Sleep better: Eat onions (and other prebiotics)

March 7, 2017 Mike Francis

Here’s a biological chain reaction that may not have occurred to you:

Eating the right foods can help your beneficial gut bacteria flourish, reduce your stress levels and help you sleep better.

That’s the conclusion from researchers at the University of Colorado, who found that giving prebiotic foods to lab rats helped them sleep better than a control group that didn’t get prebiotics.

“We found that dietary prebiotics can improve non-REM sleep, as well as REM sleep after a stressful event,” said Robert Thompson, one of the authors of the Colorado study, which was published in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.

What are prebiotics?

Prebiotics are non-digestible carbohydrates found in such foods as:

  • Onions
  • Leeks
  • Garlic
  • Asparagus
  • Bananas
  • Artichokes
  • Chicory root
  • Whole wheat
  • Honey

They act as a sort of fertilizer for the good bacteria in your gut.

Prebiotics also release metabolic byproducts, some of which are thought to influence brain function, the researchers noted. And the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says prebiotics “may improve gastrointestinal health as well as potentially enhance calcium absorption.”

Links between stress, sleep and gut bacteria

The Colorado researchers noted that earlier studies have shown that stress, whether in the workplace, because of trauma or other situations, “negatively affects sleep and the sleep/wake cycle.” And stress, they said, can cause imbalance in gut bacteria to get out of balance, a condition they call microbial dysbiosis.

By feeding a prebiotic-rich diet to one group of rats, the researchers saw positive effects in the animals’ sleep patterns.

“Our work is the first to demonstrate that consumption of a prebiotic diet can provide stress protective effects on sleep/wake behavior,” they wrote.

The prebiotic diet also prevented stress-induced gut microbial dysbiosis, they wrote.

To learn more

A 2013 study, “Fiber and prebiotics: mechanisms and health benefits,” is available at the National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine.

The International Food Information Council Foundation published a fact sheet on probiotics and prebiotics. If you’d like to better understand the relationship between these naturally occurring substances and gut bacteria, this is a good place to start.

A 2007 study, “Prebiotics: The Concept Revisited,” was published in the Journal of Nutrition.

A Providence dietitian explains how to eat for a healthy gut in “Probiotics, prebiotics and the bacteria that call you home.”

You can find a Providence dietitian or nutritionist in our multistate directory.

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