Prebiotics are some types of fibers that the human body cannot digest and often serve as food for probiotics. Probiotics, as we know, are tiny living organisms like bacteria and yeast which are immensely beneficial to us especially in digestive system health.
A recent study has highlighted that prebiotics can improve sleep and boost stress resilience. They do this by affecting gut bacteria and other metabolites.
This observation is produced by study at the University of Colorado Boulder and is thought to open a new path in understanding and treatment of sleep problems.
So if you think that the dietary fiber is just for the digestive health it is time to add a new dimension to that thought.
The study has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.
Thus feeding the microorganisms in our gut by providing them prebiotics creates a symbiotic relationship which is thought to have a powerful effect on our brain and behavior.
What are prebiotics and Where are They Found?
As we know, probiotics are the bacteria, the friendly ones, found in fermented foods like yogurt and sauerkraut. While yogurt is similar to curd, Sauerkraut is formed by fermenting the raw cabbage by various lactic acid bacteria.
Probiotics are commercially available too.
Prebiotics are the compounds that humans cannot digest and but these serve as nourishment for the trillions of bacteria that reside in our gut.
All fibers are not prebiotics!
While not all fibers are prebiotics, the following foods are quite rich in them
- Certain whole grains
The study was an experimental study where the adolescent male rats were given two kinds of diets. Some were given the standard chow and the others were given chow infused with prebiotics.
The rats were tracked for physiological responses before and after the rats were stressed.
It was seen that the rats on the prebiotic diet spent more time in restorative non-rapid-eye-movement (NREM) sleep. After stress, they also spent more time in rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep, which is believed to be critical for recovery from stress.
[NERM and REM sleep are different types of sleep patterns that we naturally have during sleep.]
The rats on the standard chow demonstrated flattening of the body’s natural temperature fluctuations [which is kind of unhealthy]. There was also a decrease in the healthy diversity of their gut microbiome [the microorganisms in a particular environment.
But the rats who were fed prebiotics were buffered from these effects thus suggesting that prebiotics can help reduce stress.
It has been earlier knowing that a combination of dietary fibers helps to thwart stress effects and promotes good sleep. This study is important as it identified the signals.
The researchers also measured metabolites in rat’s feces using mass spectrometry technology.
They found different makeup of metabolites in rats on prebiotics. It was higher in fatty acids, sugars and steroids. These could be used by body via gut-brain signaling pathways and influence behavior.
After the stress, there was a difference on the rats’ metabolome [set of metabolites make up] also looked different after stress.
The rats on the standard chow diet saw dramatic spikes in some potentially sleep-disrupting metabolites.
No such spikes were seen in those on the prebiotic diet.
The study was funded in part by Mead Johnson Nutrition.
Limitation of study
It is an experimental study, to begin with. We will need studies on humans before we could work further in this direction. Human studies are already in the works at CU Boulder.
While the search looks promising and the prebiotics are healthy but there is no cause and effect relationship established per se. Thus we are not sure yet whether just loading the foods rich in prebiotics would promote sleep.
The study included high doses of different substances containing prebiotics. Thus, to show any effect a large portion of these substances would need to be consumed.
Moreover, different people have different microbial make-up is, and therefore, respond differently.
Thus it is too soon to conclude.
But this does provide a new kind of information to develop a targeted therapeutic agent.
Robert S. Thompson, Fernando Vargas, Pieter C. Dorrestein, Maciej Chichlowski, Brian M. Berg, Monika Fleshner. Dietary prebiotics alter novel microbial dependent fecal metabolites that improve sleep. Scientific Reports, 2020; 10 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-020-60679-y