Reflux and Sleep Disruptions

Tracy Davenport, Ph.D. Health Guide


    Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is one of the most common digestive conditions in the U.S. and reflux symptoms can occur in both the daytime and nighttime (Orr, Heading, Johnson &Kryger, 2004). When reflux occurs during the night, it can cause frequent awakenings and therefore impact the quality of your sleep. In order to understand why these night awakenings from reflux might be very dangerous to your health, it is imperative to first understand the importance of sleep.


    Understanding Sleep

    Sleep is a basic need among all mammals and the more we study sleep, the more we understand how vitally important it is to our overall health. We used to believe that sleep’s only purpose was to serve as a “time out” for our tired bodies. What we now know is that sleep not only allows the body time for the critical rest it needs, but it also is a very active and important time for the brain. When we sleep, there is mass communication between the different parts of our brains that help us with making memories and sorting out and disposing of extraneous information that we are constantly bombarded with every day.

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    Sleep happens in different stages throughout the night, with each stage having an important purpose. One of the sleep states is called rapid eye movement (REM) and it occurs throughout the night and especially as a person enters a very deep sleep, usually late into the night. During REM sleep, there are unique physiological changes that occur such as a lowering of body temperature and a complete body paralysis that is thought to bring much needed rest to our systems. The problem is frequent night awakenings caused by acid reflux may disrupt or even prevent a person from this important state of sleep.


    Dangers of Sleep Disruptions Due to Acid Reflux

    While there is a lot we do not yet understand about sleep, we are zeroing in on the dangers of not getting enough sleep. We now know that even a one- or two-hour sleep loss a night can result in daytime mistakes leading to accidents and catastrophic events. Even mild sleep deprivation can have the same effect as alcohol on reaction times and driving performance (Powell, 2000), meaning that the potential risks of driving while sleepy are at least as dangerous as driving illegally under the influence of alcohol. A lack of sleep may also lead to weight gain and even obesity. Because nighttime reflux episodes may be disrupting your sleep but not waking you up all of the way, you might not even be aware that you are not sleeping well.


    If You Suspect Reflux May Be Disrupting Your Sleep

    Let your doctor know if you think you may not be getting the rest you need because of nighttime reflux. There are various approaches that may be taken to reduce nighttime reflux.

    • You may be able to tilt the “head end” of your bed up so that gravity can help during the night. It is believed that tilting up your bed can help to prevent reflux and to clear it quicker if it occurs.
    • You might also try eating as little as possible after dinner, so that your stomach is emptied before bedtime, or at least eat foods that are easy to digest.
    • Your doctor might also advise you to change the time of day you are taking your reflux medication to prevent nighttime acid “breakthrough.”


  • No matter what, sleep disruptions can be extremely serious and need to be addressed. 

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Published On: April 14, 2014