4 Ways Sleep Affects Digestive Health

February 22, 2024 · John Gallagher

How Does Sleep Affect Digestion?

The connection between sleep and health is undeniably strong. The sleep community is filled with information about how sleep can improve your mood, your well-being, and your mental health. However, we can’t overlook the great things that sleep can do for your digestive health.

Let’s explore a few key ways that sleep affects the digestive process.

4 Ways Sleep Affects the Digestive Process

Sleep does more than soothe a tired mind and muscles. It also plays a vital role in your digestive health. Alongside other factors like diet, exercise, and mental well-being, sleep helps your body break down food and absorb nutrients. The right amount of sleep can help regulate your gut microbiome, reduce your risk of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), support your metabolism, and mute irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms.

1. Gut Microbiome Regulation

Your gut microbiome refers to the community of beneficial bacteria and other microbes that live in your intestines. These microbes play a vital role in digestion, immune function, and even mental health. When you deprive your body of adequate sleep, it can alter the balance of these microbes, reducing the diversity of the bacteria inside. The same lack of sleep can also encourage overgrowth of harmful bacteria.

Regular, restful sleep supports a balanced and diverse gut microbiome. It gives your gut’s microbiome the best chance for a smooth digestive process, one that fully extracts important vitamins and minerals from the foods you consume. When the microbiome is well-regulated, it helps in efficient digestion, nutrient absorption, and can even prevent several gastrointestinal disorders.

2. Reduced Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) Risk

GERD, commonly known as acid reflux or gastrointestinal reflux disease, occurs when stomach acid flows back into your esophagus. This backflow can cause discomfort, heartburn, and irritation. Acid exposure to the esophagus can also lead to coughing, sore throat, and asthma, and more aggravating symptoms over time.

One of the best ways to reduce the risk of developing GERD is simply by getting enough sleep each night. Stick to a bedtime routine, avoid using electronics for at least 60 minutes before bed, and create a peaceful bedroom environment that encourages a full night’s rest. It’s also important to avoid eating close to bedtime, as this can lead to gastrointestinal discomfort, and GERD symptoms, that delay or prevent sleep.

Some people also notice their GERD symptoms worsening when they lay down for sleep. This is because it’s easier for acid to backflow into the esophagus when the body is in a horizontal position. To address this challenge, many people with GERD symptoms use mattresses with an adjustable base. This allows you the freedom to raise or lower your head - and sometimes your feet - to achieve the most comfortable sleep position. Even slightly raising your head above your abdomen during sleep can help prevent acid reflux and its accompanying symptoms.

3. Metabolism Support

Your metabolism is a complicated set of chemical reactions in the body that together convert food into energy. As you might imagine, this process also plays a fairly important role in digestion. Sleep helps regulate many of the same hormones responsible for hunger, including ghrelin. It also helps balance leptin, one of the hormones that informs your body when you’ve had enough to eat. Lack of sleep can lead to an increase in ghrelin and a decrease in leptin, resulting in increased hunger and appetite, negatively affecting your overall digestive process.

Poor-quality sleep makes it harder for the body to fully support your metabolism. However, a consistent level of high-quality sleep is one of the best ways to support a balanced hormonal environment. Balanced hormones lead to a balanced metabolism, ensuring that you break down food efficiently and absorb nutrients effectively.

4. Muted Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) Symptoms

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a functional gastrointestinal disorder characterized by symptoms like abdominal pain, bloating, and altered bowel habits (constipation, diarrhea, or alternating between the two). While medical researchers still don’t fully understand what causes IBS, they’ve found several factors that contribute to its symptoms. For example, sleep appears to play a vital role in helping regulate, or exacerbate, IBS symptoms.

Here's how sleep can influence IBS symptoms:

  • Stress Reduction: Stress is one of the major triggers of IBS flare-ups. Chronic stress has been consistently linked to a worsening of IBS symptoms. That makes leep one of your most important weapons in the fight to soothe IBS symptoms. A good night's sleep helps your body produce, and regulate, cortisol — the body's primary stress hormone. By regulating stress through adequate sleep, you can potentially reduce the severity of your IBS symptoms.
  • Regulation of Gut Motility: Sleep can influence the speed at which food moves through the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. This process, known as gut or gastrointestinal motility, is one of several factors that healthcare experts use to diagnose the health of your GI tract. Disrupted sleep patterns may adversely affect gut motility, potentially exacerbating IBS symptoms. This is particularly true for individuals who might have diarrhea-predominant irritable bowel syndrome.
  • Inflammation Reduction: Health experts believe that chronic inflammation plays a role in IBS and several other digestive conditions. Deep sleep, or slow-wave sleep, has been shown to promote physical restoration and reduce inflammation in the body. Therefore, regular and deep sleep might help manage the inflammatory responses associated with IBS.
  • Neurotransmitter Balance: The gut and brain communicate constantly, a connection often referred to as the gut-brain axis. This communication is mediated by neurotransmitters, chemicals that transmit signals in the nervous system. Many of these neurotransmitters, like serotonin, are involved in regulating bowel function and mood. Sleep plays a role in balancing your body’s production and use of neurotransmitters, which in turn might influence gut function and IBS symptoms.
  • Immune System Regulation: A good night's sleep is also an important ingredient in the recipe for strong immunity. By contrast, an overactive or dysregulated immune response in the gut can be one of the factors contributing to IBS symptoms. By protecting the quality and longevity of your sleep, you help your immune system better enforce correct digestion, potentially relieving further IBS symptoms.

Sleep alone isn’t the answer for IBS. However, it does help ensure that your body receives the rest and the recovery you need to effectively manage digestive problems.

We take sleep health seriously at Mattress Warehouse. That’s why we’ve developed our patented bedMATCH sleep diagnostic program — to take the guesswork out of the best night’s sleep you’ve ever had. BedMATCH makes scientific recommendations based on 18 different statistical measurements, including your height, weight, shoulder width, and body type. It pairs you with mattress options proven to help improve your sleep quality and longevity.

Take the five-minute bedMATCH test right now to take major steps toward the better sleep you deserve.