Acid Reflux and Its Impact on a Good Night’s Sleep

Woman trying to sleep with acid reflux

Acid reflux affects about 20% of people in the United States at least once a week. Its unpleasant effects are well-known, including heartburn. When these symptoms occur at night, they can disrupt sleep. Perhaps surprisingly, it turns out that poor sleep can also prompt the symptoms of acid reflux.

Understanding how to get a good night’s sleep and dealing with acid reflux go hand in hand. Take a look at the relationship between the two and the steps you can take to minimize the effect of acid reflux on your sleep.

What Is Acid Reflux?

Acid reflux, more formally known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), is a chronic condition in which stomach acid flows upward into the esophagus. This occurs when the muscles at the base of the esophagus become relaxed or weak, opening enough to allow the acid to flow out of the stomach.

While many people experience occasional reflux, some people experience it weekly or more often. Acid reflux’s best-known symptom is heartburn, but it can cause these other symptoms as well:

  • Regurgitation of stomach acid and food
  • Coughing
  • Sore throat
  • Hoarse voice
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • A feeling of choking
  • Chest pain
  • Sleep disorders

What Is the Relationship Between Acid Reflux and Sleep Disorders?

Studies show a distinct correlation between acid reflux and sleep disorders. In fact, 33% of people with gastrointestinal issues suffer from insomnia, a much higher rate than those with GI problems.

Acid reflux affects sleep in a couple of ways. When you’re lying down, gravity no longer plays a role in keeping stomach acid in the stomach, so if those esophageal muscles are relaxed, the acid can creep into the esophagus. People wake up 90% of the time when this occurs, at least for a short time, disrupting their sleep patterns. Overall, the heartburn, coughing and chest pain caused by acid reflux results in lower sleep quality.

In addition, during sleep, your production of saliva decreases, so you lose its benefits in neutralizing that stomach acid. You also swallow less while sleeping. During the daytime, the downward pressure caused by swallowing helps clear stomach acid from the esophagus and keep it where it belongs. Without that downward pressure, the acid can creep upward more easily during sleep.

Recent studies show that the relationship between acid reflux and sleep issues works both ways. In other words, sleep disturbances actually exacerbate or cause acid reflux. On top of that, some medications used to handle sleep disorders, particularly benzodiazepines, aggravate acid reflux.

Tips for Improving Sleep When You Have Acid Reflux

The combination of acid reflux and sleep disturbances can be overwhelming. You wake up unrefreshed and feeling awful on top of that. While there’s no single solution to this combined problem, several steps you can take will help you both get some relief from acid reflux symptoms and improve your chances at restorative sleep. Try these steps to reduce the effects of acid reflux at night.

Don’t Eat Late at Night

The later you eat, the more your digestive system will keep working as you try to get to sleep. Try to finish your last meal (or snack) of the day at least 3 to 4 hours before you go to bed to give your body a chance to clear the stomach acid needed for digesting.

Take Appropriate Medications

While plenty of over-the-counter medicines are available to help with heartburn and acid reflux, they don’t work for everyone. Your physician may recommend proton pump inhibitor or H2 blocker meds to reduce the amount of acid your stomach produces. Talk to your doctor about side effects before taking any medications for acid reflux.

Lose Some Weight

Weight loss is always easier to recommend than to accomplish — but it can have a significant effect on acid reflux. With less weight, there’s less pressure on the abdomen and therefore less chance of acid reflux during both the day and nighttime.

Sleep on Your Left Side

Sleeping on your left side aligns your internal organs in a way that minimizes how much stomach acid reaches your esophagus. In contrast, sleeping on your back increases your chances of acid reflux. Try to at least start off on your left side as you fall asleep.

Sleep at an Angle

If you raise the head of your bed by about 6 inches, you help keep stomach acid in your stomach. You can add bed risers to the legs at the head of the bed to accomplish this. An adjustable bed frame that lets you raise the head of the bed mechanically or electronically also works. Another alternative is to employ a sleep wedge. This is a wedge-shaped pillow that helps you stay partially upright while you sleep, keeping stomach acid where it belongs. (Unfortunately, just adding more standard pillows won’t do the trick.)

Improve Your Overall Sleep Hygiene

Keeping to a regular sleep schedule, avoiding caffeine late in the day, creating a peaceful sleeping space and adhering to a relaxing routine before you go to bed all boost your chances of excellent sleep. When you improve overall sleep hygiene, you remove other issues that could be combining with the acid reflux to disturb your slumber.

Get a Little Exercise

Some people find that light exercise, such as taking the dog for a walk or doing minor housework, can help their digestive system work more efficiently. Studies show that regular exercise helps regulate sleep in general — but don’t plan on a vigorous workout right before bed, as you don’t want to rev up your adrenaline levels.

Avoid Foods That Worsen Acid Reflux

Different people respond in varying ways to certain foods, but there are some common offenders when it comes to acid reflux. Many people find their acid reflux and heartburn lessening when they avoid foods that include coffee, tomatoes (and tomato-based sauces), garlic, chocolate and fried foods of all kinds. Alcohol also prompts heartburn for some people.

Taking these simple steps can help you avoid the symptoms of acid reflux when trying to get a good night’s sleep.

Published 4/12/2022

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