Sleep and Microbiome

Sleepless in the U.S.

It is an unfortunate fact that sleep disorders are common in the U.S. At least 10% of the population suffers from a sleep disorder that is considered “clinically significant,” with the most common diagnosis being insomnia, followed by sleep apnea and then restless legs syndrome (RLS). Breaking this issue down by sex, one study conducted in Madison, Wisconsin, found that 2% of women and 4% of men were diagnosed with sleep apnea. And the prevalence of RLS has been reported to be between 5% and 15%, with higher prevalence among elderly. (1)

What makes this information even more concerning is the fact that over time, sleep deprivation leads to the accumulation of reactive oxygen species (ROS) – a byproduct of molecular activity that results in oxidative damage of nucleic acids, proteins and lipids. From the peer-reviewed journal, Cell, “The cause of this lethality is unknown. Here we show, using flies and mice, that sleep deprivation leads to accumulation of reactive oxygen species and consequent oxidative stress, specifically in the gut. ROS are not just correlates of sleep deprivation but drivers of death.” (2)

The Pharmacy Response

Not surprisingly, many people turn to their doctors and pharmacies to find relief from sleep issues. Here are a few interesting items from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2005–2010:

  • About 4% of U.S. adults aged 20 and over used prescription sleep aids in the past month.
  • The percentage of adults using a prescription sleep aid increased with age and education. More adult women (5.0%) used prescription sleep aids than adult men (3.1%).
  • Non-Hispanic white adults were more likely to use sleep aids (4.7%) than non-Hispanic black (2.5%) and Mexican-American (2.0%) adults.
  • Prescription sleep aid use varied by sleep duration and was highest among adults who sleep less than 5 hours (6.0%) or sleep 9 or more hours (5.3%).
  • One in six adults with a diagnosed sleep disorder and one in eight adults with trouble sleeping reported using sleep aids. (3)

Better Sleep Through a Healthy Gut

There are countless studies looking at the cause of sleep issues, and potential treatments. One study out of Japan’s University of Tsukuba, indicates a strong connection between the health of a person’s gut microbiome and sleep quality – using mice.

Based on similar studies on mice (and fruit flies) the scientists looked at the role gut bacteria plays in sleep – specifically in the production of serotonin and dopamine (neurotransmitters used by the nervous system to regulate body functions and processes such as sleep and metabolism). 

First, investigators gave a group of mice strong doses of antibiotics over the course of four weeks to deplete the diversity of bacteria in their intestines. Next the team observed these rodents’ sleep performance by using EEGs to monitor their brain activity. They found that these mice with the depleted microbiome experienced frequently disrupted sleep/wake cycles, switching between REM and non-REM sleep at a higher rate than the control group. (4)

This research offers a completely new paradigm when considering sleep disorders and their treatments – probiotics. Of course, there may be push back from the medical and pharmaceutical community when asked to consider, and support, an alternative treatment. But the research is very promising, and warrants much further exploration – not just in mice, but in humans as well.


  1. Ram, S., Seirawan, H., Kumar, S.K.S., Clark, G.T. Prevalence and impact of sleep disorders in the United States. Sleep and Breathing (2010) 14:63-70.
  2. Vaccaro, A., et. al. Sleep loss can cause death through accumulation of reactive oxygen species in the gut. Cell. Volume 181, Issue 6, 11 June 2020.
  3. Chong, Y., Fryar, C.D., Gu, Q., Prescription sleep aid use among adults: United States, 2005-2010. NCHS Data Brief No. 127. August, 2013.
  4. Ogawa, Y., et. al. Gut microbiota depletion by chronic antibiotic treatments alters the sleep/wake architecture and sleep EEG power spectra in mice. Scientific Reports. 11 November, 2020.

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