Anyone who suffers from acid reflux knows the all-too-familiar feeling that happens after you overindulge in a delicious meal, when the burning sensation in your chest starts to build and all you want to do is lie in bed — except lying in bed just makes it worse. The good news is, there are better ways to relieve your nighttime acid-reflux symptoms than popping a Tums and hoping for the best. If acid reflux has you tossing and turning at night, read on for some expert advice on how to finally catch some much-needed zzz's.
Why Is Acid Reflux Worse at Night?
The discomfort you experience while sleeping is largely due to the position of your body. "Acid reflux typically occurs when you lay down and the esophagus is almost at the same level as your stomach. The acid just comes up while you're sleeping," Raghavendra V. Ghuge, MD, founder of the Sleep Medicine Institute of Texas, told POPSUGAR.
In fact, acid reflux that occurs during the day can actually be a continuation of symptoms from the night before. "If you try to eat something the next morning for breakfast, and you feel the burning sensation, you think that's when the reflux is occurring. But no, it happened the night before," Dr. Ghuge explained. This is one reason it's so important to get ahead of the problem.
To prevent reflux, you might start by more carefully timing your last meal of the day. "You'd like to see ideally three hours between the time that you finish your meal and the time that you lie down and go to bed," David Hill, MD, of Cape Fear Pediatrics, told POPSUGAR. You should also take note of what you're eating, as some foods are more likely to trigger acid reflux.
If you still experience symptoms, you can try an antacid. "Using over-the-counter medications at your bedtime helps to at least temporarily control the reflux," Dr. Ghuge said. However, both Dr. Ghuge and Dr. Hill emphasized that medication isn't a perfect or permanent solution. "The most simple and short-term medications, like Tums, Maalox, and Mylanta, just neutralize the stomach acid in your stomach," Dr. Hill explained. So if you want to experience complete relief, practicing better sleep habits is key, especially "if you find that you're needing to treat reflux in any way for more than about two weeks," Dr. Hill said.
How Should You Sleep to Prevent or Treat Acid Reflux?
If you tend to sleep on your back or your stomach, you're only doing yourself a disservice, because those are the worst positions to sleep in if you experience symptoms of acid reflux at night. "When you lie down, you want to lie down on your left side," Dr. Hill told POPSUGAR. "We have a fancy term for this, the left lateral decubitus position, but what it means is that your left shoulder is against the mattress. That creates an angle that makes it a little less likely for stomach acid to come up into your esophagus." However, if you're sleeping on your left side and you're still experiencing discomfort, you may need to take other steps to soothe your symptoms.
"When we lie down, we don't have gravity working for us. All of a sudden, we're flat. The gravity that might be holding gastric contents where they belong isn't helping us keep those things there, and they come up in the esophagus," Dr. Hill explained. But there is one way to ensure this doesn't happen: sleeping with your torso elevated. This doesn't mean you have to sleep sitting up in a chair, but you should try propping up your pillows or positioning your mattress at an incline. "Elevate the head of your bed, if you can do so safely, using cinder blocks, bricks, or some sort of other wooden block," Dr. Hill said. "You could put something under the mattress to elevate the mattress as well."
This, however, is only a temporary solution, as putting blocks under your mattress or bed isn't exactly ergonomic and could cause you to develop back pain. If you experience acid reflux chronically, consider switching to an adjustable mattress, such as Intellibed or Sleep Number.
When to See a Doctor
While it might seem relatively harmless, acid reflux can be a sign of an underlying condition, such as a hiatal hernia or a sleep disorder. In fact, Dr. Ghuge explained that sleep apnea is one of the leading causes of acid reflux. If you're concerned about your symptoms, talk to your doctor, who can help get to the root of the problem and get you on the path to a more restful night of sleep.