Last Updated on: 1st October 2023, 12:38 pm
Allowing time for digestion after an evening meal is essential for restful sleep. While we all have a metabolism that digests food at a unique pace, the digestive tract still functions at night.
Stop eating about 3 hours before bed, regardless of your favorite sleeping position, because this gives the stomach and digestive tract sufficient time to work. Wait for longer if you eat fatty or spicy food.
When you get into bed, sleep on your left side. This position keeps stomach acids away from the lower esophageal sphincter, which connects the esophagus to the stomach.
Elevate your head with pillows if you want to sleep on your back or right side. This makes it harder for undigested stomach contents to reach the throat, reducing the risk of heartburn and acid reflux.
Sleeping without a pillow causes snoring and digestive discomfort.
Should I Digest Food Before Sleeping?
You shouldn’t get into bed immediately after eating. Most nutritionists recommend waiting at least 3 hours after an evening meal before retiring for the night.
This 3-hour window is insufficient to digest what you’ve consumed during the day, but this should be long enough to get comfortable. The digestive system will continue to work while you sleep.
Avoid going to bed if you’re experiencing the following.
- Bloated stomach.
- Stomach pain.
These symptoms suggest the body is still digesting food.
Some people have slower metabolisms than others, meaning it takes longer to process a meal. Other foods, like red meat, spicy foods, and cheeses, are harder to process.
This chart shows how long different foods and drinks take to digest. As well as the food itself, portion size plays a role. Eat heartier earlier in the day, and keep evening meals lighter.
If you get into bed too soon, no sleeping position will help the body.
Does Sleep Influence Digestion?
According to Psychiatry Research, insomnia significantly increases cortisol levels, which is the stress hormone. Cortisol, in turn, impacts digestion.
When calm, blood flows to the digestive tract and ensures food is processed appropriately.
When stressed, excessive cortisol diverts blood toward the brain and limbs (the fight-or-flight response,) temporarily stopping digestive processes.
The stress caused by cortisol also impacts gut mobility. If you don’t sleep enough, you’ll likely experience constipation, which can become inflammatory bowel disease.
What Sleeping Position is Good for Digestion?
Everybody has a favorite sleeping position. You may choose your sleep posture based on a tendency to snore, muscular aches and pains, or simple comfort preference.
How you sleep and lay at night will impact your ability to digest. Review your posture of choice and learn how it’ll influence your ability to digest and remain comfortable overnight.
Does Sleeping On Your Back Help with Digestion?
Sleeping on the back, the supine position is popular as it promotes spinal alignment when paired with a supportive mattress and pillow. Unfortunately, sleeping on the back also encourages heartburn, acid reflux, and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
The digestive tract releases hydrochloric acid when we eat, breaking down food and eliminating unwelcome bacteria. The stomach lining is protected from hydrochloric acid, and the gastroesophageal sphincter keeps food in the stomach.
Adopting the supine position relaxes the gastroesophageal sphincter, so the stomach’s contents – including acid – enter the esophagus and travel up the body.
This is why we experience heartburn and reflux while lying down too soon after a meal.
If you prefer to sleep on your back, elevate your head and shoulders by around 6 inches with firm pillows. The Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology explains that lifting the head can reduce heartburn and reflux symptoms.
Get a wedge pillow if you can only sleep on your back. This will elevate your head, preventing acid from traveling into your throat. This sleeping position requires training, so consider a different posture.
Does Lying On Your Stomach Help Digestion?
Sleeping on the stomach, called the prone position, is the worst nocturnal posture for digestion. Sleeping on the stomach places body weight on our core, which misaligns the spine.
A prone posture at night also compresses the stomach, which will be painful. This pain will lead to stress, and as we know, stress slows down digestion.
If you roll onto your stomach at night, find a way to remain on your back or, better yet, your side. These are considerably better sleeping positions for digestion and good health:
Which Side Is It Best to Sleep on for Digestion?
Sleeping on the side is widely considered the best position for digestion.
According to BMJ, 60% of adults already sleep on the side, enjoying additional benefits, including spinal alignment, reduced back pain, and a lower risk of snoring or sleep apnea.
Sleeping on your right side is comparable to the supine position.
Adopting this posture means your stomach sits above the esophagus and spine, thus avoiding compression. You’ll still need to elevate your head and neck to eliminate the risk of reflux.
The explanation for this is the shape of the upper gastrointestinal tract. The esophagus is found in the center of the body, but the stomach curves toward the left.
More importantly, this position places the stomach below the esophagus.
Compression is still avoided, and gravity is on your side. Sleeping on your left side means it takes longer for the stomach’s contents to reach the esophagus and travel into the throat.
Sleeping on the left side is not a free-for-all to abandon all other sleep hygiene surrounding digestion. You’ll still need to give your body enough time to digest and process anything you have consumed.
Training Yourself to Sleep on Your Left Side
Falling asleep on your left side is only half the battle. Many people move and roll over in their sleep, so you may find yourself lying on your back, stomach, or right side without realizing it.
You’ll need spare pillows to train yourself to sleep on your left side. Keep your most supportive pillows for resting your head on. Use the remainder as follows:
- Place pillows behind your upper back. That way, if you start to roll onto your back, you’ll meet a barrier of resistance that springs you onto your side again.
- Place a small, unintrusive pillow at the base of your spine to keep this in place while you sleep.
- Bend your knees and place a pillow below them. This will help keep the spine aligned and enhance comfort overnight.
You’re unlikely to start sleeping through the night while remaining on your left side. Try practicing with brief naps, and continue taking other precautions to minimize the impact of indigestion at night.
If you share a bed, this arrangement will be challenging because pillows may take up more space than two people can spare. If so, consider separate beds so that you both sleep soundly.
Other Ways to Aid Digestion While Sleeping
If you have a slow metabolism and often struggle to sleep, there are other steps you can take to help digestion before sleeping, including:
- Get probiotics. Take one with your evening meal, and take over-the-counter antacids for heartburn.
- Relax before bed to minimize cortisol levels. Consider meditation, and avoid anything stimulating, especially screens and social media, an hour before bed.
- Skip that alcoholic nightcap, giving the stomach time to process the acid in alcohol before bed.
The ambient temperature in a home can also impact digestion.
After eating, reduce your body temperature after showering. This will make it likelier that your body is ready to digest while you sleep, reducing the risk of insomnia caused by stomach bloating or indigestion.
Whichever position you choose to sleep in, you must control your diet to enjoy a peaceful, restful night. Also, allow yourself time to digest food and lie on your left.