How to treat heartburn using elevation therapy, or raising the head of your bed, is recommended by all GERD experts and physicians (including our own Dr. Dengler) as a way to relieve nighttime reflux disease symptoms. While it seems simple enough, it’s not always easy to implement. We hope this article provides tips to help you sleep better tonight.
For many people with reflux disease, nighttime symptoms compound their misery by keeping them awake. There is nothing worse than having to function the next day after a night of sleep deprivation. String a few of those nights together and you begin a painful, downward spiral.
How to treat heartburn symptoms you’re feeling at night
Acid reflux is caused by the stomach contents coming into contact with the esophagus. When this happens at night, those symptoms can be severe enough to wake even the soundest sleeper. When lying in bed at night our bodies are in a horizontal position – our stomach and head are at approximately the same level. This position makes it easy for the highly acidic contents of the stomach to flow into the esophagus, causing the painful sensation of heartburn.
More importantly, when the contents of the stomach move into the esophagus, they tend to stay longer than they would during the day when gravity helps pull them back into the stomach. The longer they are in contact with the esophagus, the more time they have to damage the cellular lining. As a result, nighttime acid reflux episodes result in increased symptoms AND have the potential to damage the esophagus.
What is elevation therapy?
Most physicians recommend elevation therapy to their patients suffering from reflux disease. Elevation therapy is quite simple: you sleep on an incline that allows gravity to help keep stomach acids from contacting the esophagus. Most physicians recommend elevating the head of the bed by 6 or more inches higher than the foot of the bed. The resulting “slanted” sleeping position allows the feet to stay below the head and allows gravity to help retain the stomach contents in the stomach. There are several ways to elevate your sleeping position to accomplish this goal.
This method is exactly what you would expect from its name: raising the head of the bed by placing two thick dictionaries (or other types of blocks) under the legs of the bed’s headboard. This raises the head of the bed several inches above the footboard for the desired result. Although inexpensive, most people do not like the appearance of books or other blocks in their bedroom or the look of a constantly inclined bed.
Another option is a bed wedge, typically made of foam that fits between your mattress and your box spring. These are commonly available at pharmacies and run between $60 and $200. This has the best potential to avoid sliding off the bed while allowing gravity to keep stomach contents from reaching the esophagus.
A shorter wedge can be placed on the top of a mattress. However, many do not like the appearance of these wedges and those that start at the chest level typically make side-sleeping difficult. They often cause the sleeper to slide down during the night, thus eliminating the benefit of the therapy.
Although expensive, consider this an investment for relief, and you might find it better sleeping too! There are many types of beds to chose from, and newer designs have incorporated the zero-gravity effect. The downside of these beds is that at some point they will require maintenance to work properly, and some people do not like the appearance due to the high legs and metal frames. However, the benefit often outweighs the cost and those few downsides.
The importance of side sleeping
Many people with reflux disease report that they are able to sleep comfortably with elevation therapy, especially when using the MedCline Reflux Relief System. This platform ensures that you sleep in the physician recommend sleeping position, with an appropriately elevated incline and on the left side rather than the right side. The position of the stomach and its relationship to the esophagus create a low point with the stomach when sleeping on the left side, as depicted in the image below (courtesy of Amenity Health):
This is another valuable technique to promote an additional barrier to upward movement of stomach contents and to avoid stomach contents from pooling in the esophagus.
The advantages of elevation therapy
There are many advantages to elevation therapy: it will reduce nighttime reflux episodes, promote faster acid clearing in the event of a reflux episode, and shorter duration of stomach content on the esophagus will promote healing. Complications from nighttime reflux should be reduced resulting in improved quality of sleep.
If you are seeking how to treat heartburn and a better night’s rest, RefluxMD highly recommends elevation therapy, which will also promote healing of your esophagus. This is a simple and proven method for symptom reduction and better health that is also a top recommendation by all GERD experts and specialists.
Additional steps you should consider
Read about the 5 steps to an effective acid reflux diet that can also help reduce your GERD symptoms. Also, research has proven that excess weight can weaken the lower esophageal sphincter and drive your GERD symptoms. Learn more about the relationship of your BMI to acid reflux.
Reviewed by: Dr. Dengler, RefluxMD Medical Director