The Ultimate Sleep Aid — Prebiotics?

How dietary fibre can help you sleep like a baby

A BBC1 documentary ‘The Truth About Sleep’ recently aired in the UK and is causing waves in health food shops and websites across the nation. Led by Dr Michael Mosley who suffers from insomnia, the programme explored some recognised and more alternative solutions for getting a better night’s sleep.

The most interesting discovery was the aid that Dr Mosley himself trialled — a prebiotic powder that he mixed with water and drank before bed. Almost immediately after taking it he found that he was sleeping for an extra two hours a night and after just 5 days of taking the prebiotic the amount of time he spent in bed inactive (i.e. sleeping) rose to 92%.

So what is a prebiotic? It’s a dietary plant fibre that acts like a fertiliser for the bacteria in the gut. It encourages good bacteria to grow that helps absorb nutrients from our food. Not to be confused with probiotics which are live bacteria.

My own experience with prebiotics has been equally dramatic. As a wellbeing consultant I teach the importance of good sleep, sharing techniques for achieving it and I try to practise what I preach. This includes switching off screens at least an hour before sleep, eating dinner as early as possible, practising daily meditation and mindfulness. I’m always interested in exploring new sleep aids and at the beginning of the year I went on a 30 days cleanse encouraged by friends and colleagues who reported “sleeping like a baby”.

Within three days of starting the cleanse I was experiencing the deepest sleep I could remember. At the time I attributed this to the rules of the cleanse which included eliminating dairy, gluten and refined sugars. When the cleanse finished I felt such a boost in energy and mental clarity that I decided to continue the principles and remain dairy, sugar and gluten free most of the time. I continued to enjoy high quality sleep but not as incredibly deep as I’d experienced whilst on the cleanse. What was the difference? Well I wasn’t taking their daily supplement which contains, you’ve guessed it, prebiotics called inulin.

After watching the documentary and making the connection I’m now taking inulin daily and experiencing that peaceful, undisturbed night’s sleep we all dream of (apart from when my kids wake up!).

Clinical trials need to happen to explain how prebiotics can help achieve optimum sleep but the stomach is often referred to as the ‘second brain’. For instance, when we experience ‘butterflies in the stomach’ or a ‘gut reaction’, this is really the brain in the stomach talking to the brain in your head. When we become nervous or tense, blood gets diverted from our gut to our muscles and this is the stomach’s way of protesting. So could the reverse be true? By feeding the good bacteria in our guts with prebiotics and soothing our digestion could we be calming our minds and aiding sleep?

It will be fascinating to see the results of research on prebiotics and sleep but in the mean time if you’d like to try it here’s a few things to consider. Studies on prebotics have shown other benefits to the body including reducing constipation, improving gut health, curbing appetite and some research says it may help lower blood cholesterol. However, prebiotics are a fertiliser for all bacteria in the gut, good and bad. If you have an imbalance of bad bacteria which could have come from taking a lot of antibiotics, then consuming more prebiotics will further increase this imbalance causing unwanted symptoms like bloating. This can be neutralised by taking probiotics or eating fermented food but if you’re unsure consult with a doctor before taking.

If you prefer not to take a supplement you can find this fibre in food such as lentils, humus, butterbeans, Jerusalem artichokes, bananas and asparagus. The amount contained in the supplement though is about 100 times greater than in a portion of humus so it will take longer to work.

An old Irish proverb proclaims ‘A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book’. Wishing you days filled with laughter and plenty of good night’s sleep.