Prebiotics are best-known for supporting gut health, but they can also improve sleep and enhance stress resilience, according to a study published in Scientific Reports.

Researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder say prebiotics—dietary fibers that nourish the gut’s microbiome—create a symbiotic relationship with the body that affects the brain.

For the study, researchers fed adolescent rats either standard chow or chow infused with prebiotics, then tracked the rats’ behavior. Those on the prebiotic diet spent more time in restorative non–rapid-eye-movement (NREM) sleep and, after stress, spent more time in restorative rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep.

Results also showed a difference in the rats’ makeup of metabolites, the potent biologically active molecules produced by gut bacteria. Those on the prebiotic diet had more of the metabolites that influence behavior via gut-brain signaling. Conversely, rats on the standard diet saw dramatic spikes in sleep-disrupting metabolites.

“We know that this combination of dietary fibers helps promote stress robustness and good sleep and protects the gut microbiome from disruption. With this new study, we wanted to try to identify the signal,” says Monika Fleshner, integrative physiology professor and senior author of the study. “Our results reveal novel signals that come from gut microbes that may modulate stress physiology and sleep.”

The researchers said it’s not clear whether eating large amounts of prebiotic dietary fiber would improve sleep for humans, as the rats in the study were fed a very high dosage of specific prebiotics. Still, the results may lead to more research and new types of treatment for sleep issues.

“Armed with this information, we might be able to develop a targeted therapeutic that boosts the molecules that buffer against stress and tamps down the ones that seem to disrupt sleep,” said Fleshner. “It’s exciting to think about.”

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