Links Between GERD and Sleep Apnea

If you’re often exhausted and always feeling like you need a good night’s sleep—even when you first wake up in the morning—then it’s likely that your body is struggling with some type of sleeping condition. Sleeping disorders are common and sometimes they are linked with one another, creating even more symptoms and problems that keep you from getting a restorative night’s sleep. For instance, a strong link has been found between two serious health problems: GERD and sleep apnea.

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a disorder of the digestive system that prevents the lower muscles of the esophagus from keeping the contents of the stomach contained. When the stomach juices with acid flow back up into the esophagus, this creates pain and discomfort which is sometimes also referred to as “reflux” or “acid reflux”. These acids are perfectly useful in the stomach, but can create a myriad of problems with the health and wellbeing of a person when they move up into the esophagus.

Affecting over 20% of Americans, GERD often happens during sleep because the person is lying down, which means gravity is not able to help the body keep the stomach acid where it belongs. In fact, GERD is one of the most common causes of disturbed sleep among adults aged between 45 and 64. Not only does this type of acid reflux bring discomfort and pain, but it also can damage the lining of the esophagus—even boosting the chances for a person to develop esophageal cancer.

Sleep apnea is also a problem that is related to sleep, but is connected to the respiratory system rather than the digestive system. For various reasons, during sleep apnea the breathing system stops working properly during sleep, causing delayed breathing and a variety of other symptoms such as loud snoring, waking with gasping, morning headaches, and even high blood pressure. The lack of oxygen created by sleep apnea can be a dangerous cause of other medical conditions such as stroke or heart disease. And many people who have GERD, also have sleep apnea.

Can GERD Cause Sleep Apnea?

Certain medical researchers suspect that acid reflux may cause vocal cord spasms, which may possibly be the problem that creates sleep apnea problems. The contents of stomach juices, such as bacteria, digestive enzymes, and bile, get into the breathing passages. If a certain digestive enzyme, pepsin, gets into the esophagus, there can be a breakdown of the protective layer of mucus and tissues. This might create swelling in the throat and voice box lining, possibly leading to blockage of airways and sleep apnea.

Symptoms of GERD include dry cough, difficulty swallowing (dysphagia), sore throat or reeling of a lump in the throat, chest pain, heartburn, sour taste in the mouth, and regurgitation of sour liquid or food. If you are experiencing these symptoms and believe that you may have GERD or acid reflux, it’s time to contact a medical professional. Your health care provider can help with a clinical exam to determine if you have it, as well as how it may be affecting your body and your sleeping habits.

Sometimes GERD can be a “silent” condition where people with both respiratory problems and GERD while sleeping may not actually experience symptoms of heartburn. Some researchers believe that “silent reflux” may be the cause of certain sleeping disturbances that are otherwise unexplained.

Can Sleep Apnea Cause GERD?

Some medical researchers believe that people with Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) may be more likely to experience gastroesophageal reflux disease. This may be due to a problem with the muscles in the esophagus that are not tight enough to keep the stomach acid where it belongs. Loose muscles in the throat can also be the cause of sleep apnea in that the tissues tend to get lax and “fall” into the back of the throat, creating airway blockage and stopping breathing. Both of these problems may be related to being overweight, but other connections can also be found.

Researchers have suggested that anyone who is a patient with a diagnosis of sleep apnea should also be evaluated for GERD, as the two conditions are so often linked. Contact a medical professional if you believe you need to be diagnosed or treated for either sleep apnea or GERD.

Treatments for Sleep Apnea and GERD

It has been shown in many people with both sleep apnea and GERD that use of a CPAP machine is effective in helping with breathing at night and also possibly controlling the symptoms related to problems with acid reflux. In fact, one study involving veterans who showed symptoms of both acid reflux and sleep apnea, results showed that treatment for sleep apnea with a CPAP machine on a regular basis also showed improvement for GERD.

Treating heartburn and acid reflux that comes from GERD with medication may not only help to minimize the reflux problems, but may also be useful in minimizing sleep interruptions that could be related to your sleep apnea. Some medications to treat reflux and heartburn are available over the counter, or stronger medications may be found via prescription through the help of a health care provide.

Some people have found that lying flat on their backs while sleeping may have a tendency to exacerbate symptoms of both GERD and loud snoring or breathing episodes related to sleep apnea. In this case, a simple, natural solution may be to purchase an adjustable mattress that allows you to sleep in a way that your upper body is elevated, fighting against the natural effects of gravity.

Other people have found that making use of a special memory foam pillow created specifically for sleep apnea may help them to sleep better on their sides or stomachs, effectively reducing the symptoms of snoring and stomach acid reflux. Some people find that simply changing to sleeping on their left side may help to minimize the problems with acid reflux which could, in turn, minimize breathing episodes related to sleep apnea as well.


While the exact nature of the relationship between sleep apnea and GERD may not be completely clear, patients who have both should be pleased to know that there are options for treatment. In fact, many people who have had their sleep apnea and/or GERD treated have reported a significant increase in overall quality of life as well as better quality of sleep. Not only that, but you’re less likely to develop secondary conditions related to sleep apnea from which your length of life could be cut short. These serious conditions have fairly non-invasive treatments that could successfully change your life and health for the better. What are you waiting for?!

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