You may have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) if your acid reflux symptoms are chronic and you suffer from them more than twice a week. If left untreated, GERD can lead to more serious health problems over time, such as sleep disorders.
According to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), GERD is one of the leading causes of disturbed sleep among adults between the ages of 45 and 64. A poll conducted by the NSF found that adults in the United States who experience heartburn are more likely than those without heartburn to report the following sleep-related difficulties:
- daytime sleepiness
- restless leg syndrome
- sleep apnea
There is a particularly strong association between GERD and sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is characterized by shallow breathing during sleep one or more pauses in your breath during the night that last a few seconds to a few minutes. These pauses can occur 30 times or more an hour. Following these pauses, typical breathing normally resumes—often with a loud snort or choking sound.
Sleep apnea can make you feel tired and lethargic during the day because it disrupts sleep and is usually a chronic condition. As a result, it can hinder daytime functioning and make it hard to concentrate on daily activities. The NSF recommends that those with nighttime GERD symptoms be screened for sleep apnea.
In addition to these sleep difficulties, symptoms such as coughing and choking in GERD patients tend to worsen when, lying down or attempting to sleep. The backflow of acid from the stomach into the esophagus during GERD can back up as far as your throat and larynx, causing you to experience a coughing or choking sensation which may wake you from sleep.
Although these symptoms can be frustrating and at times even frightening, there are many ways that you can improve your sleep. Lifestyle and behavior modifications can go a long way toward helping you get the quality sleep you need—even with GERD.
Use a Sleep Wedge
Harvard Medical School suggests that sleeping on a specially designed large, wedge-shaped pillow can be effective in managing GERD-related sleep problems. Unlike regular pillows, wedge-shaped pillows prevent your body from reclining into a bent position, which can increase pressure on your abdomen and aggravate heartburn and reflux symptoms.
While you may not be able to find a sleep wedge at a regular bedding store, many maternity shops carry them, as GERD is common during pregnancy. You can also check medical supply stores, some drugstores, and specialty sleep stores.
Incline Your Bed
Tilting the head of your bed upward will raise your head, which can help reduce the chance that your stomach acid will reflux into your throat during the night. The Cleveland Clinic recommends using bed risers, which are small, column-like platforms that are placed under the legs of your bed and are often used to make room for storage. You can find them at most home accessory stores.
For GERD treatment, place the risers only under the two legs at the top of your bed (the headboard end), not under the legs at the foot of your bed. The goal is to ensure that your head is raised higher than your feet. Harvard Medical School recommends the blocks or risers be four- to six-inches high for best results.
Wait to Lie Down
Going to bed too soon after eating can cause GERD symptoms to flare up and affect your sleep. The Cleveland Clinic recommends finishing meals a minimum of three to four hours before lying down and avoiding bedtime snacks. Harvard Medical School goes a step further and advises that you try to keep moving for at least 30 minutes after finishing your evening meal.
Walk your dog or take a relaxing stroll through your neighborhood after dinner. If a walk isn’t practical at night, doing the dishes or putting away laundry counts as activity.
Eat smaller, more frequent meals and avoid foods and beverages that worsen symptoms. While lifestyle changes can often substantially improve your sleep quality, some people with GERD also need medical treatments. Your doctor can help create a total treatment approach that works best for you.