How to Sleep Soundly with Acid Reflux
Find out how to get a good night’s rest while dealing with acid reflux.
May 16th, 2023 •
Medically Reviewed by Dr. Brooke Dulka, a medical writer and neuroscientist who received her Ph.D. in biological psychology from the University of Tennessee, and she is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where she studies the neurobiology of memory.
Having your sleep disturbed by the symptoms of acid reflux is common. Learn how to sleep with acid reflux by recognizing the problem, preventing it, and getting relief when it happens.
Acid reflux is an uncomfortable condition in which stomach acid travels up into the esophagus. The esophagus has a more delicate lining than the stomach and is sensitive to the acid. It reacts with pain, a sensation of burning, or pressure in the chest. This is where the term “heartburn” comes from, referencing the pain in the heart area. The pain from acid reflux can mimic the pain of a heart attack, but they are not connected. Further, heartburn is a symptom of acid reflux and not synonymous with it.
In more detail, acid reflux can have a number of symptoms in addition to heartburn. You may experience an occasional cough or a sore throat if the acid moves all the way up into the throat and mouth area. You can have a bitter or sour taste from the acid that is quite unpleasant. You can have burning or pressure that radiates into a large area of the chest, and it can be a very painful, enormous distraction if you’re trying to sleep.
Chronic Acid Reflux: GERD
“Don’t fret if you’re experiencing acid reflux occasionally, but if you start experiencing acid reflux on a regular basis or several times a week, you may need to get tested for Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD),” says Dr. Dulka. “Common symptoms of GERD include a chronic dry cough, heartburn, or inflamed gums.”
If you start experiencing the symptoms of acid reflux on a regular basis, and specifically more than several times a week, the doctor may test for GERD. Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease or GERD is a more advanced, more frequently occurring, version of acid reflux. With GERD, stomach acid is regularly regurgitated all the way into the mouth causing a host of additional symptoms.
Although it is possible to have no symptoms, commonplace indicators of GERD are:
- Bad breath
- Inflamed gums
- Erosion of tooth enamel
- Chronic sore throat
- Trouble swallowing
- Inflamed esophagus
- Regurgitation of food into the throat and mouth
- Regular burping
- Chronic dry cough
Doctors test for GERD with an endoscopy, a small tube with a camera inserted down the throat to examine the lining of the esophagus. If there is inflammation, irritation, lesions, or nodes it can indicate that stomach acid is traveling up into the esophagus. Untreated, GERD can lead to more serious conditions like esophageal cancer.
Acid reflux is very common in both adults and children and can be caused by lifestyle choices like food and sleep position. It may be caused by some medications or by physical conditions like a hiatal hernia. It helps to understand what is causing your acid reflux in order to counteract the contributing factors.
The foods we eat, and when we eat them, is a large factor. Spicy or fried foods, foods with too much grease, acid foods like tomatoes or chilies, coffee, tea, chocolate, garlic, citrus, and vinegar can all be problematic. If you experience heartburn at bedtime, think about what you ate for dinner or during the evening. Also, think about portion size and timing of meals and snacks. Too much food too close to bedtime can leave your stomach full, and when moving to a prone position, the acid in your stomach can travel up.
Sleep position can exacerbate acid reflux. Lying flat on your back or on your right side puts the stomach in a position that can cause pressure and force both food and acid to travel up into the esophagus and throat.
Certain medications can cause acid reflux. Analgesics like ibuprofen and aspirin can be a causative factor, along with some blood pressure medications and muscle relaxants. Check the label on your medication for side effects if you are experiencing symptoms.
A hiatal hernia, a condition where part of the stomach sneaks up through the diaphragm into the area of the esophagus, can cause acid reflux. This condition needs to be diagnosed by a doctor, and may or may not need care depending on symptoms. It can be treated with medication or, in severe cases, surgery.
Pain when you lie down, a burning in your chest, and stomach acid scorching your throat all make falling asleep or staying asleep very difficult. Data shows that nighttime heartburn from acid reflux is linked to an increased likelihood of insomnia and other sleep disorders like sleep apnea. Studies show that patients with sleep apnea in particular usually have GERD. The acid can cause your voice box to spasm, which blocks the airway causing the apnea and blocking air to the lungs. This of course can cause waking during the night.
How Can You Prevent Acid Reflux?
“To prevent acid reflux, consider eating your biggest meal at lunch and having a lighter dinner or refraining from eating several hours before bed,” says Dr. Dulka.
If you want to be proactive and embrace a lifestyle with a low chance of having acid reflux, there are many tips you can follow:
- Lose weight—even a couple of pounds can make a difference in reducing heartburn
- Don’t eat for several hours before going to bed
- Eat your biggest meal at lunch and a lighter meal at dinner
- Relax while you are eating, it equates to less stomach acid
- Don’t exercise after eating, it can churn food and acid up into the esophagus
- Don’t drink alcohol in the evening
- Stop smoking
- Choose fresh foods and avoid fried, fatty, and spicy foods
What if you already have acid reflux, and are having trouble sleeping: what helps? Here are tips on how to improve sleep with acid reflux.
Getting your body in a position so that stomach acid doesn’t come up and out really helps. Sleeping on your left side and elevated is the preferred position. You can create an incline with your bed by placing a block of wood or other support under the front legs or frame to create an angle. Or, you can get a wedge pillow to prop up the upper part of your body. Reminder: Don’t sleep on you back or right side with acid reflux.
Wear Loose Bedclothes
Anything binding around the waist can put pressure on the abdomen and increase the reflux. Wear loose clothing to bed or nothing at all.
Antacids can temper heartburn, so you don’t have to suffer or compromise the quality of your sleep. Other remedies like ginger chews and digestive enzymes can be found in natural food stores and may offer relief as well. Find something that works for you and use it while you figure out what is causing the acid reflux and what to do about it.
Related: Best Mattresses for Acid Reflux
Dilute Stomach Acid
Chew gum or drink water. Chewing gum can create more saliva and dilute stomach acid, as can drinking water. Water will dilute the stomach acid, raise the PH in your stomach, and clear the acid from your throat and esophagus.
If you go to bed and start feeling heartburn, get up and walk around for a few minutes. Being upright pulls everything back down into the stomach. Sitting upright after your evening meal will help with digestion and lesson acid before bedtime.
Acid reflux is a common malady that can interfere with sleep. If it is usually caused by lifestyle and food choices, it can be corrected fairly easily. If left untreated, it can become an advanced condition called GERD and even lead to cancer. There are numerous over-the-counter remedies that can be used while making lifestyle changes to eliminate acid reflux. Don’t suffer; learn how to sleep with acid reflux.
Dr. Brooke Dulka is a medical writer and neuroscientist. She recieved her Ph.D. in biological psychology from the University of Tennessee, and she is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where she studies the neurobiology of memory.
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