Nov. 4, 2021 — Loads of people have trouble sleeping, and for a host of reasons: stress, too much caffeine, too much screen time before bed, and trouble shutting down at the end of the day are just a few. But perhaps the toughest sleep-related problem to handle is a body clock that’s off its rhythm.
Think swing shift workers, international travelers, or people dealing with a lack of natural light, the aging process, or poor sleep hygiene. Chronic disruption of internal clocks is tough on the body and can lead to various health problems. These range from sleepiness and lack of alertness to more serious issues, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity.
Treatments for disrupted circadian rhythms often include melatonin, light therapy, sleep therapy, and dietary changes, among others. While successful for some people, others have yet to find a fix and continue to have sleep troubles.
One of the latest attempts at helping those with disrupted circadian rhythms involves changes to the diet. Researchers from the University of Colorado, Northwestern University, and the University of California San Diego teamed up with the Office of Naval Research to see if prebiotic foods may be able to regulate rhythms.
“Humans have a complicated, integrated system, and stressors impact the mind and body globally,” says Monika Fleshner, a professor of integrative physiology at CU Boulder and lead researcher on the study. “We can’t control the impacts of our age, genetics, or gender on sleep patterns, but what can we control?”
That’s exactly what the team set off to find out.
To answer that question, at least in part, Fleshner and her team worked with the Navy because its sailors often travel around the world and work odd hours. Submarine officers often struggle because they may go weeks to months without seeing any natural light.
“The Navy knows that the nature of the military disrupts biological clocks,” she says. “This is crucial because of its impact on brain function and peripheral systems.”
The research zeroed in on the prebiotic classification of foods. While there’s been a good deal of attention paid to the value of probiotic foods, studies of the role of prebiotics is somewhat newer. Prebiotics are naturally abundant in many fibrous foods. Undigestible carbohydrates that pass through the small intestine, prebiotics linger in the gut, nourishing helpful colonies of bacteria that reside there. Foods that are rich in prebiotics include leeks, artichokes, and onions, among others.