Can Your Gut Bacteria Help You Sleep?

Many of you will have watched the BBC health documentary about getting more sleep. It was another report by health author Dr Michael Mosely and for many people a lot of the information wasn’t particularly new, however, it was probably a great reminder of our need to sleep more. The interesting part for me and many others was the suggestion that gut bacteria and the eating of a pre biotics could positively help your sleep. In fact, Mosely himself tried the suggestion over the course of a couple of weeks and noticed a significant improvement in his sleep quality.



What I wanted to do in this article was explore the idea in more depth and discuss both the science and the research behind the findings on the BBC show. I started off by looking at what exactly pre biotics are and how they differ from pro biotics. Pre biotics are broadly defined as the food that pro biotics feed on. Pro biotics are the various strains of bacteria in our gut. This gut bacteria, or micro flora, reside in a healthy gut and form a symbiotic relationship with us that keeps us healthy. Pre biotics, which are generally found in plant foods, are digested by the probiotics which helps them thrive. Short chain fatty acids such as butyric acid and acetic acid are formed during the fermentation of these pre biotics and are released into the gut lumen. Several studies have identified a relationship between levels of butyric acid in the colon and incidence of colon cancer. It appears that higher levels of buytrate are associated with lower levels of colon cancer.


But how does this help our sleep? Well one theory is that the energy produced by the short chain fatty acids can be used at night which off sets any blood sugar issues and can lead to a more restful nights sleep. Short chain fatty acids, particularly butyrate also modulate the immune sytem and can control inflammation. In fact, specific cytokines have been shown in studies to specifically effect the stage of sleep called non rapid eye movement sleep (nREM sleep) which are the 4 main stages in which we sleep.


Through these two mechanisms, it appears that taking pre biotics as a supplement can in fact have a positive effect on how we sleep. I’m sure over the next few years, research will shed light on the full effect of both pre biotics and pro biotics on human health including the positive effect on sleep.


What Are Natural Killer Cells?

Natural Killer (NK) cells are part of your immune arsenal and help protect you from bacteria, viruses and cancer! NK cells are a type of lymphocyte which are a type of white blood cell. They are unique amongst our many white blood cells and work in tandem with T cells to attack and destroy pathogenic invaders and cancer cells.

NK cells roam the body looking for the bad guys and when they find them they have two very potent weapons. The first is a substance called interferon, which actually prevents viruses from replicating. The second type of weapon at their disposal are poisonous chemicals such as nitric oxide which destroys the internal machinery of any invading cells or organisms.

NK cells also produce cytokines which are an immune system communicator which allow NK cells to help regulate other cells of the immune system. It is an incredibly clever and fine tuned system that helps us recover from illnesses of all types.

NK cell activity declines with age and also when you are subjected to stress but the good news is you can boost NK cell, and therefore your immune response, through some very simple and inexpensive ways which we will explore in detail in this article.

The first way is through the hormone melatonin, which is discussed in detail in one of ourĀ previous blog posts. It appears that as we age and our melatonin levels decline so does our NK cell activity. This is believed to be because the thymus gland shrinks as we age and a great number of NK cells are produced, along with other types of T cells, in the thymus. Melatonin appears to maintain the size of the thymus which means more NK cells are produced in order to fight off disease and infections. The key takeaway is to get more quality deep sleep (which improves melatonin production naturally) or take an oral melatonin supplement to augment the amounts produced naturally in your body.

Exercise is a great way to boost NK cell activity along with boosting the whole immune system in general. While too much exercise, like that done by marathon runners, can suppress the immune system, the correct type and intensity of exercise can stimulate NK cell production. Exercise helps the immune system in a number of ways. The first one being the contraction of muscles aid in moving lymph around the body. Unlike the circulatory system which has the heart in order to move blood around the body the lymphatic system doesn’t have an equivalent to the heart.

Cortico-steroid hormones, often produced by stress, can lead to shrinking of the thymus gland which is a power house of the immune system. Vigorous exercise helps burn off these cortico-steroids helping maintain the strength of your immune army. According to Dr Michael Colgan:

“Trained athletes in good health have a higher number of NK cells, and a higher level of NK cell activity then sedentary folk.”

Exercise that is vigorous but not exhausting, performed 3-4 times a week will ensure that your NK cell army stay in peak condition.

Meditation has been shown to significantly increase the levels on NK cells in the blood. This deep form of relaxation has also been shown to raise melatonin levels which helps you sleep more easily.

Certain vitamins and minerals along with various herbs are all associated with boosting the NK cells and therefore your bodies ability to fight disease. Echinacea, which is a herb, has been shown to increase NK cell activity, which is probably why it is used as a common cold remedy along with Vitamin C and zinc. Garlic has also been shown in studies to improve NK cell response.

What is Melatonin?

Melatonin is often referred to as the master molecule. Its main responsibility is to regulate our biological clocks but it also has several profound health effects. Melatonin is made in the pineal gland which is a pea sized gland at the base of the brain.

Melatonin is a tiny molecule consisting of a few oxygen, hydrogen, carbon and nitrogen atoms and the human body produces around 30 micrograms each day. Our biological rhythm is controlled by the secretion of melatonin. As it gets dark and less light hits the retina in the eye the pineal gland secrets melatonin to make us drowsy and induce sleep. As the sun rises again the light hitting the retina shuts off the production of melatonin and we begin to feel lively and awake again.

Scientists have shown with experiments on mice that it is not the amount of melatonin in the blood per se that is important but the rhythm of secretion in any 24 hour period that matters the most.

Melatonin has several large health benefits. It is a powerful antioxidant and voracious free radical scavenger and also regulates the immune system. This is one of the reasons that you often get sick if you miss out on sleep for a few days. The lower levels of melatonin due to the lack of sleep mean your immune system is not as primed as it normally would be to ward off attacks by cold and flu viruses.

Scientists have discovered that the main organs of the immune system, namely the thymus and the spleen, have numerous receptors for melatonin so when there is sufficient levels of melatonin in the blood stream the melatonin molecules attach themselves to the organ receptors and stimulate the immune system.

retinaFree radicals are everywhere and we produce them in our own bodies. They are toxic and can often lead to diseases such as cancer. Melatonin helps to neutralize free radicals and is the most powerful neutralizer of hydroxyl radicals ever detected. Melatonin is a powerful antioxidant and can therefore help reduce the risks associated with heart disease and cancer. Both of these diseases are considered conditions of aging and melatonin production declines with age which may go some way to explaining its benefit.

Melatonin can be found in certain foods such as bananas and oats but it is predominantly made in the body from the amino acid tryptophan. It is converted into serotonin which is a neurotransmitter in the brain before it is converted into melatonin. The conversion rate is aided by the vitamin B6.

Melatonin can be taken as a supplement and some Doctors prescribe it in doses up to 100 milligrams per day. There are no long term studies on humans as to the effects of taking melatonin as a supplement, however, it is generally regarded as safe when taken at prescribed dosages.

Melatonin really is an amazing molecule. It controls the human circadian rhythm and can have profound health benefits when produced at optimal levels and timings. It is also available in supplement form and is generally considered safe if taken sensibly as prescribed by a physician.