It’s easy to blame anxieties going round and round in your head for sleepless nights. But the problem could lie not in the revolution of thoughts in your brain but in the churning in your gut, says Patsy Westcott.
The other day a packet of probiotics plopped through the letterbox with a press release suggesting that they might help fight fatigue and encourage sound sleep. It seems a bit of a stretch. But there is an increasing amount of research suggesting that probiotics may help all sorts of health-related problems – from the obvious tummy troubles such as flatulence, bloating, diarrhoea and constipation, to helping the immune system function optimally and even play a part in obesity. So I decided to investigate.
Over the past few years scientists have pointed to the body’s second brain, ‘the brain in the stomach’ – scientifically known as the enteric nervous system or ENS – as the source of many ills. With an estimated 500 million nerve cells or neurons (as many as in the spinal cord), according to one expert, the ENS is thought to be as important as the brain in our heads for physical and emotional wellbeing. Hard to believe isn’t it, but think about how you get ‘butterflies in the tummy’ before an important meeting or big event, and you get the picture. In fact experts say that the ENS was the original nervous system when our fish-like ancestors emerged from the swamps more than 500 million years ago and may even have led to the development of brain itself.
What’s all that got to do with sleep? Well it seems that melatonin, a nerve messenger chemical or neurotransmitter – aka the sleep regulating hormone – is found in abundance in the gut. Amazingly there’s 400 times more melatonin in the gut than there is in the pineal gland, the ‘third eye’ in the brain where melatonin is traditionally thought to be produced. Research has even shown that most of the daytime melatonin in our bloodstream comes from the gut – well in mice at least.
Now one of the many roles of melatonin is to alter gut bacteria and it’s also been found that gut bacteria play a role in producing melatonin as well as other neurotransmitters, including the calming, feel-happy hormone, serotonin, that is also involved in sleep. And it also seems that stress, that well-known sleep slayer, causes changes both in gut bacteria and in neurotransmitter levels.
So could probiotics, which have been shown to help rebalance gut bacteria, help you get a good night’s sleep? To be frank it’s still too early to say. But there’s a substantial body of research suggesting they may help ease symptoms of well-known stress-related problems such as irritable bowel syndrome, which in turn is known to be influenced by sleep with many sufferers reporting that symptoms are worse after a bad night.
So there could be some truth in it. Of course, as we all know it’s a long way from mice to men, so I’m still sitting on the fence. But they could be worth a try.
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3. Chen CQ, Fichna J, Bashashati M, Li YY, Storr M. Distribution, function and physiological role of melatonin in the lower gut. World J Gastroenterol. 2011 Sep 14;17(34):3888-98.
4. Konturek PC, Brzozowski T, Konturek SJ. Stress and the gut: pathophysiology, clinical consequences, diagnostic approach and treatment options. J Physiol Pharmacol. 2011 Dec;62(6):591-9.
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