Waking up with heartburn: causes and remedies

November 23, 2020 5 mins read
Waking up with heartburn: causes and remedies

Waking up with heartburn in the morning can feel like someone lit a match in your stomach and it’s on fire. Your chest has a burning sensation, making it difficult to swallow while a bitter taste fills your mouth. The good news is that you can do something about this discomfort. So let’s put heartburn on a backburner, shall we?

What is heartburn?

Heartburn happens when the valve between the stomach and the oesophagus (food pipe) doesn’t close properly. Heartburn is a burning feeling in the chest caused by stomach acid travelling up towards the throat (acid reflux). If it keeps happening, it’s called gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD).

What causes waking up with heartburn?

At any given point, your stomach contains acid that it uses to break down your food after eating. Sometimes, that acid can escape through the oesophagus, a tube that carries food from your mouth to the stomach. A muscle that holds the oesophagus tightly called the oesophagal sphincter can also relax, which leads to acid coming back up until it reaches the throat and this is the feeling of heartburn that you get.

When you lie down to sleep, heartburn can get worse as the valve from the stomach to the oesophagus can open up. Because heartburn can affect you while asleep and immediately upon waking up, it can lead to physical discomfort.

We take a look at a couple of everyday food and lifestyle habits which contribute to heartburn below.

Foods that trigger heartburn

Some foods can cause or worsen heartburn. These include:

  • High-fat foods, including healthy ones like avocados, cheese and nuts, can relax the oesophageal sphincter. Stomach acid then flows back into the chest, causing heartburn. High-fat foods also contain the hormone cholecystokinin (CCK) which takes longer for the stomach to digest, prompting heartburn.
  • Peppermint is refreshing, but it can add to your heartburn by irritating the lining of the oesophagus and triggering acid reflux.
  • Chocolate contains caffeine, serotonin and theobromine. All three compounds are a catalyst for heartburn as they relax the oesophageal sphincter, bringing acid back up.
  • Citrus and foods high in vitamin C like tomatoes may be great for boosting the immune system, but foods like lemons, grapefruit and oranges can give you terrible heartburn. Citrus has high amounts of acid which, when combined with the acid in the stomach, can cause acid reflux.

Drinks that trigger heartburn

Some drinks can fuel your heartburn, so it’s best to stay away from them, particularly in the evening or at least two hours before you sleep to reduce the risk of waking up with heartburn.

  • Coffee and caffeinated drinks should be avoided. Coffee has been found to relax the lower oesophagal sphincter, bringing acid back up into the chest.
  • Not only does alcohol cause insomnia, but it can also increase the production of acid in the stomach. Overindulging in alcohol, particularly red wine, can lead to inflammation of the stomach (gastritis), which causes heartburn.

Eating late at night

Have you ever had a hearty meal before nodding off and spent the night in discomfort? That’s because your digestive system needs time to process the food you’ve eaten. When you eat late at night, you’re forcing your body to release more acid to digest the food, waking you up with heartburn in the morning.

Other causes

Smoking, over the counter medication and obesity, contribute to heartburn. Exercise can also trigger heartburn as the pressure put on the stomach can push acid up into the oesophagus and throat.

4 remedies to prevent heartburn

While heartburn is the body’s natural response to food, some lifestyle changes and improving your sleep habits you can keep it at bay.

1. Medications

There are various pills and syrups available on the market to help you overcome heartburn. Some of these meds don’t require a prescription.

2. Sleep on your side

Sleeping on your stomach can make heartburn and acid reflux worse. That’s because the stomach and oesophagus take up the bulk of the pressure placed on the body in that position.

3. Elevate your head

Use a pillow that is thick and high to elevate your head when sleeping to prevent acid reflux into your oesophagus and throat, causing heartburn in the morning.

4. Avoid late-night snacking

That last dash to the fridge for a late-night treat won’t do you any favours. This is because late-night digestion can cause heartburn to flare up. Instead, ditch the late-night snacks and eat well before your bedtime.

Natural remedies to treat heartburn

In the comfort of your own home, there are natural remedies you can use to treat heartburn.

  • Baking soda (not baking powder). Mix a teaspoon of baking soda into a glass of water and drink. Baking soda neutralises acid which causes heartburn.
  • Mix three teaspoons of apple cider vinegar with water and drink before bedtime or after waking up in the morning.
  • Fruit. Eat a banana or an apple to help with acid reflux. These fruits contain natural antacids to counteract the acid in the stomach.
  • Stop smoking. Nicotine aggravates the acid in your stomach, so take it easy and try quitting.
  • Sugar-free gum. By chewing on gum, you’ll produce more saliva which can dilute the acid. Gum before bed or after a meal will help with digestion and ease heartburn.

If you’ve made lifestyle changes to support your efforts to stop waking up with heartburn and it persists, consider visiting a doctor. Your GP may prescribe medication that will effectively target the acid reflux and give you back your mornings, free of heartburn.