Can Sleep Affect Digestion?


Written by Katherine Zheng

Reviewed by Dr. Michael Breus

Our Editorial Process

Medical Disclaimer: The following content should not be used as medical advice or as a recommendation for any specific supplement or medication. It is important to consult your health care provider prior to starting a new medication or altering your current dosage.

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Getting proper sleep is an important way to keep yourself healthy. A lack of sleep can affect many parts of the body, including the digestive system. On the flip side, your diet and digestive health can play a role in how well you sleep at night. 

If you experience sleep and digestive issues, it can be helpful to better understand how the two are related and what you can do to both sleep better and feel better.

Can Lack of Sleep Impact Digestion?

There are different ways a lack of sleep may affect your digestive health. Insufficient sleep can influence how much you eat, and emerging research suggests that sleep is also linked to the way your digestive tract functions.

Sleep and Appetite

One way that sleep can impact digestion is by creating changes in appetite. Normally, the digestive system releases hormones that help determine when you feel hungry or full. A lack of sleep has been shown to affect when and how these hormones are released. As a result, if you are sleep deprived, you may be inclined to eat more food than you typically would.

Sleep can affect more than just the quantity of food you eat. Insufficient sleep has been associated with higher consumption of foods that contain more fat and sugar. 

Sleep and Physical Activity

An indirect way that a lack of sleep can impact digestion is through its effects on physical activity. When you don’t get enough sleep, it often means you are less active during the day. If you are less active, it can reduce how quickly your digestive system processes the sugars and fats in your diet. 

Sleep and Gut Health

The body’s gastrointestinal tract consists of the stomach and the intestines, which house a microbiome made up of trillions of microscopic bacteria. Many of these microbes serve important functions to keep the body healthy. 

The microbiomes in your gut are what help you absorb nutrients. The different types of bacteria that make up your gut microbiome can directly impact how food is processed by your digestive system.

While researchers still have more to learn about the relationship between sleep and the intestinal microbiome, studies suggest that a lack of sleep is linked to a reduction in healthy microbes in your gut. An unhealthy gut microbiome may also have negative effects on sleep.

How Stomach Problems Can Affect Sleep

Many people with stomach problems report having poor sleep quality or not getting enough sleep. Uncomfortable symptoms that involve the gastrointestinal tract can make it more difficult to get proper rest at night.

  • Indigestion: Indigestion occurs during or after a meal and can cause mild stomach discomfort during the night. Indigestion can involve symptoms like nausea, pain, and bloating.
  • Irritable bowel syndrome: Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a condition that causes recurring stomach pain and disruptions to usual bowel movements. Sleeping problems affect a significant number of people with IBS. 
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease: Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a condition involving episodes of liquid from the stomach moving back up into the throat. GERD can cause symptoms that may affect sleep, such as nausea, heartburn, and a sensation that food is stuck in the esophagus. 

While these conditions have been linked to poor sleep quality, experts are still uncovering exactly how sleep and stomach problems are related. Some research suggests that the relationship between the two goes both ways. In this way, symptoms of stomach problems may interrupt sleep, and, at the same time, poor sleep may worsen gastrointestinal distress.

Meal time disrupting circadian rhythm

How to Avoid Stomach Problems During Sleep

The digestive system is still working while you sleep, but it moves at a slower pace than when you are awake. A few eating habits may support more regular digestion while you sleep include:

  • Eating nutritious meals earlier in the evening 
  • Finishing large meals at least two hours before bed 
  • Avoiding late-night snacks 
  • Being cautious with spicy foods or other things that can trigger indigestion 
  • Chewing your food thoroughly and not eating too fast 
  • Reducing or eliminating caffeine and alcohol intake 

Certain sleeping positions can also affect how your digestive system works at night. If you are dealing with acid reflux, you can try changing your sleeping position to reduce symptoms. Both propping your head up 6 to 8 inches with extra pillows and laying on your left side may help decrease acid reflux during sleep.

Ways to Improve Gut Health and Sleep

Certain foods can help you get a good night’s sleep. Other dietary changes can affect the types of microbes in your gut, and promoting a healthy gut microbiome may also hold the potential to enhance your sleep.

Prebiotics and Probiotics

For a healthy gut microbiome to flourish, you need a combination of the right kinds of bacteria as well as the proper food for those good bacteria to grow. 

Like any living organism, the good bacteria in your body need to eat both to survive and to prevent harmful bacteria from growing. Prebiotics are foods that contain fibers and starches that only the good kinds of bacteria in your gut can digest. Examples of foods that can have prebiotic properties include:

  • Pistachios
  • Barley
  • Onions
  • Legumes
  • Artichokes

On the other hand, probiotics are products that contain the good bacteria themselves. Probiotics are commonly purchased as over-the-counter supplements, but many foods include large numbers of healthy bacteria. 

Probiotic foods are unpasteurized, allowing them to contain live cultures of bacteria. Examples include:

  • Kombucha
  • Pickles
  • Yogurt
  • Sauerkraut
  • Miso

Some people who consume prebiotics or probiotics report improved sleep quality, but more research is needed to demonstrate sleep benefits from these foods. To date, there is not enough evidence to say whether prebiotics or probiotics improve your sleep. 

It’s important to talk to your doctor or a nutritionist before making any changes to your diet or starting to take a new dietary supplement. Working with a health professional can help you learn about the different types of prebiotics and probiotics and whether you should incorporate them into your daily diet.

About The Author

Katherine Zheng

Staff Writer, Sleep Health

Katherine is a freelance writer based in Chicago. She has doctorate and bachelor’s degrees in nursing and is published in the journal Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Services Research and the journal JMIR Mental Health. She has also worked as a policy fellow at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. With a background in academia, Katherine has always been interested in making healthcare research more accessible to the public. When not writing, Katherine is an actor and loves doing theater at night.

  • POSITION: Side Sleeper
  • TEMPERATURE: Neutral Sleeper
  • CHRONOTYPE: Dolphin

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