Links between Acid Reflux & Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Dr. Dan JensenSleep Apnea

Dr. Dan Jensen
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There are a number of different factors that can cause a poor night’s sleep. Mental, emotional, and physical concerns can all impact your ability to get a good night’s sleep. One cause of obstructive sleep apnea is acid reflux.

What is Acid Reflux?

Acid reflux, also called gastroesophageal reflux, is an uncomfortable condition where stomach acid moves back up into the esophagus. If you regularly experience acid reflux, you could develop gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. Acid reflux affects up to 20% of American adults. Over time GERD can damage the lining of the esophagus and can increase the risk of developing cancer. 

Normally the muscles at the bottom of the esophagus will stop acid from the stomach moving back up into the esophagus. However, if these muscles are relaxed or very weak, acid reflux can occur. For many people acid reflux happens very infrequently, and it’s not a problem. But people with chronic acid reflux can experience some troubling symptoms. 

The symptoms of acid reflux include:

  • Heartburn
  • Chest pain that can also affect the back, jaw, or neck
  • Stomach acid or even small bits of food that come back up to the throat or mouth
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Waking up feeling like you’re choking or need to cough
  • Sore throat or difficulty swallowing
  • Hoarse voice

These symptoms are usually most noticeable around bedtime or during the night. This link between acid reflux and sleep has led sleep specialists to pay close attention to the connection between acid reflux and sleep apnea.

Why is Acid Reflux Worse at Night?

One reason that acid reflux is worse at night has to do with gravity. When you’re active and awake, you’re normally in an upright position. Gravity helps you digest without any acid coming back up into your esophagus. In the evening as you relax, or when you’re laying down in bed, it’s easier for acid to make its way back up into your esophagus.

During the day you swallow often. This helps keep stomach acid down. However, during the night you’re no longer swallowing, and stomach acid is more likely to backflow into the esophagus. The saliva you swallow can also neutralize stomach acid, but during the night you aren’t producing or swallowing saliva.

What is Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

Obstructive sleep apnea is a condition where you stop breathing during the night. You may wake up feeling like you’re choking or can’t breathe. Obstructive sleep apnea is caused when the muscles of the throat relax during sleep. When these muscles are too relaxed, they will actually close the throat and block your airway. Your brain will realize you’re not breathing and wake you up to tighten the muscles and restart the flow of air. You may wake up many times during the night, but not remember having woken up. 

Links Between Acid Reflux & Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Acid reflux can often lead to difficulty sleeping. Most people with GRED find that the symptoms become much worse in the evening, and that the acid reflux will wake them up during the night. 

Acid reflux and obstructive sleep apnea are linked. When you stop breathing during an episode of sleep apnea, the air pressure in your lungs will change. This can cause acid reflux, drawing stomach acid back up into your esophagus. Another factor that can cause acid reflux is that you normally breathe harder right after your breathing has restarted. This more forceful breath could also draw stomach acid back up into the esophagus. 

Acid reflux can also cause sleep apnea. When you have acid reflux during the night, you may have spasms of the throat muscles and vocal cords that can block the airway and lead to obstructive sleep apnea.

Getting a Good Night’s Sleep

If you have acid reflux and obstructive sleep apnea, visit us at Sound Sleep Medical to find out how you can get a good night’s sleep. You can try making some lifestyle changes, such as avoiding spicy foods, and quitting smoking. It’s also a good idea to finish your last meal several hours before going to sleep so your stomach has more time to digest. Other good tips include sleeping on your left side, improving your sleep hygiene, and treating your acid reflux and sleep apnea.