Most of us have had that burning or gnawing sensation in the middle of the chest that signifies a case of heartburn. Despite its name, heartburn has nothing to do with the heart. It is really caused when the esophagus, the tube that connects the mouth to the stomach, is exposed to the highly acidic contents of the stomach.
When this occurs, the material in the stomach is said to "reflux," or back up, into the esophagus. It is this strong acid in the esophagus that causes the burning sensation. In addition to the burning, or sometimes in its absence, you may have a bitter taste in your mouth and intense coughing fits, both due to the acid.
Reflux is most likely to occur when you are lying down. In this position, the force of gravity does not help move food from the stomach into the small intestine, where it is supposed to go. Because we generally sleep in a horizontal position (unless you are so sleep-deprived that you fall asleep in a chair), reflux is most common at night. Sleep apnea may also cause reflux through a siphoning effect that pulls stomach contents up into the esophagus.
You should consult your doctor if you regularly experience reflux. Your doctor may recommend you make some of the following changes in your diet and your lifestyle:
- Avoid alcohol.
- Avoid heavily spiced foods and other common heartburn-causing foods such as chocolate, peppermint, and coffee.
- Control your weight.
- Manage stress.
- Don't eat heavy meals within three hours of going to bed.
- Don't lie down within an hour after eating.
One technique that may help is to elevate your head at night to allow gravity to work for you. This can be done by placing bricks under the bedposts at the head of the bed. Another option is to place several pillows under your head and shoulders to raise your upper body during sleep (but be careful not to bend your neck).
You might also consider an electronically adjustable bed, similar to the ones used in hospitals. Although it is certainly a more expensive option than a few pillows, some insurance plans will cover an adjustable bed if a medical condition requires its use. If apnea is the cause of your heartburn, it needs to be treated.Another bodily function can also cause insomnia. Find out how frequent urination can rob you of sleep on the next page. For more information on how to get a good night's sleep, see: