Acid Reflux and Sleep Apnea: CPAP May Improve Symptoms

by Jennifer Mitchell Wilson B.S. Dietetics, Dietitian, Health Professional

As many as 18 million people in the United States have sleep apnea. The most common upper gastrointestinal disease in Western countries, meanwhile, is acid reflux, so it is not uncommon to see patients with both conditions.

If you fall into this category, or think you might, you should know that an exciting 2016 study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine has shown that when sleep apnea is treated with a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine, nighttime episodes of acid reflux also improve. The CPAP machine delivers air pressure through a mask that you wear while sleeping. The air pressure delivered by the machine is greater than that in the surrounding air, so it helps to keep the patient’s airway open.

What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is a condition where a patient’s breathing repeatedly stops and starts during sleep. The most common form of sleep apnea, known as obstructive sleep apnea, happens when the throat muscles relax.

Sleep apnea can be very dangerous, as it decreases oxygen in the blood and is linked to numerous chronic conditions. If you snore loudly, your partner hears you stop and start breathing or you are frequently tired even after a full night’s sleep, then you should probably be assessed by your physician for sleep apnea. This can be done at most hospitals through a sleep study or through an at-home sleep study.

Acid reflux and sleep apnea: The study

The study mentioned above followed 79 veterans with obstructive sleep apnea who were prescribed CPAP therapy. Seventy-eight percent of the subjects reported symptoms of nighttime acid reflux.

Those who were compliant with the CPAP treatment (as measured by use of the machine for four or more hours each night and at least 70 percent of the nights during the study) had reduced episodes of nighttime reflux without the addition of anti-reflux medications. In fact, even those that were just 25 percent compliant with CPAP treatment showed some reduction of nighttime reflux issues.

What does this mean for acid reflux patients?

First and foremost, if you have any of the symptoms mentioned above, you may want to discuss the possibility of sleep apnea with your physician. If you already know that you are dealing with both sleep apnea and acid reflux it is imperative to be compliant with your CPAP and medication regimen as designed by your physician. You may also want to seriously consider stopping smoking, reducing your BMI and improving your diet, as those issues can contribute to both conditions.

When left untreated, sleep apnea and acid reflux can cause serious damage to the body. Please take these issues seriously, and talk with your physician about the best plan for your treatment.

Jennifer Mitchell Wilson
Meet Our Writer
Jennifer Mitchell Wilson

Jennifer Mitchell Wilson is a dietitian and mother of three girls. Two of her children have dealt with acid reflux disease, food allergies, migraines, and asthma. She has a Bachelor of Science in dietetics from Harding University and has done graduate work in public health and nutrition through Eastern Kentucky University. In addition to writing for HealthCentral, she does patient consults and serves on the Board of Directors for the Pediatric Adolescent Gastroesophageal Reflux Association.