March 28, 2020 5 min read

When you experience the uncomfortable and painful symptoms of acid reflux during the day, you’re naturally in a position to help relieve the problem. Simply by being upright and swallowing, gravity and saliva do their part to help put leaking stomach contents back where they belong. However, during the night, the body’s natural mechanisms are suspended, resulting in more harmful exposure to stomach acid, and often a poor night’s sleep.

Considering that 10-20% of adults deal with chronic heartburn, we have to look at it as a serious problem that deserves our attention. The potential adverse health problems and a substandard quality of life means there are both short- and long-term consequences to consider.

In this article, we’ll go over the dangers of nighttime acid reflux and explore some of the ways that you can put an end to it. For an in-depth look at acid reflux and heartburn at night, read through the article. If, on the other hand, you’re interested in one particular section, then you can skip to it by clicking on the corresponding link below:

chronic heartburn in adults infographic

What Are the Symptoms of Acid Reflux and GERD?

Almost everyone experiences acid reflux from time to time — particularly after eating an especially large or spicy meal. Some of the symptoms of acid reflux include:


  • Heartburn 
  • Involuntary regurgitation 
  • Sour or bitter taste in mouth 
  • Feeling of food stuck in your throat
  • Burping 
  • Nausea

If you’ve been experiencing acid reflux on a regular basis, then you may have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). GERD is a digestive disorder characterized by frequent, recurring bouts of acid reflux and heartburn. It interferes with the proper functioning of your lower esophageal sphincter (LES), the clump of muscles that prevents your stomach contents from surging back up into your esophagus. If GERD symptoms are left untreated, chronic reflux can damage your esophageal lining and lead to more serious health problems. 

Why Is Acid Reflux Worse at Night? 

In the last few years, gastroenterologists have recognized that the occurrence of acid reflux at night can be more detrimental to your health compared to daytime reflux. According to Lawrence J. Cheskin, MD, co-author of “Healing Heartburn” and associate professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine:

“When you’re lying down, gravity isn’t pulling in the right direction. Instead, the stomach contents are pressing on the sphincter muscle that connects the esophagus to the stomach. And because you’re lying down, once acids get into the esophagus, they can sit there for much longer than during the day. That can increase the damage.”

With an irritated esophagus from prolonged exposure to stomach acid, you’re vulnerable to painful reflux during the day. Unlike your stomach lining, your esophageal lining isn’t designed to withstand extended contact with acidic contents. Thus, when acidic content refluxes back into your esophagus at night and lingers there, it can potentially cause serious damage. 

How to Treat Nighttime Acid Reflux

If you’re having trouble getting to sleep at night because of your acid reflux, you’re not alone — more than 50 million Americans reportedly suffer from more than 80 different sleep disorders. Fortunately, when you alleviate reflux during the night, it can lessen the severity of your daytime symptoms and minimize the chance that you experience associated health problems in the future. Your esophagus has a chance to heal with several hours free of acid and you’re more likely to get the quality sleep that you need. With that being said, here are some of the available options for treating nighttime acid reflux.

50 million americans suffer from sleep disorders infographic

Medications

Medication is one of the most common ways for individuals to battle acid reflux and heartburn. In some cases, over-the-counter medications can prove effective in reducing symptoms of acid reflux. In other, more severe cases, stronger acid reflux medicine may be needed to significantly reduce symptoms. Some of the most common medications used to treat acid reflux and heartburn include: 

  • Antacids 
  • Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs)
  • H2 receptor blockers 

Lifestyle Adjustments

If medication is ineffective, those suffering from nighttime acid reflux and heartburn may need to seek out alternative treatment options. So what’s the best way to put reflux to rest? Take a look at the following methods:

#1: Don’t eat for at least three hours before going to bed

With a bigger window of time between your last meal and bedtime, your stomach has a chance to empty its contents. When your stomach is empty, then there’s nothing to reflux. However, factors like illness and the type of food you’re eating can mean a shorter or longer time period. In any case, wait at least three hours after eating before going to bed, so that your stomach has time to digest your meal. 

#2: Avoid trigger foods

For people suffering from GERD, consuming certain foods can agitate their condition and intensify symptoms. Foods that are particularly acidic or spicy tend to worsen acid reflux symptoms. To minimize your symptoms, try to avoid consuming the following foods and drinks:

  • Citrus fruits
  • Spicy foods
  • High-fat foods
  • Tomato
  • Onion
  • Chocolate 
  • Garlic
  • Coffee
  • Alcohol

#3: Change your sleeping position

When you sleep flat on your back, gravity is unable to push acidic contents back into your stomach in the case of nighttime acid reflux. So, instead of sleeping on your back, try sleeping on your side with your torso elevated. Better yet, sleep on an incline system designed to keep you in the best sleep position for acid reflux all night long.

When you sleep on an incline, there’s a drastic reduction in acid exposure and acid clearance time (the time that it takes your body to naturally clear acid from the esophagus). Some studies show a reduction in the total number of reflux episodes in this position. Then, if you also sleep on your side, any contents that may be in your stomach, will empty more quickly.

man sleeping on left side

Currently, the only sleep system that keeps you comfortably on an incline and on your side is MedCline’s Reflux Relief System. The patented acid reflux pillow can help you sleep comfortably in a position that alleviates acid reflux and minimizes symptoms of GERD. Your esophagus will have some time to heal and you’ll have better rest without reflux disturbances.

Keep in mind that some incline products — like wedge pillows and bed risers — only prop you up at an angle without securing you on your side. If you roll onto your back, you’re not optimally positioned for reflux relief. Or, if you slide down the bed or off the pillow, you won’t have the benefit of gravity to help reduce acid exposure.

Summary

Given the damaging nature of acid reflux, both to your physical health and quality of life, you need to attack the problem on all fronts. If you’ve been suffering from acid reflux, then the most important action you can take is to stop it when it has the most impact — during the night. Allow yourself more time between eating and going to bed. And use a MedCline reflux relief system that will keep you on an incline and on your side while you sleep. Your body will thank you for it.

 

References:

  1. “Can a Specially Designed Body Pillow Prevent Your Acid Reflux?” Health Essentials from Cleveland Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, 16 June 2017, health.clevelandclinic.org/can-a-specially-designed-body-pillow-prevent-your-acid-reflux/. 
  2. “Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD).” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 22 May 2020, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/gerd/symptoms-causes/syc-20361940. 
  3. Griffin, R. Morgan. “Nighttime Heartburn: The Risks of GERD and Barrett's Esophagus.” WebMD, WebMD, 13 Apr. 2009, www.webmd.com/heartburn-gerd/features/special-risks-of-nighttime-heartburn. 
  4. LaFee, Scott. “Taking a Position on Sleep.” UC Health - UC San Diego, University of California San Diego, 28 Aug. 2019, health.ucsd.edu/news/features/Pages/2019-09-09-listicle-taking-a-position-on-sleep.aspx. 
  5. “Why Does Your Heartburn Always Seem Worse at Night?” Health Essentials from Cleveland Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, 9 Sept. 2020, health.clevelandclinic.org/why-does-your-heartburn-always-seem-worse-at-night/.