The Connection Between Acid Reflux and Sleep Apnea

For many, acid reflux is an ongoing issue that’s only amplified with chest pain and coughing fits as you lay down to rest, making it hard to get a full night’s sleep. However, while it might seem as though addressing your reflux symptoms will solve all your sleep problems, that isn’t necessarily the case.

On its own, acid reflux can be summarized as the heartburn that occurs when stomach acid flows back into the food pipe, irritating the esophageal lining. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is considered to be a more serious, chronic form of the condition, often requiring more proactive treatment methods.

Sleep apnea, on the other hand, is a sleep disorder characterized by breathing that stops and starts, often resulting in snoring, night sweats and daytime drowsiness. While sleep disorders are often considered a common symptom of GERD, research suggests that this relationship might be a two-way street.

“Obstructive sleep apnea can put pressure on the low esophageal sphincter that separates the esophagus from the stomach,” says Dr. Chris Meletis, N.D. “Likewise, acid inflames and irritates the throat and soft palate, thus worsening apnea and fueling a vicious Catch-22.”

Though the connection between the two is relatively complex, recent studies have proven that sleep apnea is a major risk factor for GERD. Genetic factors such as age, weight and biological sex are important considerations as well.

When it comes to preventing sleep apnea and acid reflux, Meletis says, our diets play an important role. Eating before bed and consuming "trigger foods,” such as coffee and alcohol, are a couple of common culprits.

Reducing caffeine intake, eating earlier in the day and elevating the head of your bed are a few simple ways to alleviate symptoms of both sleep apnea and GERD. Most importantly, he says, the two conditions should be treated side-by-side.

“Treating acid reflux without treating sleep apnea is a dead end,” Meletis says. “All tissues need oxygen, including the lower esophageal sphincter.”

While digestive health tests can help pinpoint troublesome foods, those with acid reflux or sleep apnea should discuss possible treatment methods with their primary physician or a qualified specialist, such as an otolaryngologist.

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