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How to boost your sleep and improve your gut health

Reading time: 14 minutes

Sleep heals. It’s that simple. When we sleep, the body gets the chance to rest and reset. When we don’t get sufficient sleep, we can fall prey to a whole host of physical and mental health issues.

The sad reality is that we are living in increasingly sleepless cities.1 Poor sleep almost certainly plays a key role in anxiety and stress. Studies show that as little as two days of too little sleep can increase cortisol levels and inflammation, subtly impacting our gut bugs’ balance.2

In fact, fatigue and obesity often go hand in hand. Lack of sleep causes us to seek out sources of energy—sugar and fat. We are pulled to inflammatory foods, which feed the less healthy bacteria in our microbiome. This can create a negative cycle, unsettling our microbiome and increasing inflammation, making us feel tired and unwell. So protecting your sleep is part and parcel of protecting your gut wellbeing.3

The simplest, most practical step you can take to sort out your sleep is to reclaim your bedroom. The purpose of your bedroom is to sleep and have sex, so if you struggle with sleep, take a look at the space you offer yourself each nighttime and honestly ask yourself, is it fit for purpose? Would you offer this space to a dear friend, right now, as it is? If not, why not? Check out the box on page 41 for some top tips for a sleep-enhancing space.

Once you’ve sorted out your space, it’s time to create some new loving sleep rituals. A little ceremony can help to create healthy habits to support a more mindful life, which will lead to better sleep. But you don’t want to replace one set of anxieties with another, so avoid anything too heavy or ritualistic.

First, just admit how many things are encroaching on the edges of your sleep and then lean toward incorporating the following six steps to upgrade your sleep.

Six steps to gut-soothing sleep  

1. Eat for better sleep 

A healthy microbiome helps us sleep, and there’s a whole field of study opening up around this. People with healthy, diverse microbiomes with high levels of the phylum Bacteroidetes have deeper, more efficient sleep.4 Foods high in fiber and rich in protein promote a higher quality of sleep.5 So think probiotics, such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria, for an anti-anxiety effect.6 

Prebiotic-rich foods like garlic, artichoke and onions can help to improve sleep and support your gut microbiota. Even more fascinating is how what we eat might impact not just the amount of sleep we get, but the quality, too. Recent studies in animals show that those on a 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 critical for recovery from stress.7 

Avoid saturated fat, carbs and high-sugar foods, particularly before bedtime, as they can disrupt sleep by destabilizing blood sugar. So the good old anti-inflammatory lifestyle, Mediterranean or plant-based, helps sleep for a range of reasons by supporting a healthy microbiome, reducing anxiety levels and supporting the lowering of inflammation in the brain. 

There are clear links between gut microbiome composition, sleep physiology, the immune system and cognition, which the new field of psychobiotics is starting to open up. The relationship between our gut and our brain is an exciting research area, so watch this space for more human-scale studies and what this will mean for gut-loving sleep. 

2. Drink for better sleep 

In winter, try a glass of warm tryptophan-rich almond milk with a grate of serotonin-rich fresh nutmeg before bed. Mix it up in summer with chamomile or valerian tea. You have to time it right, so it doesn’t lead you to a nighttime toilet trip. Choose your best mug or cup on a beautiful saucer. To deepen the sense of ritual, light an oil burner (add a few drops of soothing lavender) and create this as a moment of tranquility to mark the end of your day, a pivot point to sleep. 

Avoid alcohol, caffeine and energy drinks. These are all sleep disruptors. 

3. Drop the worry ball

Worry and anxiety are the enemies of sleep, so try these simple methods to soothe sleep-interrupting thoughts. 

Journaling. If you are always busy with an overactive mind, give yourself the gift of space. Spill out all those worries on to a pad either before or when you get into bed. Doodle, draw and rant your worries. Julia Cameron, the author of The Artist’s Way (Souvenir Press, 2020), advocates Morning Pages, three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing, done first thing in the morning, as a way of enabling the unconscious mind, which is so closely attuned to our deeper gut instincts, to have free rein in our lives. 

Worry jar. One way to park worries directly before bedtime is to create a worry jar to store those incomplete to-do lists and stop them swirling around your head in the small hours. 

Get acquainted. I’ve been gently, humorously getting to know my inner insomniac. So now I know what helps her when she wakes at 3 a.m., believing she’s got to send an email or plan a meal. I’ve been talking her down for a while, and now we’re pretty close. I have her back, and she knows it. If it’s between her and work, she wins every time. Just knowing that seems to soothe her. Building a relationship with your good self, your gorgeous gut, is vital. 

Find a restful podcast. I love the soothing voices of Elizabeth Gilbert and Pema Chödrön. Find yours, and you will have a nighttime buddy and psychological solace. 

4. Try mindful movement 

Investing a bit of time in the day to reframe your psychological approach to your nighttime habits is an act of self‐care. Sleep is an act of letting go, but when we are most stressed and anxious, it can feel almost impossible. We are wired up on cortisol and adrenaline, gulping back cups of coffee and high-sugar snacks. 

If this sounds familiar, then re-establish your relationship with the process of letting go and letting be in your waking life. Simple mindfulness practices are wonderful opportunities to learn to let go—you’re literally learning to tune in to the natural calm of your parasympathetic nervous system. 

And if, like me, you are genetically primed to wake up in the night, then create a nighttime breath practice and get into yoga. See the box on page 45 for a simple yoga pose to promote sleep.

5. Get perspective by starlight 

Spending time lying on the earth creates a sense of calm. Some studies have even shown that regular “earthing” has a health impact on the body.8 

If you have a garden, get a rug, lie on the ground and watch the sky and the stars. When we are anxious and stressed, we feel the spotlight of the world is on us. There is something deeply grounding in resting on Mother Earth and feeling the solar system’s vastness. 

No garden? Then gaze upward out of a window, find a piece of the sky and breathe into the cool night air. Repeat. Combine with corpse pose (page 45) for a greater impact. 

6. Make time for a massage 

If you feel bloated and in general digestive distress, a gentle belly massage is a lovely evening ritual, especially combined with aromatherapy—the use of essential oils for healing purposes (see the box on page 43 for which oils to use). Aromatherapy aids relaxation, improves sleep, relieves anxiety and depression, and improves perceived life quality for those with chronic health conditions. 

Avoid massaging straight after a large meal. Let your gut settle and do its wonder work before applying any pressure. Think about the beautiful three-sided large intestine around the central folded concertinaed small intestine. This is the frame of your massage. 

You can self-massage or, if you have a partner, ask them to do it for you. Having someone else gently massaging your abdominal area is profoundly gut relaxing. But be confident to state if the pressure gets too heavy. You don’t want to add top-down pressure to your organs.

If you are in severe discomfort or having a flare-up of symptoms, don’t add pressure. Instead, lie down, take a small amount of oil and focus on base belly breathing. 

Here’s how to do a gut-loving massage:

Create a comfortable place to lie down on a sofa or bed, with a towel or sheet under you if you are worried about oils on clothing or fabric. 

Complete at least three cycles of base belly breathing. This is where you breathe in through your nose, letting your belly expand, and out through your mouth, noticing your belly contact (for detailed instructions, see WDDTY September 2021). If you’re particularly stressed, toggle your breath with your hands, touch the oil to your nose and inhale deeply into the base of your belly for a few moments before you begin. 

Take a generous tablespoon of oil and rub it between your hands. Cup your hands to your face first and inhale. 

Place your hands flat against your stomach with your fingers covering your belly button and start with a soft, wide opening stroke down and outward. If you can, take your hands around your sides and behind your lower back. Then move upward slowly across your lower back and kidneys and back to the front of your body. 

Do this move several times—the key is slowly. Breathe deeply into your belly in a slow rhythm to the movement of your hands. 

Be as gentle and slow as you can. Then slow down some more. The way you circle the movement of massage around your stomach depends on your symptoms:

  • For IBS with diarrhea, a super gentle counterclockwise movement may support the slowing down of your digestive tract. 
  • For IBS with constipation, you may find a gentle clockwise movement supports you to eliminate. 
  • For Crohn’s disease, close your eyes and allow your hands to gently massage the higher section of your belly, focusing on your ileum and colon. Focus on those areas where you sense inflammation—be as gentle and loving as possible. Remember, your meds act to mask pain and inflammation, so travel slowly and mindfully over your gut. 
  • For ulcerative colitis, follow the ascending, transverse and descending colon with slow, tender movements. Let your hands gently and lovingly sweep around the curve of your colon. Use your two hands to gently complete a large, slow-moving circle. 

Repeat this gentle pressure for 12 long cycles. Go light and then go lighter; only start to add a firm, soft hold if it feels right. Remember you have a lot packed into your abdominal area, and you don’t want to cause any additional pressure. Wrap your hands around your sides, along the lower ribs and upper hips. This will deepen your sense of relaxation and slow your breathing. 

Deepen your massage by visualizing the shape of your colon, the folds of your ileum. And as you do this, you can visualize healing light, cooling and soothing, moving through them as you massage. You may want to quietly thank them. 

As you massage, you will naturally feel the expansion of your abdomen area as you breathe. Time the strokes of your hands to support your breath naturally and effortlessly to slow. 

End by returning your hands to the starting position, thanking yourself for taking the time out of your day to offer your loving attention to your gut. 

Create your own gut-love massage oil blend 

Oils can be stimulants, relaxants or neutral. So select the oils based on the time of day and your stress levels. 

Almond or coconut oil makes an ideal base blend massage oil. 

At night, a small amount of warmed coconut oil mixed with a few drops of your favorite oil blend can create a soothing and moisturizing massage oil. (Bonus: it also can be gorgeous mixed into your hair as an extra deep-conditioning treatment.) Almond oil is a more neutral blend oil, but you can also use flaxseed or juniper. Warm the mixture in your hands and keep it warm so that it is spreadable. 

For stress and overwhelm during the daytime, eucalyptus is an antispasmodic oil that can refresh your mind and bring clarity. 

Yarrow was used traditionally to reduce abdominal pain and inflammation.1 A few drops of anti-inflammatory rosemary2 in your favorite carrier oil can also ease bloating. Peppermint oil is a great all-rounder for IBS relief,3 while clove is a special spice packed with polyphenols—it stimulates metabolism and is an anti-inflammatory. 

For an evening belly massage, a good all-around oil like lavender is an ideal blend. If you’re new to aromatherapy, 

it is a simple, safe starter oil with calming and pain-relieving properties. It’s the one you’ll have heard about for getting a better night’s sleep. 

Ideally, try and go for a base, mid- and top-note mix of oils. This works to create a complementary blend. But once you have got the basics, play with the smells and create your own unique blend. You might even want to mix up a batch and give it a name: Gut love flare mix. 

If you want to explore a little deeper, oils like Roman chamomile and vetiver have been shown to boost the immune system. Frankincense is a warming sedative oil that can create a sense of peace and comfort. I use it during my evening meditation practice. 

Note: Make sure that you buy pure essential oils from a reputable retailer or pharmacist. Some companies use artificial scents, and these will not have the true benefits of essential oils. 

It is important to patch test oils first and check for sensitivity 24 hours before using any oil or combination of oils. Oils can also cause skin sensitivity to sunlight. 

The evidence suggests avoiding aromatherapy when pregnant and breastfeeding. Trust your body. If it doesn’t feel right, discontinue. 

Setting up your bedroom for better sleep

  • Invest in a mattress that makes you want to sink into its embrace. An inexpensive way to do this is to get an excellent-quality mattress topper.
  • Turn the radiator settings to low—a cool room aids sleep.
  • Choose simplicity and soft tones. Colors create wavelengths of light that increase or decrease heart rate. Choose a color scheme of pale blues, whites or soft greens.1
  • Declutter. Your bedroom is not the place for the laundry basket, kids’ toys or overspill from your home office.
  • Keep it dark. Sleep needs darkness, but our light-saturated cityscapes hide the stars and bleed through the curtains and blinds.2 Invest in blackout blinds and curtains that will make your room dark. This is particularly important in summer, as this sensitivity to light is embedded in our biology. We have photoreceptors in our bodies that impact our hormones.   
  • Choose natural anti-inflammatory materials for your bedding and nightclothes (if you wear them)—100 percent cotton, silk or bamboo. Add fragrance with organic oils and scents rather than artificial air fresheners and plugs-in. (It’s important to protect our biome and reduce the chemical footprint of our home environment; natural oils also have a physiological impact on hormones.) Include plants that oxygenate and purify the air—aloe vera, peace lilies or gerbera daisies.

Rest and reset with yoga

Yoga can calm the nervous system, and this exercise—corpse pose—is ideal to do before bedtime for a deeper, more restful sleep. You’ll need a yoga mat or comfy rug; on a warm day, soft grass is perfect too.

  1. Find a quiet place (on the earth outside if possible). Lie down on the ground and nestle into a flat-backed extended position; adjust so you feel fully held by the earth beneath you. 
  2. Let your hands flop to your sides, palms upward. Let your legs naturally part in a way that releases any tension in your lower back. Your feet may flop to the sides. 
  3. Start to notice your breath. Let your face, jaw and muscles fully relax. 
  4. Complete a gentle check-in with your body, focusing on each body part in turn. As you do this, combine deep, slow, natural breaths. 
  5. Let your exhale be effortless. If you feel any tension, bring your awareness to this, breathe gently into it and watch it slowly dissolve. Do this as long as you feel you need to.
  6. When you exit from this position, do it gently (with eyes closed). Bring your knees slowly to your chest and then roll to one side and rest there for a few breaths. Move slowly up to a sitting position and then to bed. 

Try some of these simple gut-loving recipes.

Winter smoothie

Smoothies are a surprisingly easy way to bring more fruit and vegetables into your day. Our gut bugs love fiber. Use a blender rather than a juicer so you get the whole benefit of the plant fiber. Seeds are generally fine too. So—bonus—limited chopping and prep. 

Makes two smoothies


1 green banana

5–6 dates/figs for natural sweetness (or swap for 6 frozen strawberries)

12 almonds 

7 fl oz/200 mL warmed almond milk, infused with either a small nub of ginger or a crushed cardamom pod 

0.07 fl oz/2 mL ginseng 

1 tsp chia seeds 


Place all the ingredients in the blender and blitz to your preferred consistency.


Vegan bolognese

This vegan take on an Italian classic is a tasty, easy one-pot meal that you can serve with your choice of pasta or spiralized vegetables. It has a good dose of prebiotics, thanks to the mushrooms, onion and garlic, and is great to cook in bulk. Pop in a glass container in the fridge, and after marinating for 24 hours, it’s even tastier. 

To make the most of the flavors of this recipe, serve with a simple side salad of arugula (rocket) leaves topped with toasted sunflower and pumpkin seeds. Finish with a sprinkle of sprouted broccoli seeds (these are a true superfood, helping the body to create sulforaphane, which has anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties). 

Serves:  4/Prep time: 40 minutes 


1 large red onion, finely diced

10½ oz/300 g mushrooms, finely chopped (these form the heart of this dish; mix up your buttons with cremini, portobello, porcini or oyster)

1 large or 2 small carrots, finely diced

2 sticks celery, finely diced

4 large cloves of garlic, crushed (wait for 10–15 minutes after crushing before heating to maximize beneficial compounds) 

14 oz/400 g whole plum tomatoes, canned (organic if you can), plus half a can of water

1 large red and 1 large yellow pepper, roasted and diced 

1 generous tsp of capers, finely crushed

2 Tbsp tomato puree

Generous glug of balsamic vinegar 

2 oz/60 g gluten-free pasta, cooked to packet instructions. (Vary your grains, as most gluten-free pasta is corn- or rice-based. Try whole buckwheat, lentil or chickpea to mix up your plant-based goodies.)

Generous bunch of thyme (fresh leaves stripped from woody stems)

Generous handful of basil

Grate of parmesan cheese or vegetarian/vegan alternative

Drizzle of cold-pressed organic olive oil 


  1. Lightly sauté the onion in a small amount of olive oil. Add the mushrooms. 
  2. Once the mushrooms start to brown, add the carrots, leeks and peppers and stir in the tomatoes and puree, plus a splash of red wine if you wish. 
  3. Simmer gently for 10 minutes, then add the garlic and balsamic vinegar. Continue to simmer until the vegetables are tender. 
  4. In the meantime, cook the pasta according to the packet instructions. Once the pasta is cooked, drain but reserve a couple of tablespoons of the cooking water. Combine the pasta and sauce, and then add the reserved cooking water to loosen the sauce if required before stirring in the thyme. 
  5. Sprinkle the fresh basil leaves and cheese over the top of the pasta dish. Drizzle with the best olive oil you have. 

Gut love tip

Have a cup of carminative (gas-relieving) mint tea after dinner. Mint is an easy-growing perennial. Pick a few sprigs and add to hot water, steep for a few minutes and enjoy a home-grown organic mint tea. 

Homemade oatcakes

Oats are a great source of gut-friendly prebiotics. These delicious oatcakes—gluten-free, dairy-free and yeast-free—are perfect as an accompaniment to a bowl of soup or spread with hummus. 

Serves: 12 oatcakes /Prep  time: 45 minutes 


7¾ oz oats/220 g (gluten-free), blitzed into a fine powder 

2¼ oz/65 g melted vegan butter

3½ fl oz/95 mL filtered water

½ tsp bicarbonate of soda 

½ tsp salt

¼ oz/10 g chia seeds (soak for 3 mins before adding) 


  1. Preheat the oven to 300°F/150°C
  2. Combine all the ingredients in a bowl to form a stiff dough.
  3. Divide the mixture in half and then half again and create 12 small balls. 
  4. Press each ball flat with the back of a spoon onto your baking sheet and place in a preheated oven for 30 minutes. Best served warm straight from the oven. 


Adapted from Calm Your Gut by Cara Wheatley-McGrain (Hay House, 2022)




Aviva Wellbeing Report, Oct 27, 2017. “Sleepless cities revealed as one in three adults suffer from insomnia.” 


PLoS One, 2019; 14: e0222394. 


World Health Organization. Sep 28, 2001. “The World Health Report 2001: Mental disorders affect one in four.” 


PLoS One, 2019; 14: e0222394 


Mosley, M. The Clever Guts Diet (Short Books, 2017) p. 142 


Front Psychiatry, 2018; 9: 669 


Sci Rep, 2020; 10: 3848


J Altern Complement Med, 2011; 17: 301–8


Create your own gut-love massage oil blend 


J Korean Acad Nurs, 2016; 46: 619–29


J Pharm Health Care Sci, 2019; 5: 18


J Altern Complement Med, 2011; 17: 101–8


Setting up your bedroom for better sleep


University of Melbourne, Oct 9, 2018. “How do different colours affect your mood, judgement and physiology?”


National Geographic, Apr 2, 2019. “Our nights are getting brighter, and Earth is paying the price.”

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Article Topics: Anxiety, oil
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