How to Improve Your Sleep When You Have GERD

Medically reviewed by Judith Marcin, MD on January 9, 2017Written by Robin Madell

Overview

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a chronic condition where stomach acid flows up your esophagus. This leads to irritation. While most people experience heartburn or acid reflux at some point in their lives, you may have 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, 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 nighttime heartburn are more likely than those without nighttime heartburn to report the following sleep-related symptoms:

  • insomnia
  • daytime sleepiness
  • restless leg syndrome
  • sleep apnea

It is common for people with sleep apnea to also have GERD. Sleep apnea is when you experience either shallow breathing or one or more pauses in breathing during sleep. These pauses last a few seconds to a few minutes. Pauses can also occur 30 times or more an hour. Following these pauses, typical breathing normally resumes, but often with a loud snort or choking sound.

Sleep apnea can make you feel tired and lethargic during the day because it disrupts sleep. It’s 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 receive screening for sleep apnea.

The symptoms of GERD, such as coughing and choking, tend to worsen when you are lying down or attempting to sleep. The backflow of acid from the stomach into the esophagus can reach as high as your throat and larynx, causing you to experience a coughing or choking sensation. This can cause you to wake up from sleep.

Although these symptoms can be concerning, 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

Sleeping on a large, specially designed wedge-shaped pillow can be effective in managing GERD-related sleep problems. The wedge-shaped pillow keeps you partially upright creating more resistance to the flow of acid. It also can limit sleep positions that may put pressure on your abdomen and aggravate heartburn and reflux symptoms.

If you can’t find a sleep wedge at a regular bedding store, you could check maternity shops. These stores often carry wedge pillows because GERD is common during pregnancy. You can also check medical supply stores, 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. These are small, column-like platforms placed under the legs of your bed. People often use them 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 higher than your feet. Raising the head of your bed by 6 inches can often have helpful 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 at least three to four hours before lying down. You should also avoid bedtime snacks.

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 will often give your digestive system enough time to start to process your meal.

Research has found that regular exercise can improve and regulate sleep. It has the added benefit of helping with weight loss, which also lessens GERD symptoms. But it’s important to note that exercising naturally increases adrenaline. This means that exercising right before going to bed can make it harder to fall asleep or stay asleep.

Weight loss is also an effective way to decrease reflux. Losing weight decreases intra-abdominal pressure, which decreases the likelihood of reflux.

Also, eat smaller, more frequent meals and avoid foods and beverages that worsen symptoms. According to the Mayo Clinic, some foods and beverages to avoid include:

  • fried foods
  • tomatoes
  • alcohol
  • coffee
  • chocolate
  • garlic

What’s the takeaway?

GERD symptoms can significantly impact the quality of your sleep, but there are measures you can take to reduce those symptoms. Longer-term lifestyle changes like losing weight are options to consider if you’re having trouble sleeping because of GERD.

While lifestyle changes can often improve your sleep quality, some people with GERD also need medical treatment. Your doctor can help create a total treatment approach that works best for you.

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