In a recent column I explored how keeping blood sugar levels stable in the small hours helps to promote restful sleep and reduces the risk of unwanted awakenings in the night. This week, I was reminded of another food-related influence on slumber by a study which found that many individuals with sleep issues suffer from stomach acid reflux at night. For many individuals, feelings of rising acid at night will cause obvious symptoms. However, this new research has found that this digestive issue has the capacity to disturb sleep, without there being any obvious symptoms of reflux. It seems that when stomach contents rise at night, our chances of getting a decent night’s sleep can go belly up.
While episodes of acid reflux can be effectively suppressed with medication, my experience in practice is that this issue almost always responds to a natural approach. The risk of night-time regurgitation is reduced by taking steps which help to ensure that the stomach has made a good job of digesting supper before bed we retire to bed. Ensuring that supper is had at least three or four hours prior to getting our head down helps in this respect, though busy lives can make it difficult to achieve this ideal. However, one way of mitigating against the effects of a late supper is to at least limit the size of this meal. One simple tactic that can help here is to reduce our appetite in evening by having a snack (e.g. some fruit and nuts) in the late afternoon.
Not being too ravenous at suppertime also reduces the risk that we will bolt our food and eschew thorough chewing – proper mastication aids digestion, principally by breaking food up into smaller particles that are more easily penetrated by stomach acid and other digestive juices. Another simple mealtime tip that ensures more efficient digestion is to drink as little as possible during the meal and for a few hours afterwards: significant quantities of fluid in the upper digestive tract dilutes stomach acid and enzymes in the small intestine, which serves only to impair our digestive capacity.
One other dietary tactic that may help combat nocturnal reflux is to keep proteins-rich foods (such as meat, fish and egg) away from starches (such as potatoes, rice and pasta) apart at suppertime. In theory, this makes the job of digestion easier for the body, and increases the chances that the stomach will be relatively empty by bedtime. Meals which comply with this way of eating include meat or fish combined with vegetables other than the potato, or a pasta or rice-based dish accompanied by vegetables only. My experience in practice is that this approach is usually highly effective in controlling symptoms such as indigestion and heartburn. Taking steps to enhance digestion helps ensure that acid reflux isn’t anything to lose sleep over.