Get a Good Night's Sleep with GERD

Before I was diagnosed with GERD, I experienced chronic bouts of heartburn off and on. But it wasn't until my heartburn started waking me up in the middle of the night that I began to suspect it was a symptom of a more serious condition. I had always been a heavy sleeper and it was rare for me to not sleep through the night. But, suddenly, I was waking up with a burning, choking feeling in my throat that sometimes resulted in a terrible cough that would linger into the next day.

I started taking a prescription-strength heartburn medication and modified my diet to avoid heartburn food triggers, which helped alleviate my symptoms during the day. But I still woke up with that terrible burning pain in my chest many nights. As it turns out, it was more than a nuisance.

According to a study published in the Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology in 2012, "Reflux of acid is more injurious at night than during the day," I learned. When you're lying down, reflux happens more easily because gravity isn't fighting it. That means the refluxed acid also travels further up into the esophagus and can remain there longer, causing greater pain and increased complications.

My doctor advised me to try raising the head of my bed to allow gravity to help my stomach acid stay where it was meant to. But that was the extent of her advice, so I experimented with several techniques to put that advice into practice. Hopefully my experience will help you get relief, too!

How to Lift the Head of Your Bed
The easiest way to elevate the head of your bed (at least 4-8 inches is recommended) is to buy two cinder blocks at the hardware store and insert them horizontally under the front two sides of the bed frame. Other options include blocks of wood or bricks. Depending on how your bed is constructed, this set up can vary from extremely stable to a tad precarious. These days, you can find plastic and wooden adjustable bed risers (everywhere from to Target to Bed Bath and Beyond) that are designed to create storage space under the bed. You can use two from the set of four to raise the head of the bed for just a few bucks. The aforementioned study also showed that "bed head elevation significantly reduced esophageal acid exposure and acid clearance time," which is great—but bed head elevation alone isn't enough to resolve all heartburn or sleep-related issues, according to the authors. They recommend elevating the head of your bed as just one component of a heartburn-treatment plan that also includes medication.  

Consider an Adjustable Bed
If you decide that raising the head of your bed is a good answer or addition to your heartburn treatment plan, you might want to consider a more stable solution than risers. Automatic adjustable beds like the Craftmatic Adjustable Bed, can adjust to lift the lower body or, in this case, elevate the head, shoulders and upper back. These types of beds are not inexpensive, however. A more affordable solution is to choose a manually adjustable bed frame. You can find several options on for as little as $220. You may even discover adjustable beds marketed specifically for the relief of reflux symptoms from medical supply companies. They are typically called "reflux bed" or "acid reflux bed." Changing the height of a manually adjustable bed can be easy or challenging depending on the brand and features you choose. But likely, you'll keep it elevated all the time anyway, so the savings will be well worth it.

Can't You Just Prop Yourself up with Pillows?
If you share a bed with someone who doesn't suffer from nighttime heartburn, he or she may not be quick to warm to the idea of sleeping in an elevated position. Your first instinct will be to pile up a bunch of pillows to try to mimic the effect of raising the head of your bed. Research shows, however, that using multiple pillows puts the head at such an angle that the pressure on the stomach can make reflux even worse. You may also find that it increases another kind of pain: neck pain. However, you can buy a specially designed wedge pillow that will elevate not only your head, but your shoulders and upper back as well. A popular wedge pillow that you can find on is the MedSlant Pillow for Acid Reflux. It is a full 32-inches long so that it starts supporting the body at the base of the spine and increases in width to 7 inches at the top of the head. Like the MedSlant, most wedge pillow are made of a supportive foam that won't deflate overnight like a traditional pillow—or cause a pain in the neck when you wake up the next day.

Other Sleep Solutions for Heartburn
In addition to the three techniques above, there are several other steps you can take to ensure that you get a good night's sleep despite your GERD.
  • Wear loose fitting clothes to bed. Instead of throwing on a pair of yoga pants and T-shirt, try wearing a long nightshirt or nightgown that doesn't put any pressure on your abdomen.
  • Skip the nighttime snack. Try to give yourself at least 2 hours to digest your last meal or snack before heading to bed to make sure your stomach is empty before you lie down.
  • Check your meds. If you typically take pain relievers like ibuprofen or aspirin, they may irritate your stomach. Other medicines that can worsen reflux include iron supplements, oral asthma medications, osteoporosis medications taken at night and tricyclic antidepressants.
Work with your doctor to develop a strategy to address all the components of your heartburn. Through a combination of lifestyle changes and medications, you will likely be able to manage your condition and get the good night's rest your body needs.

Bashir Ahmad Khan, Jaswinder Singh Sodhi, Showkat Ali Zargar, Gul Javid, Ghulam Nabi Yattoo, Altaf Shah, Ghulam Mohamad Gulzar, Mushtaq Ahmad Khan. "Effect of Bed Head Elevation During Sleep in Symptomatic Patients of Nocturnal Gastroesophageal Reflux," Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, 2012;27(6):1078-1082.

Griffin, Morgan R., "Tips for Sleep without Heartburn," WebMD, accessed on May 8, 2013.

Mayo Clinic, "Heartburn: Lifestyle and Home Remedies,", accessed on May 8, 2013.