Acid reflux, also known as gastroesophageal reflux, describes a backflow of acid from the stomach into the esophagus. Occasional episodes of reflux are normal, but when they occur regularly, they can have serious consequences and are known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
GERD is estimated to affect 20% of adults in the United States. Most patients with GERD experience an increase in the severity of symptoms, including heartburn, while sleeping or attempting to sleep. Beyond just heartburn, if stomach acid backs up as far as the throat and larynx, a sleeper may wake up coughing and choking or with major chest pain.
In addition to having troubling immediate symptoms, GERD can over time cause significant damage to the esophagus and raise a person’s risk of esophageal cancer.
Understanding GERD, including its symptoms, causes, and treatments can help people with this condition manage it more effectively. Because many people find GERD to be worse around bedtime, focusing on how to sleep with GERD may help reduce symptoms and improve sleep.
GERD is a condition marked by repeated episodes of reflux that affect quality of life.
Acid reflux, also known as acid indigestion, happens when stomach acid moves up from the stomach and into the esophagus. Under normal circumstances, muscles at the bottom of the esophagus — known as the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) — act as a barrier to prevent this from happening, but if those muscles are weak or relaxed and don’t close all the way, then reflux can occur.
Virtually everyone experiences reflux from time to time, but for most people, it is mild, infrequent, and goes away quickly on its own.
For people with GERD, on the other hand, acid reflux typically happens at least once per week and often involves more severe and bothersome symptoms. While it is usually thought of as affecting adults, it can occur in infants and children as well.
Heartburn, which involves a painful burning sensation in the chest, is the most common symptom of GERD, but not all cases of GERD involve heartburn.
Another common symptom of GERD is regurgitation, which means a small amount of stomach acid and sometimes bits of food come up into the mouth or back of the throat.
When leaks of stomach acid rise to the mouth and throat, it can cause coughing and a feeling of choking. It may cause a sore throat, including a hoarse voice. Some patients experience difficulty swallowing, known as dysphagia, or the feeling of something blocking their throat.
On top of the discomfort from heartburn, GERD can cause radiating chest pain that can affect the neck, back, jaw, or arms and last for minutes to hours. This symptom is frequently associated with nighttime awakenings for people with GERD.
There are several explanations for why GERD is commonly worse at night after going to bed:
A combination of these effects can facilitate the leakage of stomach acid into the esophagus and allow the acid to remain in place for longer, potentially causing more severe GERD symptoms, including those that can disturb sleep. The problem may be even greater if a person goes to bed soon after eating and/or eats foods that trigger GERD.
Chronic reflux and GERD can cause serious complications. These include inflammation and ulcers of the esophagus, scar tissue that narrows the esophagus, spasms affecting the airway, chronic cough, damage to teeth, and exacerbated asthma symptoms.
In about 10-20% of cases of GERD, damage to the esophagus from stomach acid becomes a condition called Barrett esophagus. Barrett esophagus is considered to be the primary risk factor for esophageal cancer although not everyone with the condition develops cancer.
The immediate cause of GERD is the inability of the muscles at the bottom of the esophagus to block reflux of stomach acid, but other underlying elements have been found to make that condition more likely.
These risk factors contribute to the chances of developing GERD. However, not everyone with these risk factors will develop GERD, and not everyone with GERD has these risk factors.
GERD is often cited as a cause of sleeping problems, including in the National Sleep Foundation’s 2001 Sleep in America Poll. In a more recent survey of people with frequent heartburn, nearly 60% said it affected their sleep, and more than 30% said it hurt their daytime functioning.
Flare ups of GERD symptoms after lying down can make it hard to fall asleep and can cause nighttime interruptions from heartburn, chest pain, and coughing. Studies in sleep clinics of people with GERD have found that these symptoms are correlated with lower sleep quality.
Research has also identified a link between GERD and obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a sleep disorder that involves blockage of the airway that incites pauses in breathing during sleep. Debate exists among experts about whether GERD causes OSA, OSA causes GERD, or if they simply share similar risk factors.
It is possible that GERD affects the airway and ability to breathe normally, causing more apneas during the night. At the same time, people with OSA wake up frequently at night and may then detect GERD symptoms. Lack of sleep from OSA may make the esophagus more susceptible to reflux.
In addition, factors like alcohol consumption, smoking, and obesity can increase risk for both GERD and OSA, so the correlation between the conditions may be a result of these factors.
While the exact relationship between GERD and OSA is subject to further research, it is clear that the conditions can occur together and create significant complications for a person’s sleep, comfort, and overall health.
It’s natural for people with GERD to want to know how they can reduce their symptoms and get better sleep. Although there’s no single solution that works for everyone, there are meaningful steps to get relief from heartburn and GERD and get longer, more restorative sleep.
It is important to see a doctor if you have chronic or severe symptoms of GERD and/or frequent problems with sleep or daytime drowsiness. Because these are complex medical issues, a doctor can best examine the situation, determine the potential cause, order necessary tests, and recommend treatment.
A doctor’s focus may be on addressing GERD directly or on treating an underlying condition, such as obstructive sleep apnea, with the goal of reducing nighttime awakenings.
Treatment options can include both medical and non-medical approaches. The following sections describe some of those treatments, but a doctor is best suited to discussing the pros and cons in any patient’s particular case.
Lifestyle changes to reduce potential GERD triggers are a common aspect of managing the condition. Examples include reducing consumption of spicy and acidic foods, maintaining a healthy weight, and not smoking.
Since many GERD problems flare up at night, some lifestyle changes focus on tips for how to sleep with GERD.
Medications can be used to treat GERD and may be necessary because lifestyle changes don’t always resolve symptoms.
Over-the-counter medications like antacids can bring temporary relief but may be of limited effectiveness in many people. Other drugs, known as proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) and H2 blockers, try to reduce acid produced in the stomach. These drugs may be available over-the-counter or with a prescription, but because they can have side effects, it’s best to talk with a doctor before taking them.
In rare cases when neither lifestyle changes nor medications have been effective, certain types of surgery may be considered to address GERD.
People with GERD who want to sleep better may be helped by considering their sleep hygiene, which includes all of the elements that shape their sleep environment and sleep-related habits.
A high level of sleep hygiene can cut down on sleep interruptions and create more consistency in your nightly rest. Many tips for healthy sleep overlap with lifestyle changes for GERD such as avoiding excess caffeine and alcohol. A stable sleep schedule, a relaxing pre-bed routine, and a quiet and comfortable bedroom are other central components of sleep hygiene.