tummy troubles, so you can get some 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. It 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, realize that they won’t typically go away overnight. There are bound to be some nighttime disturbances.
Try to do your business and go back to bed without fretting about missing out on sleep. The more you worry about it, 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 avoid anything that causes a reaction.
Stress is seldom helpful. The only time it comes in handy is if you’re trying to meet a deadline or your being chased by a tiger. There’s no place for stress 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 suffer from 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.
The link between sleep and your digestion is somewhat 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 your digestion.
So, if you needed yet another reason to get plenty of restful shuteye each night, you can add digestive health to the list.
Author: Jill Thompson
I've been self-employed for almost four years and I would not change it for anything! I believe that anyone can achieve their goals with the right attitude and determination.
I'm an avid traveler (25+ countries and counting) that loves to meet new people doing amazing things.
When I'm not researching for the Sleep Advisor, you can find me reading, running, traveling, golfing, or meditating.
I wish you the very best on your journey!