What Is the Best Sleeping Position for Digestion?

Acid reflux is one of the leading causes of troubled sleep.

Substantial overlap exists between people suffering from gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and people suffering from chronic insomnia.

Waking up with heartburn multiple times throughout the night is a surprisingly common issue, and acid reflux is one of the leading causes of sleeplessness in America.

Thankfully, however, there are some easy ways to cut back on the symptoms of acid reflux.

Simply by adjusting your sleeping position, for instance, you can instantly realign your digestive track to drastically cut back on your chances of nighttime heartburn.

Image: woman suffering from heartburnWhat Is Acid Reflux?

To understand how and why these sleeping positions work, we’ll first go through a quick refresher on what acid reflux actually is.

Also commonly known as heartburn or (once it becomes frequent enough) GERD, acid reflux results from the backflow of stomach bile into your esophagus.

You see, in order for the food you swallow to pass into the stomach, it first has to go through a ring of muscle at the bottom of the esophagus called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES).

If for some reason your LES doesn’t close entirely after the food has passed through it, or if it opens more frequently than it’s supposed to, it’s possible for some of your stomach acid to slosh through the LES and onto the other side.

Once out, the bile starts burning into the lining of your esophagus, creating that familiar heartburn feeling.

Heartburn most commonly occurs after you’ve eaten certain kinds of food, especially if it was too fatty or too acidic, or if you ate too much of it.

It’s particularly likely if you lie down just after having eaten.

People often feel tired after they’ve had too much to eat – but the thing is, gravity is the main force keeping all that bile in your stomach.

If your LES isn’t completely shut when you lie down, it’s all too easy for those juices to slosh out and once again start burning into your esophagus’s outer lining.

What Causes Acid Reflux?

There are a number of risk factors that can play a role in the development of GERD.

First of all, anything that involves bulging around your middle area tends to increase your chances.

Both obesity and pregnancy are leading causes.

Additionally, a condition known as a hiatal hernia causes the stomach to push up into your diaphragm, rearranging your organs in such a way that it becomes much easier for stomach acid to escape.

Other possible causes include your stomach taking longer to empty than usual, or various issues with connective tissues.

Image: woman asleep on left sideSleep on Your Left Side

If you suffer from GERD, most experts recommend waiting at least 3 hours after your last meal before lying down.

Obviously, though, that’s still not always possible given many people’s lifestyles – and even if you can manage to do that, it still isn’t completely foolproof.

That said, the good news is that there’s a good bit you can do once you’ve lain down to help protect yourself form acid reflux while you sleep.

First of all, you’re going to want to lie on your left side.

This might feel a little uncomfortable at first if you’re used to sleeping on your back or stomach, but it can actually work wonders on the arrangement of your gut.

Researchers are somewhat split on the exact reason why, but according to a review of all medical research on the subject to date, there are two main possibilities.

The first is that it’s not that sleeping on your left side is amazing – it’s that sleeping on your right side is bad.

Sleeping on your right side, according to this idea, tends to relax the LES, making it easier for bile to seep out.

The other idea, meanwhile, is that sleeping on your left side elevates the joining point of your esophagus and your stomach to above the levels of your stomach acid.

If this is true, it wouldn’t matter how loose your LES was – it wouldn’t be possible for the stomach acids to escape!

Elevate Your Body

Incidentally, keeping your body somewhat elevated in bed is another easy way to reduce your changes of nighttime heartburn.

Again, the idea is to get gravity on your side as much as possible.

The higher an angle you can keep your gut at while you sleep, the lighter your heartburn symptoms will be.

This becomes especially important if you can’t deal with side sleeping and have to sleep on your back.

 Back sleeping leaves you wide open to acid reflux symptoms, so be sure to keep yourself elevated!

Foods to Avoid Before Bed

Adjusting your sleeping position isn’t the only way to fight back against nighttime heartburn, however.

Another highly effective strategy is to simply watch what you’re eating before bed.

As I mentioned earlier, ideally you’ll want to steer clear of any kind of food for about 3 hours before bed, so no midnight snacking! 

(Don’t feel too bad, though – late-night snacks are often pretty terrible for you anyway.)

You’ll actually be best off if you can eat a somewhat smaller dinner, making lunch the most important meal of the day.

This keeps stomach activity to a minimum at night, reducing gastric pressure and making things easier on your LES in general when you lie down.

Additionally, you’ll want to avoid trigger foods as much as possible at night – that is, anything that you know tends to bring on acid reflux symptoms.

As a rule, anything particularly spicy or acidic tends to irritate the esophagus, increasing your chances of heartburn.

Other Ways to Avoid Heartburn

Other options for avoiding nighttime heartburn also exist.

For instance, consider cutting back on cigarette and alcohol use as much as possible.

Additionally, avoid tight-fitting sleepwear as much as possible, especially if it pinches around the belly.

This kind of clothing can increase the pressure in your stomach, meaning your LES has to work harder to keep all the acids in place.

And as with most medical conditions, the better you can make your overall health, the fewer symptoms you’re likely to experience.

Image: man can't sleep

Heartburn Is Linked to Sleep Apnea

Now, so far we’ve been talking about heartburn alone as a leading cause of sleep loss.

And while it’s true that nighttime heartburn is certainly the most directly noticeable way GERD impact your sleep, there’s actually another way it might be hurting your chances at proper rest.

It’s a condition known as sleep apnea.

What Is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a fairly common sleep disorder caused by the temporary blockage of your windpipe while you’re asleep.

Basically, your soft palate droops down into your windpipe while you’re asleep, cutting off your airway.

This makes the brain feel like you’re choking, so it jerks you awake for a few moments so you can suck in some air.

This can repeat several times per hour, repeatedly wrenching you out of the early stages of sleep.

Because it’s often impossible to fall fully asleep for more than a couple minutes at a time, you can’t pass into any of the deeper, more restorative sleep stages.

You’re constantly left in the opening acts of sleep – so you might go through a whole eight hours of rest, and get up in the morning feeling just as tired as when you went to bed.

And here’s the kicker about all of this: because you’re only ever awake for a few moments to suck in another breath, most sleep apnea sufferers don’t remember any of these interruptions come morning.

They feel exhausted, but have no idea why.

The Link Between Heartburn and Sleep Apnea

So, why am I telling you all of this?

Well, there’s actually a pretty strong correlation between heartburn and sleep apnea.

One study suggests that about 60% of people suffering from sleep apnea also have GERD – a pretty major connection!

There are a couple possible ideas about why this might be.

First of all, obesity is a contributing factor to symptoms of both disorders, so that certainly accounts for some portion of that number.

Additionally, some have suggested that the sloshing of stomach acid out of the LES can lead to temporary choking, exacerbating any existing issues with sleep apnea.

Finally, the most intriguing idea is that the tension on your diaphragm and chest cavity created by the stop-and-go choking of sleep apnea, also makes conditions more favorable for GERD.

In fact, many people who’ve gone onto continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines for sleep apnea have also found substantially reduced symptoms of GERD.

It’s possible that, in some cases, solving one condition could be the key to solving the other!

Conclusion

Acid reflux can be a seriously frustrating condition to live with, but there are a number of ways to decrease symptoms of it at night.

Lying on your left side, elevating your head and shoulders, avoiding heavy meals at night, and considering treatment for sleep apnea have all been shown to reduce symptoms.

Consult your health care specialist if issues continue.

Good luck!