Nighttime Heartburn and Acid Reflux

Acid reflux disease often occurs on the premises of physiological abnormalities at the level of the gastro-esophageal tract. In most cases, the disorder occurs due to poor functioning of the lower esophageal sphincter (muscular valve that normally shields the upper esophageal lining from stomach gastric acid), or increased pressure inside the abdomen. However, the occurrence of acid reflux is strongly influenced by diet, eating patterns and lifestyle.

One of the most common symptoms of acid reflux is heartburn. Described by acid reflux sufferers as a radiating pain or pronounced discomfort inside the chest, heartburn occurs due to inflammation of the esophageal tract. Although people who suffer from chronic forms of acid reflux disease may always perceive this symptom, heartburn tends to intensify after meals and during the night. On the premises of a weak lower esophageal valve or low pressure inside the esophagus, acid reflux sufferers commonly have nighttime heartburn. In the case of people with pronounced physiological abnormalities at the level of the gastro-esophageal tract, heartburn intensifies when lying down, as the stomach's content can easily reflux inside the upper levels of the esophagus. Late meals can also cause heartburn by stimulating the stomach's production of digestive fluids.

Another explanation for nighttime heartburn is the absence of swallowing. During sleep, the reflex of swallowing is inhibited. This may facilitate the occurrence of heartburn, as swallowing clears the esophageal tract of stomach acid, while saliva acts to neutralize the undesirable effects of digestive fluids. Saliva contains bicarbonate, a substance that helps in normalizing the stomach's production of gastric acid.

Apart from being very frustrating, perturbing the sleep of acid reflux sufferers, nighttime heartburn is also very dangerous. Intense heartburn indicates that large quantities of stomach acid are pushed inside the esophagus, thus causing serious damage to the lining of the upper esophageal tract. People who suffer from frequent nighttime heartburn are exposed to developing serious complications such as Barrett's esophagus.

In order to prevent the occurrence of heartburn during the night, acid reflux disease sufferers should make a few lifestyle improvements. Firstly, people with acid reflux should avoid eating right before going to bed. Also, acid reflux sufferers should avoid eating fatty foods, chocolate or citrus fruits at dinner, as they stimulate the production of gastric acid. Furthermore, people with acid reflux disease should also abstain from alcoholic beverages or cigarettes late at night.

A good method of preventing the occurrence of nighttime heartburn is to maintain the head and the thorax in a slightly elevated position during sleep. You can do this by using extra pillows.

Medications can also help in preventing the occurrence of nighttime heartburn. Doctors recommend using a combination of antacids and acid reducers (H2 blockers). These two types of medications should be taken together in order to maximize their effects. Antacids provide rapid symptomatic relief, while acid reducers will prevent the occurrence of heartburn during the night.