By Mallorie Stallings
Reviewed by: Dr. Sherrie Neustein
Updated March 17, 2021
Recurring heartburn affects approximately 10-20% of Americans (1). Heartburn can occur after you eat a heavy meal or drink too much. It can also be a symptom of a larger issue. Heartburn creates a mildly or moderately painful sensation in your chest, which can impact your ability to get a good night's rest.
You can reduce the impact of heartburn on your sleep by making changes to your diet, increasing exercise, changing your sleeping position, and talking to your doctor about whether medication is needed.
What Are The Symptoms of Heartburn?
Heartburn is caused by the contents of your stomach moving back up your esophagus (2), usually due to a weakening of the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). The LES is a muscle at the end of your esophagus that usually tightens to keep your stomach's contents in your stomach. However, this muscle can become weak or relaxed at the wrong times (3).
Heartburn symptoms include (4):
- a mild to moderate painful sensation right under your breastbone, sometimes radiating into your back or up your neck
- The taste of acid in your mouth, commonly caused by regurgitation
While anyone can experience heartburn after a heavy meal, experiencing heartburn frequently may mean that it is a symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Often, people use the term “heartburn” interchangeably with GERD. However, heartburn is a symptom of GERD, not the disorder itself.
GERD symptoms are a bit more severe. GERD is marked by any of these symptoms (5):
- Chest pain
- Cough or wheezing
- Sensation of a lump in the throat
How Does Heartburn Impact Sleep?
Research shows that over 60% of people (6) suffering from heartburn or another reflux-related disease report disruptions in their sleep. People with heartburn symptoms are often unable to comfortably fall into a sleep state or are unable to stay asleep due to the painful, burning sensation in their chest.
40% of people with heartburn and sleep issues report that their sleep disruption directly impacts their overall functioning the following day. Heartburn may cause a cycle of poor sleep (7) in which heartburn disrupts sleep, which increases fatigue. Fatigue increases unhealthy eating choices. These foods further increase heartburn symptoms, which increases stress and leads to even poorer sleep.
Once you’re in the cycle of heartburn-related poor sleep, it can feel overwhelming. However, there are many ways you can reduce heartburn with small, daily lifestyle changes.
Do Certain Foods Cause Heartburn?
Certain foods and drinks, such as fried foods, high-fat foods, soft drinks, and tea (8), increase your likelihood of experiencing heartburn. Eating meals late at night, no matter what they’re composed of, can also increase heartburn (9) and negatively impact sleep as a result.
Drinks that tend to stimulate stomach acid production, such as coffee and alcohol, contribute to the onset of heartburn (10). Coffee itself may also affect sleep quality. Although it might feel like alcohol helps you fall asleep, alcohol can cause frequent night wakings which disrupt sleep.
Do Certain Activities Cause Heartburn?
High-impact sports, such as running, rowing, high intensity interval training, and powerlifting, as well as activities that are done while the body is inverted or flat, like swimming or yoga, can cause heartburn or make it worse (11). Heartburn is caused by a loosening of the lower esophageal muscle. Exercises that push the stomach or keep the body from being upright may contribute to heartburn and GERD.
Exercise is an important part of staying healthy. If you struggle with heartburn, opt for lower impact, upright activities, like walking, light jogging or easy cycling. If you prefer to engage in high-intensity workouts, it could help to adjust when you eat. Try to eat a few hours before your workout to prevent heartburn.
Does Heartburn Impact Mental Health?
Heartburn symptoms can be distressing and painful. Although heartburn does not cause mental health disorders, there does appear to be a link between heartburn and an increase in depression and anxiety (12).
Heartburn symptoms can include chest pains. Heartburn patients report an increase in anxiety (13) when experiencing chest pains. Depression and stress (14) are known to impact the gastrointestinal system, and therefore may make heartburn worse. Additionally, heartburn can cause disruptions in sleep and there is evidence that poor sleep impacts mental health as well.
What Are The Best Sleeping Positions for Heartburn?
Sleeping on your left side (15) may reduce your heartburn symptoms because it relieves the pressure on your stomach and allows for food to move to the lower part of the stomach. Conversely, some research suggests that lying on your right side aggravates heartburn and GERD (16).
Sleeping with the head of your bed elevated (17) is another good way for people with heartburn to slip into a restful slumber. Heartburn is a result of the stomach contents coming back up into the esophagus, so utilizing gravity by elevating the head and upper body helps keep your stomach contents where they should be. You can purchase wedge pillows that keep you propped up all night, thus reducing heartburn.
Additionally, you can opt to raise the top two posts of your bed frame to elevate your upper body when you sleep. Bed raisers are available online and come in different heights to fit your preference. Just make sure that if your bed frame does not have a sturdy footboard, you secure your mattress to prevent it from slipping.
How Do You Get Rid of Heartburn?
Studies show that reducing overall body weight has a positive impact on reducing heartburn symptoms. Eating a diet full of fiber, protein, healthy fats, and vegetables can help lower your overall body mass. Exercising regularly, even just taking a walk around your neighborhood, can also help you lower body weight, and help you sleep (18). Cutting back on smoking, caffeine intake, and alcohol consumption significantly reduces heartburn attacks and also promotes better sleep.
Antacids, an over-the-counter medication, can manage mild heartburn symptoms (19) by neutralizing the acid in your stomach. They are effective in reducing symptoms but require frequent administering and should not be taken longer than a few days.
Check with your doctor before starting any medication. If over-the-counter medication does not help, your doctor may be able to prescribe additional medication.
What Are Some Ways To Sleep Better With Heartburn?
Creating a sleep hygiene routine that is easy and comfortable to follow may also help improve your sleep. Taking steps such as setting a sleep schedule, creating a quiet, dark bedroom environment, and avoiding eating in the hours before you go to sleep might help. Choose pajamas that are loose around the waist to prevent any restriction around the stomach that could impact your heartburn symptoms.
When Should You Talk To Your Doctor About Heartburn?
Have a conversation with your doctor as soon as you start noticing heartburn symptoms that recur often, since they may indicate you’re experiencing GERD or another disorder. If you’re unable to manage your symptoms with lifestyle changes and over-the-counter medication, talk to your doctor about the next steps. If you are experiencing pain in your chest, seek medical intervention immediately to rule out any other illnesses.
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- https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/acid-reflux-ger-gerd-adults/symptoms-causes Accessed on March 17, 2021.
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- https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/digestive-disorders/esophageal-and-swallowing-disorders/gastroesophageal-reflux-disease-gerd?query=gerd Accessed on March 17, 2021.
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- https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/acid-reflux-ger-gerd-adults/treatment. Accessed on March 17, 2021.