Is Poor Sleep Making Your IBS Worse?
Staring at the ceiling, counting sheep, and changing position every two minutes in pursuit of that ‘just right’ comfy feeling … we’ve all been there. Perhaps you struggle to get off to sleep in the first place, or maybe you go to sleep just fine, but wake at 3am with no hope of returning to slumber-land. We all have the occasional bad night, but when your sleep is consistently poor is it simply an annoyance that leaves you shattered the following day, or could sleep actually be contributing to your IBS?
How much sleep should you be getting and why is it a big deal?
Many people will have heard they should be aiming for seven hours of sleep per night, but this is really the minimum number of hours. Your ideal number may be closer to eight or nine hours per night.
Insufficient sleep, or low quality sleep, has been linked not just with digestive issues, but poor sleepers are also more likely to carry excess body fat, experience poor mental health, reduced immunity, and have decreased brain health and function.
What’s sleep got to do with IBS?
Research can’t tell us for sure exactly why poor sleep is implicated in IBS, but it’s thought to be related to how the nerves situated in the gut and the brain communicate with each other. A meta-analysis study in 2018 found sleep issues are extremely common in people with IBS.
What can I do to improve my sleep?
- Aim for a solid eight hours of sleep every night. With the temptation of Netflix and social media enticing you to stay up late this can be hard, but try it for two weeks and monitor the effect on your IBS symptoms.
- Create a sleep routine that doesn’t vary at the weekend (go to sleep and wake up at the same time on a Saturday as you do on a Monday).
- On waking in the morning, go outside as soon as possible for exposure to natural daylight. When and how well you sleep is largely determined by the hormones cortisol, serotonin, melatonin and GABA. Light rays enter through your eyes first thing in the morning and activate the part of your brain responsible for stimulating the production of these sleep-crucial hormones. In other words, if you want to sleep well at the end of the day, you have to kick-start the hormone cascade at the very beginning of the day.
- Further to the point above, if light is stimulating, it follows that when going to bed you want as little light as possible. Ensure there are no gaps in the curtains, turn the landing light out, and switch off any tech in the bedroom that emits an on standby glow.
- Set the scene for sleep. Is your bedroom a comfortable temperature – ideally a little cool? Are there any noises (both outside and inside the house) that can be either reduced or eliminated completely.
- Turn your mobile phone to airplane mode two hours before bed and avoid your laptop during this period to reduce screen time before going off to sleep.
- Is anything worrying you? Unresolved issues can play on our minds just as we’re trying to wind down and get to sleep. If you can pinpoint what the issue is, are you able to resolve it? Sometimes it can be as simple as worrying that you’ll forget to do something in the morning. In this case, write a note to remind yourself and leave it beside the bed, so you can drift off without the “I mustn’t forget to … “ soundtrack on repeat.
If you’re consistently not sleeping for long enough, or regularly having poor quality sleep, then it’s essential to address this for the sake of your digestive system, and your health as a whole. The above steps should improve the quality of your sleep, and hopefully you may see some changes for the better reflected in your IBS symptoms.
As a nutritionist I‘m registered with the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine, meaning that if nutrition is my first love, then lifestyle (including sleep) is my close second crush. When the body is displaying symptoms, there are multiple issues at play and they ALL need addressing.
Your diet is an extremely important factor in whether or not you sleep well:
- The hormones that control your sleep-wake cycle are made from the building blocks contained within the food you eat
- The time you eat your evening meal directly impacts your sleep quality
- A too high or too low blood glucose (sugar) level will disrupt your sleep
- Minerals such as magnesium, found in your diet, are required for healthy sleep
- Chemicals such as caffeine and histamine in your diet may be overstimulating your nervous system and interfering with your sleep
Food affects IBS, sleep influences IBS, food can either help or hinder sleep, and IBS can disrupt sleep. This is yet another example of the constant interplay between our diet, lifestyle and health.
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Wang, B., Duan, R. & Duan, L. (2018). Prevalence of sleep disorder in irritable bowel syndrome: A systematic review with meta-analysis. Saudi Journal of Gastroenterology 24(3), 141-150.