March 31, 2016 4 min read

Many people don’t realize that how you sleep directly affects reflux symptoms at the night as anatomy and gravity play a big role in heartburn symptom frequency, length, and severity.

Let’s start with a short anatomy lesson.

What you eat travels down your esophagus through your lower esophageal sphincter (LES) and into your stomach where digestion begins. Your LES is essentially a ring of muscles that act as a valve to control the flow of contents between your esophagus and your stomach and vice versa. If your LES functions correctly, what you eat will stay in your stomach with the occasional release of gas, also known as a burp.

Problems arise when your LES doesn’t function properly allowing your stomach contents to escape back up into your esophagus. These problems come in the form of distressing symptoms, such as heartburn, regurgitation, choking, coughing etc….More serious problems come when reflux goes untreated.

Prolonged acid exposure potentially leads to serious health complications, such as erosive esophagitis, peptic strictures, esophageal ulcerations, Barrett’s esophagus and in rare cases, esophageal cancer1.

Did you know that how you position yourself at night can actually go a long way towards reducing your acid reflux symptoms and protecting you from the harmful effects of refluxed stomach acid? 

If reflux occurs when you are standing up, gravity and saliva quickly return the acidic content to your stomach. This quick return typically makes your symptoms shorter, as well as minimizes the potential acid damage to the delicate lining of your esophagus from acid exposure. Things get more complicated when you lie down to sleep at night as saliva and swallowing slow making the return of reflux to the stomach more difficult2.

Let’s take a look at common sleep positions and you will quickly see which ones you will want to avoid!

Avoid -- Sleeping flat on your back

When lying flat on your back, a poorly functioning LES can allow acidic stomach contents to flow freely into the esophagus. Studies have shown that in this position, symptoms are often more frequent and tend to last longer3. The severity of your symptoms may also increase if you have stomach fat, which pushes down on your stomach and LES and can “force” contents back up into the esophagus and beyond. To reduce your nighttime heartburn and decrease the risks associated with prolonged acid exposure, try to stay off your back at night.

Avoid -- Sleeping flat on your right side

Though episodes may be less frequent on your right when compared to flat on your back, the episodes are much more liquid in nature because your LES is often submerged in the acidic stomach content 4.This position potentially creates a leaky faucet spouting stomach acid into the delicate lining of your esophagus. While liquid reflux can be very distressing, it can also be dangerous as when flat on your right side, the amount of time acid lingers in your esophagus is much longer3. Gravity is fighting an uphill battle as it is unable to effectively return refluxed content to your stomach. If you suffer with nighttime heartburn, avoid lying flat on your right side.

Embrace -- Sleeping on your left-side

You may have heard that sleeping flat on your left side provides heartburn relief, which is true. In this position, your LES typically stays above “sea level” or above the level of gastric contents making refluxing more difficult. Should reflux escape, gravity is able to return it to your stomach quicker than when on your right side.

Also, reflux on your left side tends to be more gaseous in nature4, which decreases potential damage from acid exposure. Studies have shown that symptoms are less frequent and less severe when on your left side as compared to on your right side or on your back, making it the most desirable flat sleep position.

Embrace -- Sleeping at an incline

Has your doctor recommended that you sleep at an incline using a bed wedge or putting blocks under your bed frame? Studies have shown that sleeping at an incline decreases the frequency of reflux episodes and allows your body to clear reflux at a quicker rate5. As long as your entire torso is elevated, the incline gives gravity a little boost in its power to return reflux to your stomach.

Best position for reflux relief = left side + incline 

Recent studies show that combining adding an incline to a left-side sleeping position is the best for natural reflux relief 6-7. These  show that this compound inclined, left-side sleeping position makes refluxing virtually impossible because your LES is now positioned well above the level of stomach contents, even if your stomach is really full. And, if you do reflux, gravity is able to quickly return the contents to your stomach. This ideal relief position provides a double whammy of decreasing your heartburn symptoms and providing protection from prolonged acid exposure to your esophagus, throat, lungs and sinuses.

So what’s the secret to sleeping reflux-free? Proper sleep positioning! If you want to experience the power of this compound (inclined + left side) position, try at the MedCline Reflux Relief System, specifically designed to create and maintain the position clinically proven to be the most effective for natural relief from nighttime heartburn and the other distressing symptoms of acid reflux/GERD.

How do you sleep?

References:
1. Lagergren, J, Bergstrom R, Lindgren A, et al. Symptomatic gastroesophageal reflux as a risk factor for esophageal adenocarcinoma. N Engl J Med 1999; 340: 825-831.

2. Fass, Ronnie. PPI bashing’ drives use of alternatives. gastoendnews.com, Sept. 2011.

3. Khoury, Ramez M. Influence of spontaneous sleep positions on nighttime recumbent reflux in patients with Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease. The American Journal of Gastroenterology. Vol. 94, No. 8, 1999.

4. Shay SS, Conwell DL, Mehindru V, et al. The effect of posture on gastroesphageal reflux event frequency and composition during fasting. Am J Gastroenterology. 1996; 91: 54-60.

5. Stanciu C, Bennett JR: Effect of posture on gastro esophageal reflux, Digestion 1977, 15: 104-109.

6. Person, E, Freeman, J, Rife, C, Clark, A, Castell, DO. A Novel Sleep Assist Device Prevents Gastroesophageal Reflux: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology. 2015 Sep; 49 (8): 655-9.

7. Allampati SK, Lopez R, Ray M, Birgisson S, Gabbard SL. Use of a Sleep Positioning Device Significantly Improves Nocturnal Gastroesophageal Reflux Symptoms. Am J Gastroenterol 2014; 109:S1–S39