In a new study, researchers found that specific fibers known as prebiotics can improve sleep and boost stress resilience by influencing gut bacteria.
The research could ultimately lead to new approaches to treating sleep problems, which affect 70 million Americans.
The research was conducted by a team at CU Boulder.
Most people are familiar with probiotics, friendly bacteria present in fermented foods like yogurt and sauerkraut.
More recently, scientists have taken an interest in prebiotics—dietary compounds that humans cannot digest but serve as nourishment for our microbiome, or the trillions of bacteria residing within us.
While not all fibers are prebiotics, many fibrous foods such as leeks, artichokes, onions, and certain whole grains are rich in them.
In the study, the researchers found rats on the prebiotic diet spent more time in restorative non-rapid-eye-movement (NREM) sleep.
After stress, the rats also spent more time in rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep, which is believed to be critical for recovery from stress.
Using a technology called mass spectrometry to analyze the rats’ fecal samples, the researchers measured metabolites, or bioactive small molecules produced by bacteria as food is broken down.
Their findings shed light on how prebiotics can help bust stress.
The team says the biggest takeaway here is that this type of fiber is not just there to bulk up the stool and pass through the digestive system.
It is feeding the bugs that live in our gut and creating a symbiotic relationship with us that has powerful effects on our brain and behavior.
While prebiotic dietary fiber is certainly healthy, it’s uncertain whether just loading up on foods rich in it can promote sleep.
The rats were fed very high doses of four specific prebiotics, including galactooligosaccharides, which are present in lentils and cabbage; polydextrose (PDX) an FDA-approved food additive often used as a sweetener; lactoferrin, found in breast milk; and milk fat globular protein, abundant in dairy products.
Prebiotic supplements already abound on natural food store shelves. But it’s too soon to say whether a supplement or drug-containing such compounds would be safe and effective for everyone.
Depending on what their microbial make-up is, different people might respond differently.
The lead author of the study is Robert Thompson, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Integrative Physiology.
The study is published in the journal Scientific Reports.
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