Why is Sleep Important for Digestion?


“A good laugh and a long sleep are the two best cures for anything.”

An Irish Proverb

Digestive processing requires a great deal of energy. And with all the work our digestive system requires, it also needs some downtime and that is where sleep comes in. Basically, when we get a good amount and quality of sleep, our digestive system has time to rest and repair and prepare itself for its next full day of meals. This is why sleep is important for digestion.

Therefore, if our sleep is interrupted, our digestive system may not be fully prepared and ready for food. And with this, we can easily create a vicious cycle: disrupted sleep, wake up groggy a wanting caffeine for stimulation, and may turn into grabbing a sugary processed breakfast which can spike blood sugar.

There are many physiological things that occur in order for sleep to happen; therefore, its best to begin with a brief lesson in the physiology of sleep. Don’t fret as I will make it very simple and straightforward.

Pineal Gland Physiology

Located near the center of the brain, a tiny pine shape endocrine (hormone) gland resides. This gland is called the pineal gland and it spends some of its time releasing a hormone called melatonin. This hormone affects the modulation of wake-sleep patterns. Basically, this gland is involved in the regulation of melatonin synthesis which is a very important component of sleep. As with most endocrine pathways, a series of events occur in order for the desirable outcome.

It begins with the hypothalamus. Despite its size (approximately the size of a pearl), it has a multitude of important functions in the body, one being a sleep-wake cycle. This is what occurs:

  1. Light or darkness is sensed by the retina of the eye;
  2. It is relayed to the hypothalamus by the nervous system;
  3. The hypothalamus communicates with the pineal gland;
  4. Depending on whether it is light or dark, the pineal gland will respond appropriately;
  5. If the retina senses darkness, the pineal gland will be stimulated to make and release melatonin.
  6. On the other hand, if the light is sensed, the pineal gland will not be stimulated by the hypothalamus to produce melatonin.

A few things to consider: There are an obvious pathway and cascade of events that occur when falling to sleep and waking up. I have not mentioned many other things that can affect this pathway. Vitamins, minerals, and enzymes play a role in allowing for optimal communication through the nervous system, stress, summer/winter and light patterns, the functions of the hypothalamus and pineal gland and the making of melatonin. If any of these are not functioning optimally, sleep maybe disrupted.

A little pineal history: The pineal gland is only somewhat understood ( most glands are as the endocrine system is a basket full of communicative pathways that affect a lot of systems) and a little bit of a mystery gland. Way back in the 1600’s, a French philosopher and writer believed the pineal gland was the “seat of the soul,” as he believed it was where all thoughts were formed. The pineal gland has also been referred to as the “third eye.” This is perhaps due to its ability to sense light.


Melatonin is not readily available. It is a derivative from serotonin – a neurotransmitter – which in turn is made from the amino acid tryptophan. In order to produce melatonin, your pineal gland will need tryptophan. Therefore, increasing serotonin via tryptophan through positive dietary measures ( we can not get our serotonin through our diet) may help increase nighttime melatonin release thus a good night sleep.

Below are a few foods that contain tryptophan:

turkey, halibut, chicken breast, mustard greens, spinach, nut butters, tofu, whole grains

It may take up to an hour for the tryptophan in foods to reach the brain so take this into consideration in your nighttime routine.

Here are a few helpful sleep tips:

  • Limit screen time 2 hours before bed.
  • Download this application for your computer screen: www.justgetflux.com to automatically regulate blue light that is being emitted from your computer screen.
  • Turn on “Night Shift” if you have an iPhone or download “Twilight” for your Android phone. These apps will regulate the light coming from your screen automatically based on the time of day.
  • Dim lights in your home in the evening.
  • Have a consistent sleep and wake schedule even on weekends.
  • Get rid of the television in your bedroom.
  • Keep your phone and all electronic devices away from you at night (or at least put them in airplane mode). I do not suggest sleep tracking devices that use bluetooth (ie Fitbit).
  • Purchase a Himalayan salt lamp as your bedroom lamp. Use this lamp in the morning and evening to gently wake you and put you to bed at night.
  • Get sun exposure in the morning (as much skin exposure as possible).


dr. heather

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