People who experience acid reflux at night may benefit from several dietary and lifestyle changes. For instance, because an upright position helps digestion, doctors recommend having the evening meal early rather than close to bedtime.

Doctors also advise elevating the head of the bed so that gravity can help prevent food from backing up from the stomach into the esophagus, or food pipe, which is the tube that connects the mouth to the stomach.

If a person experiences the condition often, they may need medical treatment.

Research suggests that either the hormone melatonin or medication with a similar action may reduce symptoms.

In this article, we discuss the symptoms, causes, and treatment of acid reflux at night. We also outline some prevention and management techniques.

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A person with acid reflux, also known as heartburn, might feel a burning sensation in the stomach, chest, and throat.

Other possible symptoms include:

If the condition occurs regularly, it may be indicative of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

While trying to sleep

The International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD) note that 79% of individuals with GERD experience symptoms after bedtime.

As many as 75% of those with the condition say the symptoms have an effect on their sleep, and 40% claim the loss of sleep affects their ability to function when they get up.

While GERD influences sleep, sleep deprivation also has an impact on GERD. A lack of sleep can cause increased sensitivity to acid in the esophagus.

A person with acid reflux after bedtime may have more acute symptoms than a person experiencing it mainly during the day.

This combination of sleep disturbances and more severe symptoms means that experiencing acid reflux while trying to sleep can worsen the quality of life for people with the condition.

Acid reflux occurs when the contents of the stomach come up into the esophagus. This happens due to a weakening of the esophageal sphincter.

The sphincter is a muscle that acts as a valve. It relaxes to allow swallowed food to enter the stomach. It then closes to keep food from moving in the opposite direction. If the sphincter is weak, it may not function properly.

Why does the sphincter weaken?

Various factors may make the lower esophageal sphincter weaker or cause it to relax at times when it should stay closed.

According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), these factors can include:

The IFFGD state that people who experience acid reflux while trying to sleep have a higher risk of complications, such as:

People with acid reflux can also have:

According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (AAAAI), a person can ease acid reflux they experience when trying to sleep by:

  • elevating the head of the bed 6–8 inches
  • avoiding lying down 2–3 hours after a meal
  • eating smaller meals more frequently and not eating heavy meals before bedtime

The side of the body on which a person sleeps may also make a difference. A 2015 study found sleeping on the left side alleviates acid reflux.

Sleeping well

The IFFGD recommend measures that promote restful sleep. Getting a good night’s rest can help prevent symptoms and improve the quality of life for people with GERD.

Suggested measures include:

  • going to bed and waking up at the same time every day
  • sleeping in an environment that is quiet, dark, and free of electronic devices
  • avoiding caffeine 8 hours before bedtime, as it may take this long for its effects to wear off

Learn more about good sleep hygiene here.

A person can make some changes to their diet and lifestyle that may prevent symptoms of GERD, such as acid reflux.

Lifestyle changes

The AAAAI note that the following lifestyle adjustments can help prevent acid reflux from occurring:

Dietary changes

Diet may also play a role in preventing acid reflux.

Foods to avoid

The IFFGD advise avoiding potential dietary triggers, such as:

Learn more about foods people with GERD should avoid here.

Foods to include

The IFFGD state that incorporating the following foods in the diet may help prevent or reduce acid reflux:

A diet with these foods is similar to the Mediterranean diet, which a 2016 study links to a lower risk of GERD.

Learn more about the Mediterranean diet here.

For GERD in general, doctors can recommend one or more of the following:

Medications

Over-the-counter medicines that reduce stomach acid levels may help a person ease symptoms of GERD.

An older study assessing the effect of the proton pump inhibitor (PPI) esomeprazole found that it alleviated bedtime heartburn and the accompanying sleep disturbances.

Learn more about acid reflux medicines here.

Surgery

Doctors can recommend a surgery if behavioral changes and medications are not helping improve symptoms.

Surgical options may include fundoplication. During this procedure, a surgeon joins part of the stomach to the lower esophageal sphincter.

The Society of American Gastrointestinal and Endoscopic Surgeons state that surgeons most commonly perform fundoplication using a laparoscopy. This procedure involves making several small cuts instead of one large one.

Melatonin

Melatonin is a hormone the body produces in the bedtime hours. It enables a person to sleep and can help prevent or ease GERD symptoms, including acid reflux.

The IFFGD state that deep sleep tends to alleviate symptoms of GERD. This discovery led them to theorize that decreasing the time a person stays awake after going to bed may reduce these symptoms.

They then carried out a study to test the effect of the sleep-inducing medication ramelteon, which acts similarly to melatonin.

In the study, the participants who took ramelteon before bed experienced fewer GERD symptoms at night. The benefit was due to the improved sleep the medication produced.

Moreover, a 2019 study reports that melatonin reduces stomach acid secretion and helps the lower esophageal sphincter to stay closed when it should.

Given the findings of the two studies, it appears that melatonin may help by improving sleep quality and reducing the effects in the body that trigger acid reflux.

Learn more about melatonin and dosage here.

When acid reflux occurs at night, it is more severe than when a person experiences it mostly during the day.

People with acid reflux are at greater risk of developing complications such as inflammation of the esophagus.

Modifying the diet and making certain lifestyle changes may help manage the condition.

However, if lifestyle adjustments do not prove successful, a doctor may prescribe medication. Melatonin could also be effective in reducing symptoms.