Why Is Heartburn Waking Me Up?

If you frequently experience acid reflux or suffer from gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), you’re familiar with that unbearable burning sensation that radiates throughout your chest. But, by now, you have probably also learned the hard way that these symptoms tend to worsen at bedtime or even wake you up mid-slumber, forcing you to ask the question, “Why is heartburn waking me up at night?”

There are several common causes for experiencing heartburn while sleeping, including eating too close to bedtime, consuming particular foods, and taking certain prescription medications. Some other common causes for experiencing heartburn while sleeping include:

  • High-stress levels
  • Obesity
  • Smoking or drinking alcohol
  • Wearing tight-fitting clothing
  • Eating large meals
  • Pregnancy

Acid reflux can be defined as the backward flow of stomach acid into the tube that connects your throat to your stomach. More plainly, heartburn occurs due to food and acids leaking from the stomach into the esophagus (or food pipe).

According to Medical News Today, as a person swallows their food, it passes through the esophagus into the stomach through a muscle called the esophageal sphincter. This band of muscle acts as a valve to the stomach and keeps food from moving back into it. However, the esophageal sphincter often fails to close completely, ultimately allowing acid and food to creep up into the esophagus. When this happens, it creates the dreaded burning sensation we call heartburn. 

Some experience heartburn immediately after lying down, and others experience heartburn while sleeping. When someone eats while standing or sitting, gravity does its job to help keep the acid and food inside the stomach during digestion. But, when someone eats while already laying down or immediately follows up a meal with laying down, gravity is working against you, and this position makes it easier for the stomach acids to leak back into the esophagus, ultimately leading you to experience heartburn while sleeping.

Reflux Related Apnea

The Sleep Foundation shared that research has identified a link between GERD and obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), but the debate continues among experts about whether OSA causes GERD or GERD causes OSA, or if they just simply share comparable risk factors. 

Anyone struggling with GERD understands the breathing complications that accompany it, so this disease may affect the airway and ability to breathe normally, causing more reflux-related apneas at night. However, at the same time, people with OSA tend to wake more frequently at night and may sense GERD symptoms as they awaken, but lack of sleep or frequent waking is a common trigger for esophageal reflux. 

Additionally, factors like smoking or alcohol consumption, obesity, diet, and more increase the risk of GERD symptoms and reflux-related apnea, so the correlation between the two conditions may result from these factors. 

While research continues on the direct relationship between OSA and GERD, it’s apparent that both conditions can co-occur. Doing so can create significant complications for a person’s comfort, sleep, and overall health and well-being.

Treating & Preventing Heartburn While Sleeping

Lifestyle changes are effective for reducing potential acid reflux triggers and managing symptoms. Some of the most common approaches are reducing spicy and acidic foods, maintaining a healthy weight, quitting smoking, and avoiding alcohol consumption before bed. Others include:

  • Avoid eating too late. Finish meals at least two to three hours before going to bed and give your stomach enough time to digest fully.
  • Sleep on your left side. Sleeping with your left side down significantly reduces reflux symptoms and exposure of the esophagus to stomach acid. Sleeping on your right increases the chances of stomach acids leaking into the esophagus. 
  • Raise the head of your bed. Prop up the top of your bed by at least six inches. You can either use an adjustable bed frame or pack on the pillows to provide back support. 
  • Improve sleep hygiene. Avoid excess caffeine or alcohol before bed, establish a relaxing bedtime routine, and a stable sleep schedule to help curb heartburn while sleeping.
  • Medications. OTC medications like antacids are effective for temporary relief. If a stronger solution such as Omeprazole or Pepcid is needed, consult your physician.
  • Improve posture. Standing up straight can help to elongate your esophagus and give your stomach a bit more room.
  • Avoid form-fitting clothing. Avoid clothes that put a lot of pressure on your chest/abdomen or fit too tightly around your waist. 
  • Take a walk. Taking a leisurely stroll around the block after eating can help accelerate digestion and reduce stomach acids.
  • Chew more. Chewing food slowly and more thoroughly can help shrink it down before swallowing and help make digestion easier, potentially decreasing the risk of experiencing heartburn while sleeping.

Some other typical food and beverages that could cause heartburn while sleeping:

  • Alcohol/caffeinated drinks
  • Spicy/acidic foods
  • Tomatoes
  • Onions
  • Garlic
  • Chocolate
  • Fried and fatty foods

It’s always best to keep track of any symptoms, noting when they occur and potential triggers. If you know a particular lifestyle habit or food may trigger reflux symptoms, avoid it, especially at dinner time. Oftentimes persistent nighttime acid reflux is actually undiagnosed gastroesophageal reflux disease, and if left untreated for too long, GERD can cause serious complications. Keep track of reflux-related apnea occurrences and report to your doctor so you can work together to establish an appropriate treatment plan and say bye-bye to heartburn while sleeping! Schedule an appointment with our expert team of sleep specialists to experience a night and day difference with your sleep!