It's easy to lose sleep over nighttime heartburn. It may keep you awake, but that's not all it can do. Frequent nighttime heartburn can also lead to more serious health problems.
If you have asthma, heartburn can make your symptoms worse, especially at night. Over time, it can cause bleeding in your esophagus, the tube that connects your mouth to your stomach. Chronic heartburn may also cause ulcers and raise your risk of cancer of the esophagus.
Treating heartburn is easy, though, so you can look forward to a good night's sleep.
GERD and heartburn
If you have heartburn more than 2 to 3 times a week, you may have gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. Also called acid indigestion, it happens when stomach contents and acidic digestive juices, or acids, flow back into your esophagus.
Normally, these acids stay in your stomach where they help to digest food. But if a valve at the top of your stomach doesn't close properly, the acid can flow back up into your esophagus. This valve is called the lower esophageal sphincter, or LES.
Unlike the stomach lining, the lower esophagus is not protected from the corrosive effects of the acid, so you can get a burning sensation in the throat or chest. This feeling is called heartburn.
Most of us get heartburn every now and then. We may eat too much or have a meal that's too spicy. That's no reason to run to the doctor. But if you get heartburn more than twice a week or still have symptoms after 2 weeks of taking an antacid, it may be more serious.
Heartburn as an emergency
If you have heartburn that comes on with activity or chest pain, or heartburn or indigestion along with sweating or shortness of breath, it could be a heart attack. Do not wait if you think you are having a heart attack. Call 9-1-1 right away.
Tips for controlling heartburn
Here are a few tips for preventing nighttime heartburn:
- Do not lie down for 2 to 3 hours after you eat.
- Avoid foods, drinks, and medicines that can aggravate heartburn, such as fried or fatty foods, chocolate, coffee, soda, citrus fruits, tomato products, and alcohol.
- Eat small meals.
- Lose weight if you're overweight.
- If you smoke, quit.
Raising the head of your bed may help. Use blocks under the legs of the head of the bed or a foam wedge under the mattress. Ask your doctor about commercial products made for this purpose.
Don't just use more pillows to raise your head. This can put more pressure on your stomach and make reflux worse.
Medicines can help
Antacids may help your symptoms. But they don't completely control heartburn. If you use them a long time, you may have side effects, such as diarrhea.
If you have GERD, you can also take medicines to reduce the acid in your stomach. These medicines include H2 blockers, which reduce the acid produced in the stomach. Other medicines, called proton pump (or acid pump) inhibitors, sometimes called PPI's, inhibit the enzyme your stomach needs to make acid. These medications can be bought over-the-counter, but should not be taken long term unless prescribed by a doctor.
If you think you may have GERD, see your doctor to get an accurate diagnosis. If left untreated, long-term GERD can lead to a serious condition called Barrett's esophagus. The constant damage from stomach acid can cause changes in the lining of the esophagus and lead to cancer. This is one of the reasons you need to see your doctor if you have frequent heartburn.
Created on 09/23/2000
Updated on 07/07/2011
- American College of Gastroenterology. Nighttime heartburn's impact on workplace productivity costs the nation more than $1.9 billion each week.
- Good Samaritan Hospital of Maryland. Finding relief for nighttime heartburn.
- National Digestive Diseases Clearinghouse. Heartburn, gastroesophageal reflux (GER), and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
- National Sleep Foundation. GERD and sleep.