Right- or Left-Side Sleeping: What's Worse for Heartburn?

Can your sleeping position affect heartburn pain? According to several studies, the answer is yes. A study published in The Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology found that "the total amount of reflux time was significantly greater" when study volunteers lay on their right side, as opposed to their left side, after eating high-fat meals. Immediately after eating the meals, the researchers had the volunteers lie on one side or the other for four hours while devices measured levels of their esophageal acidity. In addition to the greater amount of reflux time, the scientists also found that the "average overall acid clearance was significantly prolonged with right side down."

Another study published in The American Journal of Gastroenterology found similar results. In that study, researchers fed chronic heartburn sufferers a high-fat dinner and a bedtime snack and then measured their reflux as they slept. The right-side sleepers had greater acid levels and longer "esophageal acid clearance," wrote the researchers.


Why does sleeping position affect heartburn? Although the reasons aren't exactly clear, scientists theorize that right-side sleeping relaxes the lower esophageal sphincter, which is situated between the stomach and the esophagus. Normally when you swallow, your lower esophageal sphincter relaxes to allow food to flow down to your stomach and then closes. But if the lower esophageal sphincter relaxes abnormally or is weakened, stomach acid can flow back up into the esophagus, causing heartburn. Left-side sleeping, say researchers, may keep the junction between the stomach and the esophagus above the level of gastric acid. 

Elevating the head of your bed by six to nine inches allows gravity to work for you by keeping the stomach's contents where they belong. Some other tips to help ease the pain of heartburn include:

  • Maintaining a healthy weight. Excess pounds put pressure on your abdomen, pushing up your stomach and causing acid to back up into your esophagus.
  • Knowing your food triggers. Everyone has specific triggers that set off a bout of heartburn, such as alcohol, chocolate or fried foods. Keeping a food diary of all the foods you eat and your reaction to them will help you spot your trigger foods.
  • Quitting smoking. Smoking decreases the ability of the lower esophageal sphincter to function properly.
  • Refraining from lying down after eating. Wait at least two to three hours after eating before lying down or going to bed.
  • Avoiding tight-fitting clothes. Clothes that are tight around your waist put pressure on your stomach and the lower esophageal sphincter.