Can you die from acid reflux in your sleep? 

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Last updated on May 16th, 2024 at 02:53 pm

While acid reflux is not considered a life-threatening condition, it can lead to other health complications. These may include dental problems, sleep conditions and laryngitis. 

This article will explain all you need to know about acid reflux and how it affects sleep. 

What causes acid reflux? 

Acid reflux is a common condition which occurs when stomach acid flows back into the oesophagus, causing discomfort. This may feel like food or stomach acid is coming up your throat. As this acid moves up, it can cause a burning feeling in your chest or throat. At times, it might even reach your mouth, giving you a sour or bitter taste. 

It can happen because the lower oesophagal sphincter (LES) doesn’t close properly or opens too often. The LES is a ring of muscle that usually stops stomach contents from moving upwards into the oesophagus. 

Occasional acid reflux is normal, especially after certain foods or beverages. However, frequent or severe episodes may indicate Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD). 

How long does acid reflux last? 

The duration and severity of acid reflux varies from person to person. In some cases, episodes can be brief, lasting only a few minutes. However, in others, it may be more severe, lasting for 30 minutes to an hour or more for some people. 

Symptoms of acid reflux 

  • Difficulty sleeping 
  • Heartburn 
  • Chet pain 
  • Stomach acid or small bits of food that come back up (regurgitation). 
  • Sore throat 
  • Difficulty swallowing 
  • Croaky voice 
  • Hiccups 
  • Problems swallowing 
  • Bloating and belching 
  • Feeling sick 
  • Waking up coughing 

What causes acid reflux at night? 

You may feel like your acid reflux is worse at night when you’re lying in bed. This is because acid is more likely to come up when lying down. During the day, you’re typically upright and swallow often, helping to keep the stomach acid down. When swallowing, your saliva neutralises the stomach acid, but when sleeping, you swallow less often and often produce less saliva. 

As you swallow less during the night, the acid lingers in the oesophagus for longer periods, increasing the risk of acid reflux. 

Acid Reflux and Sleep Apnoea 

Acid reflux can be problematic during sleep and may contribute to developing the sleep condition Obstructive Sleep Apnoea (OSA). 

What is Sleep Apnoea? 

OSA is a common condition in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts during sleep. It is caused by the relaxation of the throat muscles during sleep, creating an airway obstruction. This obstruction stops breathing, limiting the amount of oxygen in the body. The body automatically wakes up as the brain realises you’re not breathing, so your muscles tighten to receive airflow. 

In-Home Sleep Apnoea test

Do you have Sleep Apnoea symptoms? A quick way to determine if you have the sleep condition is by taking our at-home sleep study.

The noninvasive test takes just one night to complete. Our in-house sleep clinicians will then analyse your sleep data to diagnose Sleep Apnoea.

Your results are with you within two working days of completing the test, allowing you to start treatment quickly if the sleep disorder is confirmed.

Our test device is medically approved and offers comparable testing accuracy to an overnight sleep study conducted at a sleep clinic. 

WatchPat In Home Rapid Sleep Test - IntusHealthcare
WatchPAT In-Home Sleep Test

Acid reflux often leads to difficulty sleeping, as many people find their symptoms are worse during the night. The impact of acid reflux during sleep can contribute to the development and increased severity of OSA.

Here are a few reasons why the conditions are linked: 

Breathing changes: During an OSA breathing disruption, the air pressure in the lungs changes, which can lead to acid reflux. You’ll likely breathe harder when breathing restarts, which can draw up stomach acid. 

Obesity: Both acid reflux and Sleep Apnoea are more common in people who are overweight or obese. Excess weight can put pressure on the abdomen, increasing the likelihood of acid reflux and also contributing to the development of OSA. 

Inflammation: Both conditions can cause inflammation and irritation in the upper airway and oesophagus. OSA upper airway inflammation may exacerbate symptoms of acid reflux, while acid reflux can irritate the throat and exacerbate Sleep Apnoea symptoms. 

OSA affects millions of people worldwide, and symptoms commonly include loud snoring, gasping in sleep and daytime fatigue

The breathing difficulties associated with acid reflux can also result in issues such as sinusitis and asthma. It is also closely linked to dental problems as acid erodes teeth, leading to tooth decay and gum disease. 

How to prevent acid reflux while sleeping 

You can make numerous lifestyle changes to reduce the symptoms of GERD and feel better during the day and night. These include: 

  • Smaller meals: Eat smaller meals rather than larger ones throughout the day. This helps keep the stomach less full, reducing the risk of reflux. 
  • Eating earlier: Eating late at night means there is less time for your food to digest, increasing the risk of food returning and causing discomfort. It would help to allow at least 2 hours for your food to digest before lying down. 
  • Avoid fizzy drinks: Carbonated drinks can trigger burping and send acid into the oesophagus, worsening your symptoms. Choose to drink water or squash instead. 
  • Don’t move quickly after eating: Allow your body to relax after eating rather than doing lots of exercise. A light walk is fine, but strenuous activities can increase the acid. 
  • Wear loose clothes: Tight clothing is uncomfortable and can make breathing difficult, increasing the likelihood of acid reflux. 
  • Change your sleeping position: Sleeping on an incline, with your head six to eight inches higher than your feet, helps to keep your stomach acid and food down. 
  • Stop smoking: Nicotine can relax your throat muscles and make them weaker, increasing the risk of acid coming up. 
  • Lose weight if necessary: Excess weight can increase the pressure on your abdomen. Increasing belly fat squeezes the stomach, so more acid travels into the oesophagus. 
  • Check your medication: Some medications, including antidepressants and anti-inflammatory painkillers, can cause acid reflux, so it is essential to check if this is causing you these symptoms. 
  • Sleep hygiene: Improving your sleep hygiene by creating a bedtime routine, getting enough sleep, and removing blue light before bed can help your body relax. 

These lifestyle adjustments can also be paired with prescribed medications to reduce the amount of acid in the stomach. 

Ten worst foods for acid reflux 

Certain foods can trigger or worsen acid reflux; switching them out or avoiding them before sleep can reduce symptoms. 

  1. Coffee & tea 
  2. Chocolate 
  3. Peppermint 
  4. Crisps 
  5. Citrus fruits 
  6. Fatty meats 
  7. Alcohol 
  8. Carbonated drinks 
  9. Spicy foods 
  10. Fried and greasy foods 

By keeping a food diary, you can identify foods that personally trigger you. It’s also important to note that the time of day you eat these foods can impact your symptoms. 

Adding more fibre to your diet decreases symptoms of acid reflux; these foods include vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains (1).

Summary 

Making lifestyle adjustments or visiting your GP for advice can reduce and manage your acid reflux symptoms. Leaving it untreated can increase the risk of other health conditions developing and worsening your day-to-day life. 

If you think your acid reflux is connected to Sleep Apnoea, take our at-home sleep test to help you understand your condition and potentially sleep better. 

References 

  1. Newberry C, Lynch K. 2019. The role of diet in the development and management of gastroesophageal reflux disease: why we feel the burn. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6702398/. Accessed 08.04.2024 

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