How inflammation causes sleep loss
How inflammation causes sleep loss
There is one major cause of sleep loss that often goes unnoticed by doctors: inflammation.
As a sleep expert, I have seen firsthand how inflammation can negatively impact sleep.
Short periods of sleep deprivation can trigger an inflammatory response in the body, particularly in women. If this inflammation becomes chronic, it can make it even harder to get a good night's sleep.
What is inflammation?
Inflammation is a natural response of the body's immune system to fight off harmful stimuli, such as pathogens or damaged cells. This response involves increased blood flow to the affected area, which can result in redness, warmth, swelling, and pain.
There are two types of inflammation: acute and chronic:
- Acute inflammation is a short-term response to an injury or infection
- Chronic inflammation is a long-term response caused by factors such as pathogens, stress, or environmental toxins.
Inflammation in the gut
One area where inflammation can have a particularly significant impact is in the gut.
The gut is responsible for breaking down food and absorbing nutrients and inflammation in the gut can lead to a variety of symptoms, including bloating, cramping, brain fog, anxiety, joint pain, and even skin issues.
This is because the gut is lined with a delicate balance of beneficial bacteria and immune cells that work together to keep the digestive system functioning properly. When inflammation disrupts this delicate balance, it can cause a cascade of problems throughout the body. This is why it’s important to remember that what happens in the gut doesn’t necessarily stay in the gut!
Chronic inflammation in the gut can have a range of negative effects on health, including impaired nutrient absorption, gut dysbiosis, and increased risk of autoimmune disorders.
If you struggle with brain fog or joint pain, stiffness or skin issues: that is inflammation that originated in the gut making its way through your system.
Markers of inflammation in the body
This is the most common way to assess inflammation in the body by doctors.
CRP (C-reactive protein) and ESR (erythrocyte sedimentation rate) are markers of inflammation in the body. CRP is a protein that is produced by the liver in response to inflammation, and high levels of CRP in the blood indicate the presence of inflammation.
ESR, on the other hand, measures the rate at which red blood cells settle in a test tube over a period of time. When there is inflammation in the body, the red blood cells tend to stick together and settle faster, indicating an increased ESR level.
Both CRP and ESR are nonspecific markers of inflammation, meaning they do not indicate the cause or location of the inflammation.
The GI-MAP stool test is a comprehensive test that can analyze the presence of inflammation, pathogens, and other markers to assess the health of your gut. I use this test with all of my clients.
The test looks for specific markers such as calprotectin, zonulin, and multiple different bacteria, which are all indicators of inflammation in the gut.
What causes chronic inflammation?
These are the main culprits I find in my clinical practice with women:
Foods such as gluten, dairy, sugar and alcohol are known to cause inflammation in the body. Also, foods you are sensitive to (maybe not even a full-blown allergy) also trigger immune reactions in the body.
A special word about gluten: Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, and it can cause an immune response in some people, but has also been shown to harm the gut lining in non-gluten-sensitive people.
Everyone’s gut will get damaged from eating gluten.
But people who are not sensitive to gliadin - one of the proteins found in gluten, will recover from this faster. However, the healing of the damaged gut lining will cause an acute inflammatory reaction in everyone.
Pathogens such as viruses, parasites, bacteria, and fungi can also cause inflammation in the body.
An h. Pylori infection for example, which 90% of my clients have, can cause damage to the gut. That leads to inflammation and sets the environment in the gut up in a way that more pathogens can grown there (h. Pylori sits in the stomach and lowers stomach acid - our first line of defense). Medication overuse: antacids, PPIs, anti-inflammatories or painkillers often used to address GERD, acid reflux, belching - all signs of low stomach acid rather than high amounts of stomach acid. These are also typical symptoms of an h pylori infection.
Stress can also contribute to inflammation in the body. It alters our gut microbiome and can contribute to leaky gut.
Stress breaks down the protective gut lining we have. It can shut down the immune system (the majority of our immune system resides in the gut) and with that open up the doors for pathogens to enter your system - that then cause inflammation themselves.
How does inflammation affect sleep?
There is a close relationship between the gut and the brain, known as the gut-brain axis.
The gut is home to trillions of microorganisms, collectively known as the gut microbiome, which regulates immune function and inflammation. Disruptions to the gut microbiome can lead to inflammation, affecting sleep.
Inflammation in the gut can impact the production of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, which are crucial for regulating mood and sleep. When inflammation is present, the production of serotonin can be disrupted, leading to sleep disturbances.
Cortisol is an anti-inflammatory. It is released to fit or hold inflammation at bay. So if we have chronic low-grade inflammation, our body is constantly releasing cortisol.
And when cortisol is higher (especially at night) melatonin can’t do its job and we have sleep issues. And a lack of sleep is stress and in response to that stress the body creates more inflammation. So, this is a vicious cycle that from my experience is often not taken into consideration when sleep issues are being addressed.
Yes, we can manage cortisol when we mediate or learn to apply tools to manage our anxiety around sleep.
But if we have a physical underlying cause - like inflammation - any therapy will not be sufficient to balance that out.
And doing sleep compression - or sleep restriction as it s done in CBT-I - with an already burnt out - inflamed woman is in my view not the right approach to support your sleep because it wears your body out even more. We need to lower cortisol levels in the body and support the body to heal itself, so it can sleep.
Inflammation in the gut will also lead to the liver having to work harder because of endotoxins circulating in your bloodstream, this can then lead to estrogen dominance (heavy or painful periods, PMS, bloating, headaches, fibroids, cysts), sleep issues if progesterone is too low, it will slow down thyroid function (gut inflammation raises cortisol which can lower T3 and gut dysbiosis impairs T3 conversion).
5 ways to address chronic inflammation
There are several ways to address chronic inflammation and manage its symptoms. Here are five effective methods that you can try:
Get enough sleep: Sleep is crucial for your body to repair and restore itself. Chronic inflammation can disrupt sleep patterns, and in turn, insufficient sleep can further contribute to inflammation. Aim to get at least 7-8 hours of restful sleep each night to promote optimal health. And if you are struggling with this, that is what a holistic sleep coach is there for.
Follow an anti-inflammatory diet: What you eat can significantly impact inflammation levels in your body. Consuming a diet that is rich in anti-inflammatory foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fatty fish can help reduce inflammation. At the same time, it is essential to avoid pro-inflammatory foods such as refined sugar, processed foods, gluten, dairy and alcohol for at least 90 days.
Exercise regularly: Regular physical activity can help reduce inflammation by boosting circulation and improving immune function. Exercise also helps manage stress levels, which is another factor that can contribute to chronic inflammation.
Practice stress management techniques: Chronic stress is a significant contributor to chronic inflammation. Therefore, learning stress management techniques such as mindfulness meditation, deep breathing, and yoga can help reduce stress levels and alleviate inflammation.
Address gut health: find a practitioner who can support you in running a stool test and put a protocol in place that will help you heal and rebalance your gut.
So, if you can’t sleep (or you have some of the inflammatory symptoms we talked about), it might be a good time to test and see what’s going on in your system to help it get back to balance: lower the inflammation, lower cortisol and help you sleep better.