How to Sleep Well When You Have Acid Reflux
It’s your anniversary dinner, and you go out to that new Italian restaurant you’ve been eyeing for months. You wine and dine with abandon—roasted garlic, spicy octopus, pasta with sausage and rivers of homemade tomato sauce, and—of course—wine. Lots and lots of red wine.
You come home and get in bed, full and content and ready to doze off, when all of a sudden it hits you like a freight train: acid reflux. Acid reflux, also known as heartburn or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), is a burning discomfort located in your stomach, chest, or throat. It can also bring with it a sour taste in your mouth, nausea, bloating, and other unpleasant symptoms. It perhaps goes without saying that acid reflux makes it a bit difficult to fall asleep.
Caused by what’s called a hiatal hernia, acid reflux occurs when the stomach and lower esophageal sphincter (LES) move above the diaphragm, the muscle that normally helps keep acid in our stomach. Some 60 percent of American adults experience acid reflux each year, with 20-30% suffering from weekly symptoms, making it an issue that deserves more than a tube of TUMS thrown at it.
Sure, there are a number of behavioral changes one can make to alleviate the condition:
- Avoiding food close to bedtime
- Avoiding triggering foods (tomatoes, alcohol, spicy or fatty foods, caffeine)
- Not smoking
- Losing weight
- Wearing loose-fitting clothing to bed
- Chewing gum to encourage saliva production
However, some people are simply more prone to acid reflux, and for them, some more sustainable interventions are needed to help secure them a good night’s sleep.
Changing your sleeping position is the simplest and most effective thing you can do to alleviate your acid reflux symptoms. If you’re a side sleeper, try sleeping on your left side rather than your right (the reasons why this is effective are unclear, though some speculate it may have to do with the elevation of the stomach and esophagus or the relaxation of the LES).
A recommendation with more science backing it is to elevate your upper body. When you lie flat, you put your throat and stomach at the same level, which makes it easy for acid to get into your esophagus; raising your chest, throat, and head lets gravity do its work to prevent acid from moving in this direction.
In a 2012 study published in the Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, researchers found that when a group of patients who regularly experienced symptoms of acid reflux slept for one week on beds with the head raised 20 cm, the “bed head elevation significantly reduced esophageal acid exposure” as well as the time it took acid to be cleared. And while all traces of acid reflux didn’t completely disappear, overall subjects experienced a reduction in all of their symptoms and an improvement in their sleep.
To achieve upper body elevation, you have a couple options. Unfortunately, just propping a bunch of pillow under your head isn’t one of them—this isolates your head, contorting your body into a bent position that can increase pressure on your abdomen and aggravate symptoms. Instead, Harvard Medical School recommends using a wedge sleeping pillow. You can also raise your entire bed frame by placing blocks underneath the head end of your bed.
A more sustainable and customizable choice for those with acid reflux is to opt for an adjustable bed. Reverie’s adjustable bed frames, for instance, allow you to raise one side of the bed (a helpful feature if your partner is GERD-free) to the precise elevation that reduces your acid reflux symptoms while also allowing you to comfortably fall asleep.
Along with elevating your upper body, maximize your comfort by implementing the best practices we mentioned above—don’t eat too close to bed, avoid rich or spicy foods or alcohol and caffeine, try to relax before bedtime—all of which happen to be pretty good rules regardless of whether or not you’re dealing with acid reflux.
Keeping all of that in mind, you should be able to enjoy many delicious meals—and many restful nights afterward.