In these turbulent times, we all put on our brave faces while our routines are disrupted, our families heartbroken, and our emergency services reach their breaking point, but it’s at night when anxiety spills over into insomnia.
The greater our levels of exhaustion, the less able we are to cope with the stresses before us. Without achieving the full range of sleep patterns, our brains are subjected to a build up of metabolic waste products which can, and do, cause inflammation and damage.
There are ways to break the cycle of sleeplessness that don’t involve the use of proprietary drugs, but they take some effort and forward planning. Common sense practices such as limiting the blue light we receive from screens prior to bed time, having a warm bath or shower, or practicing meditation techniques will all aid a restful state, but how many of us consider feeding the bacteria present in our gut?
Prebiotic is the name given to the fibrous plant matter that provides useful nutrients to the healthy gut bacteria in our bodies. It’s often mistaken for probiotic, which refers to the actual bacterial cultures themselves, and is prevalent in fermented products such as yoghurt and sauerkraut. While it is good to have a diverse colony of digestive bacteria within us, we need to foster the symbiotic relationship by allowing them access to the nutrients they need to thrive.
Recent studies suggest that this symbiosis is far more critical than we imagined. By strengthening the numbers of ‘good’ bacteria, we can influence the concentration of powerful metabolic chemicals they secrete, thus allowing us to balance everything from our behaviour, to stress resilience, and even sleep.
Scientists at the new University of Colorado, Boulder, claim that certain fibre rich foods, such as leeks, onions, garlic, artichokes, seaweed, dandelion leaves, and asparagus, can promote the growth of bacteria to enable greater quantities of signalling chemicals that trigger positive pathways in the brain.
In their study, Robert Thompson and his colleagues, used adolescent rats fed on standard food and compared their data to rats given a diet enriched with prebiotic chemicals. Those on the prebiotic food spent a greater time in non-rapid eye movement sleep, known to be highly restorative for optimal brain function, even after a period of induced stress.
Rats fed on normal food showed a decrease in gut bacteria diversity, fewer periods of restorative sleep sessions, and a disruption to natural temperature fluctuations. The prebiotic rats were buffered from these effects.
When their gut chemicals were analysed, they found a dramatic difference between the two groups. The rats on a normal diet showed a massive spike of two types of metabolites which can potentially disrupt sleep (allopregnanolone precursor and Ketone Steroid) after experiencing stress. The prebiotic rats experienced no such increase in values. Fleshner states; “Our results reveal novel signals that come from gut microbes that may modulate stress physiology and sleep.”
The rats were fed extremely high doses of raw chemicals such as galactooligosaccharides (present in lentils and cabbage in smaller quantities), polydextrose (a food additive), lactoferrin (found in breast milk), and milk fat globular protein (found in all dairy products). Obviously, these concentrated amounts are not representative of a human diet, but trials are underway. They hope to categorically prove how prebiotic foods can manipulate our diverse gut microbes to produce chemical signals through the gut-brain link, thus directly influencing our behaviour, reactions to stress, and sleep mechanisms.
The neuroactive link between these microbial chemicals and the messages to our brain is a strong one and must be approached with caution. While it is possible to buy supplements containing the active ingredients from those prebiotic foods, it is inadvisable to load up without further testing. Fleshner states; “These are powerful molecules with real neuroactive effects.”
Fleshner’s advice is sound, but so too is the science. As her colleague, Thompson also states; “You’d have to eat a lot of cabbage and lentils to see any effects.” But that’s not to say that it would be dangerous to consume those natural prebiotics to enhance health and wellbeing.
This study, published on the 3rd of March 2020, in the journal, Scientific Reports, takes us one step closer to proving the old adage, we are what we eat. The more we consume artificial substances and processed foods, the less our useful bacteria are able to survive, which in turn, reduces their ability to keep the harmful gut bacteria in check.
Without those powerful neural signalling chemicals, we are exposed to dramatic spikes in sleep disrupting steroids. With less non-REM sleep cycles, we cannot flush out toxic metabolites for optimal brain health.
Eating a range of fibrous plant matter is not simply a case of warding off digestive discomfort, it is crucial to the health of all the interlinked systems of our bodies. What is becoming increasingly clear, is that we owe much of our health to the smallest unsung heroes living inside us. The least we can do is make sure that they have enough to eat.