Stress Getting in the Way of Sleep? New Research Might Have the Answer

Stress Getting in the Way of Sleep? New Research Might Have the Answer

Some days have teeth. They’re the ones that push and pull and bite, and ask more of us than we have to give. A little bit of stress can be a good thing, nurturing resourcefulness and resilience, but when stress lasts for too long it can do damage.

One of the ways it does this is by interfering with sleep and stealing the healing, restorative pillow time that is essential for strong physical and mental health. New research has found something that can help.

The research, published in the journal, Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, found that a regular intake of prebiotics can protect against the effects of stress, and restore healthy sleep patterns after a stressful event.

Prebiotics are different to probiotics and we need both for good physical and mental health. Both help the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut, but they work in different ways. Probiotics are living good bacteria that are important for a happy gut. They are found in cultured or fermented foods including yoghurt, sauerkraut, miso and kombucha. Prebiotics are food for probiotics. They are the non-living ingredients that feed the good bacteria and help them to flourish. Prebiotics are found in non-digestible plant fibres such as legumes, asparagus and oats, chicory, onions, leeks, garlic, Jerusalem artichokes.  

The connection between gut health and mental health has been well established. Inside our gut, in the intricately folded tissue that lines the gastrointestinal tract are 200-600 million neurons. This is affectionately referred to as ‘the brain in our gut’ or our ‘second brain’, and it plays a vital role in our mental health. It communicates back and forth with our main brain, directly influencing many aspects of our well-being, including stress, anxiety and sadness, as well as memory, decision-making and learning. 

While there has been plenty of attention on the importance of probiotics for mental health, there has been less on the role of prebiotics.

About the research.

The research was conducted with rats, but stay with me – rats and mice are often used in experiments because of their biological and physiological similarity to humans. In the study, the rats were divided into two groups. One group received a prebiotic diet for several weeks before they were exposed to stress. The other group did not receive the prebiotic-enriched diet before the stress exposure.

‘Acute stress can disrupt the gut microbiome and we wanted to test if a diet rich in prebiotics would increase beneficial bacteria as well as protect gut microbes from stress-induced disruptions. We also wanted to look at the effects of prebiotics on the recovery of normal sleep patterns, since they tend to be disrupted after stressful events.’ – Dr Agnieszka Mika, postdoctoral fellow and one of the authors of the study.

The stress that the rats were exposed to was equivalent in intensity to something like a car accident or a death of a loved one for humans.

The rats that were given the prebiotic diet did not show stress-induced changes in their gut mictrobiota. Their sleep patterns were also restored to normal sooner than the mice that did not receive the prebiotic diet.

We know the importance of keeping our stress levels in check, but at many times in our lives, stress will be unavoidable. Including prebiotics (as well as probiotics) in our diets might be a way to look after ourselves, and minimise the intrusion stress into our sleep and our daily lives. 

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One of our rituals was in the week before Christmas, we’d go shopping and each kiddo would choose a keepsake decoration for the tree. This would forever be their decoration. To make sure we’d remember who owned what (a year is a long time!) I wrote their name and year on the box. The idea is that when they leave home, they’ll have a collection of special decorations for their own tree, plump with throwbacks (‘Oh I remember when we bought this!).

Then of course there was Christmas morning. Santa would leave a note on the table and bootprints on the front path, which smelled remarkably like talcum powder. So magical the way the snow was under the boot and never melted, even in an Australian summer! But that’s the magic of Christmas, right?!

We often put so much pressure on ourselves to make Christmas magical. Rituals can make this easier. They get the special memories, you get to make the ‘magic’ without having to come up with something new and different each year.

It’s very likely that there will already be Christmas rituals happening in your family, even if you don’t realise it. Ask them what they remember most, or what they loved most about last Christmas, aside from the presents.

They might surprise you with things you’d completely forgotten about, or which at the time didn’t seem to be a biggie. It can be the simplest things. Maybe they loved the way they were allowed to have ice-cream with pancakes at breakfast last Christmas. (Ice-cream at breakfast?! Told you Christmas was magical!!). 

If it’s what they remember, and if it lights them up, let it become a ‘thing’. Maybe they loved the magic ‘neverending carrot’ sprinkles you put on the scrawny carrot you found in the vege drawer (remembering reindeer groceries can be so hard sometimes!)

You’d be surprised what they find special. It doesn’t have to be big to feel magical.

What are your Christmas rituals? Let’s share ideas in the comments.♥️
We're having a sale! For a limited time, books and plushies are 25% off. 

Because sales are the best, and Christmas is the best, and helping kiddos find their brave is the very best of all! So, to celebrate the end of the year (because truly, it's been a year hasn't it), and to help you settle brave hearts for next year, or night times, or separations, or, you know, all the things, we're taking 25% off books and plushies in the Hey Sigmund shop.

There's no need to enter a code. The books and bundles are already marked with their special sale prices. You'll find them all there - plushies, books, bundles - doing shopping cartwheels, beside themselves excited about helping your young ones feel bigger than anxiety, and shimmy on to brave. 
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It can feel as though the only way to strengthen them against their anxiety is to make sure they have nothing to worry about, but when their worries are real this might not happen quickly. 

Instead, we need to focus on helping them know that even though those worries are there, they will be okay. ‘Not worrying’ isn’t the antidote to anxiety, trust is. This will start with trust in you and your belief that they will be okay, and trust in your reaction if things don’t go to plan. Eventually, as they grow this will expand into trust in themselves and their own capacity to find their way through challenges to a place of hope and strength. 
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Strong steady breathing will reverse the fight or flight physiology that causes nausea, butterflies, or sick or sore tummies during anxiety. BUT telling an anxious brain to take a strong steady breath will potentially make anxiety worse unless strong steady breathing feels familiar. Practising during calm times will make it familiar. 

During anxiety we’re dealing with their amygdala, and it wants short shallow breathing to conserve oxygen. It doesn’t want strong steady breathing and will work hard to resist this. 

An anxious brain is a busy brain and it will be less able to do anything unfamiliar. A few minutes of strong steady breathing each day will set up a strong neural pathway to make strong breathing more automatic and accessible during anxiety. 

In the meantime though, you can do it for them. This is the magic of co-regulation. When you do strong steady breathing during their anxiety, it will calm your nervous system which will eventually calm theirs. You will catch their anxiety, and this will feed into their anxiety. Your strong steady breathing is the circuit breaker. They will catch your anxiety, but they will also catch your calm. Don’t worry if this takes a few minutes (and maybe a few more after that). Anxious brains are strong, powerful, beautiful brains working hard to protect. Breathe and be with. This will open the way for that distressed young nervous system to find its way home. And you don’t need to do more than that.♥️
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Needs and behaviour can get tangled up and treated as one. When you can, separate the need from the behaviour. Give voice to the need - let it find a way to breathe - and redirect the behaviour. 

The need might always be clear, especially if it’s being smothered by angry shouting words. If we stifle the behaviour without acknowledging the need, the need stays hungry. Help usher it into the light by making it clear that you’re ready to receive it. Then wait. Wait for the big behaviour to ease, for bodies to calm, and angry voices to soften - but keep the way to you open. ‘You’re a great kid and I know you know that behaviour wasn’t okay. Talk to me about what’s happening for you.’

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