“There’s something to be said for routine when it comes to both quality sleep and digestive health, and they also support one another,” says Kelly Jones, RD, LDN. That’s right, you can use your bedtime routine to your advantage to support your gut and digestive health.
Can your digestive system affect your sleep?
According to a 2016 study from the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, lower fiber diets with higher saturated fat and sugar intake showed lighter (less deep) sleep with more intermittent wake-ups. The researchers concluded that higher fiber, lower fat, and lower sugar meals, especially later in the day, can contribute to better sleep. It makes sense that gut-healthy, easy-to-digest foods would contribute to better sleep. Your body slows digestion when you sleep. So if you have eaten a full meal of things that will be a challenge for your stomach and its bacteria to digest— less quality sleep makes sense as a result.
Can probiotics help you sleep better?
As far as probiotics go, unless they’re fortified with a drowsy agent like melatonin or magnesium, probiotics don’t necessarily make you sleepy or induce sleep. However, having a healthy microbiome and supporting the growth of good stomach bacteria is good for your overall gut health (and gut-healing foods can help you get there). Having a healthy gut can help you digest your food better, which has been shown to promote quality sleep. So in a way, yes, but popping some probiotics before bed isn’t necessarily going to have you counting sheep.
Can your gut health affect your sleep quality?
You might be wondering, “Can your gut cause insomnia?” and that is a good question, though it might be a bit more complex of an answer. Your tummy can certainly disrupt you, whether that’s gassy cramps, acid reflux causing a burn in your throat, or getting up to go to the bathroom. Typically your body takes a pause on going potty (especially number 2) throughout the night. So, if you’re waking up at night to go poop, you might want to make sure that you’re getting your system right during the day so that there’s no disruption at night.
Things that can get your system regular include eating a diet high in gut-healthy foods, easy-to-digest foods, probiotic foods, and more. Now, you don’t need to be eating your daily recommended fiber right before you dive into bed for a good night’s sleep. In fact, according to the Cleveland Clinic, you should aim to eat your last meal about three hours before you go to bed. This can help your body get to work with digestion since sleep tends to slow digestion, according to the Mayo Clinic.
There are so many gut-healthy foods out there that can support a healthy gut 24/7 and, in turn, help you sleep better. But generally speaking, these gut-healthy foods don’t need to be eaten right before bed for your GI system and stomach bacteria/microbiome to reap the full benefits.
What should I eat before bed for good digestion?
Gut-healing foods, gut-healthy foods, and probiotic foods sometimes have acidity or general pungency in common (think kimchi, sauerkraut, fermented foods). These are admittedly not… foods you want to be eating in front of the fridge from the jar right before you hop into bed. Talk about heartburn, am I right? But they are foods that generally benefit your gut overall. So eating this throughout the day or with meals, in quantities that don’t give you a tummy ache, is good for digestion round the clock.
Secondly, so that you’re not left wondering what to do when food is not digested—do your best to stick to consistent meal times, particularly with dinner. “When the body gets used to eating at around the same time, the release of digestive hormones and relaxation becomes more automated,” says Jones, which leads to easier digestion. “It’s okay to have some variation, but if your body never knows when it should expect to eat, stress hormones may run higher, too—especially if you go too long without eating.”
This higher amount of stress hormones can tend to slow digestion and even promote indigestion. Planning to eat well before your bedtime can give your body time to digest food, so you’re not googling “how to digest food faster.” The truth is that your body needs its own unique time to digest food, and that can vary between people and by the day or meal you eat. Instead of finding out how to digest food faster, planning your meals and bedtime with ample room, rest, and movement, can give your body the tools it needs to digest your food.
The best habits to help digestion at night
There are a few habits that are well worth trying before bed to help your digestion at night and beyond. Here are a few dietitians’ top tips for getting a good night’s rest and keeping your gut happy when you wake up.
1. Enjoy a tummy-soothing ginger or peppermint tea
Say you had a fun night out or a delicious dinner at home full of some not so easy to digest foods. Well, there’s no fault in that because even foods that give us a tummy ache, later on can be downright delicious (hello, mac n cheese, am I right?). And yet, when it comes to wondering what to do when food is not digested or you have a rumbly tummy, you can lean on some foods that naturally soothe the tummy. Peppermint, especially peppermint tea, is not only tasty but it is also known as an antispasmodic, meaning it calms the muscle of the stomach and increases the production of bile, according to Mount Sinai. Bile helps the stomach and your gut microbiome digest food — especially fats.
Another amazing gut-healing food includes Ginger. “Ginger has a calming effect on the digestive tract, and warm beverages may be soothing as well,” says Jones. Specifically, the root is known for helping ease gas and bloating—always a good thing to nip in the bud before you get in bed. It also promotes motility, aka it keeps things moving through your digestive tract, supporting your stomach bacteria and microbiome.
Brew up some ginger or peppermint tea before bed to help soothe your stomach; enjoy a ginger candy after dinner, or just toss some in with your dinnertime vegetables.
2. Try some light stretching or walking
While you might already know stretching or even light yoga is good for digestion, streaming a class at night for even just five minutes can improve gut health and put you to sleep, says Jones. Sometimes it’s not about what gut health foods you’re eating or what probiotic foods you packed into your meals— instead, it could be about moving more. Taking a walk after you eat can improve digestion if waking up with heartburn or running to use the bathroom is a common occurrence for you.
The most important thing, though, is that you really internalize gentle movement. Taking a run or CrossFit class right after eating is not the best idea and can give you a tummy ache with even the most easy-to-digest foods. Instead, light movements offer a chance to stimulate blood flow without igniting your fight-or-flight adrenaline response, which can slow digestion (which we don’t want).
“Just do gentle with low-intensity twist poses, as these may help stimulate blood flow to your core for gastric motility,” she says. “This might be especially helpful if you’re dealing with bloating and constipation, so you’re more likely to be ready to go in the morning,” she adds.
3. Give your brain designated relaxation time
“Many people go to sleep with high stress, never winding down from a long day, or logging off of emails or parent duties minutes before they want to fall asleep. Due to the gut-brain axis, mental stress also stresses out our digestive tracts and vice-versa,” says Jones. This can result in constipation, diarrhea, or an upset stomach, depending on the person. By setting aside five to 10 minutes of meditation or another relaxing activity (like light reading) before bed, you’ll give your brain an opportunity to relax and get your mind off of the stressful stuff before you head off to snooze. That will have big benefits for your digestive health, too.
4. Eat some prunes
“Prunes or dried plums contain magnesium, calcium, and vitamin B6 which help produce melatonin, a hormone that makes us sleepy,” says Lauren Harris-Pincus, RDN, author of The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club. Eat two or three about an hour before bedtime—this lets you digest them but also get those benefits soon enough. Plus, eating prunes on a regular basis is good for your GI system since they have fiber to keep you regular. Just don’t go over those three—more might have you running to the bathroom instead of the bed.
5. Turn off the news
Remember what we said earlier about stress levels? While staying in touch with what’s going on in the world is super important, catch up on the news in the earlier hours. “Since these are trying times, anxiety levels are peaked. Our mind-gut connection is very strong, and our emotions are often experienced as GI discomfort,” says Harris-Pincus. “I’ve been asking clients to avoid the news or Internet surfing for a couple of hours before bed to allow your brain to calm down for sleep,” she says. Your gut will thank you, too.
When it comes to answering the bigger gut health questions like what helps digestion at night, there isn’t a cookie-cutter answer for everyone. Everyone is different, and that includes your tummy. However, these are some helpful starters for trying to get better sleep and have a healthier gut 24/7.