Digestive issues are a pain, especially when you’re trying to sleep. Nobody wants to deal with heartburn, acid reflux, gas or constipation while trying to go to sleep or after waking up.
We all know that the quality of sleep plays a significant role in our physical and mental wellbeing. But, did you know that your actual sleep position can affect your health?
If you experience digestive issues on a regular basis, try sleeping on your left side. The theory arises from Ayurvedic medicine, which states that the left side of your body is different from your right side.
It’s common to have issues on your one side of the body (such as rashes), while the other remains completely unaffected. While this does sound odd, both ancient wisdom and modern research highlight that the left side is ideal for digestive system health and overall wellness.
What are the Causes of Digestive Problems at Bedtime?
Digestive problems can come in many different forms, and have various causes. This is because the digestive system is so large, comprising many different organs and structures.
Let’s look at the most common digestive problems, their symptoms, and causes.
1) Bloating and Gas
Abdominal bloating is the term used for when the abdomen (belly) appears swollen and puffy. It may feel stretched, sore and uncomfortable.
It can be caused by the following:
- Swallowing air while eating
- Food intolerances, such as dairy intolerance
- Celiac disease
- Excessive consumption of vegetables in the Brassica genus, such as cabbage, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts
- Consuming carbonated beverages
- Consuming too much alcohol
Almost everyone endures bloating at some point in their lives. Bloating is often (though not always) accompanied by excessive gas.
Indigestion occurs when the stomach or intestines have problems digesting food. With indigestion, you may feel sick, excessively full and bloated, or suffer from heartburn. You may experience excessive gas, stomach pain or discomfort.
Indigestion can be caused by the following:
- Overeating, or eating too fast
- Eating certain foods, such as very fatty foods
- Drinking too much alcohol
- Exercising on a full stomach
- Certain medicines, such as aspirin
Indigestion can be made worse if you smoke, are overweight or have anxiety. It can also rarely be a sign of a condition such as peptic ulcers.
3) Acid Reflux (Heartburn)
Although heartburn can be a symptom of indigestion, it can also be an issue in and of itself. Heartburn, or acid reflux, is what happens when stomach acid rises up into the esophagus. It causes an unpleasant burning feeling in the chest.
Acid reflux can be caused, or made worse, by:
- Eating acidic, spicy, fatty or strongly flavored foods
- Overeating in general
- Eating too close to bedtime
- Alcohol and caffeine
Acid reflux is very common, though some people experience it more often than others.
4) Nausea and Vomiting
Nausea is a unique sensation, best described as an uneasiness of the stomach. It’s not painful, but it can be quite uncomfortable. Vomiting is the involuntary expulsion of stomach contents through the mouth, which usually goes along with nausea.
The most common causes of nausea and vomiting are as follows:
- Food poisoning
- Illness, such as gastroenteritis
- Certain medications
Vomiting can also be a side effect of severe pain, emotional stress, and anxiety.
5) Diarrhea and Constipation
Finally, problems can also manifest at the other end of the digestive system. Constipation refers to difficulty emptying the bowels. It can refer to stools which are hard, difficult to pass, or less frequent than three times per week. Diarrhea, by contrast, refers to loose, wet or very frequent stools.
Diarrhea and constipation can both be caused by:
- Certain medications
- Food allergies and intolerances
- Illnesses such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
- Changes in the diet and lifestyle
Diarrhea can also be caused by viruses, bacteria, and food poisoning. Another common cause of constipation is not consuming enough water or dietary fiber.
How Left Side Sleeping Improves Digestion
The way you sleep can have a major impact on how your body digests food and eliminates waste, toxins and even pain. Think about it, when we lift weights or twist and turn our bodies while performing yoga, we are paying close attention to our form to optimize the workout and avoid injury. The same should go for sleep. It’s not only how much we sleep, but it’s also how we sleep that matters to our overall wellness.
Our sleep positions affect everything from the gut to the brain. We know that not logging in the recommended 7 to 9 hours of sleep can leave us feeling groggy and lethargic, significantly affecting our work outputs. However, if you are getting the right amount of sleep and are waking up not feeling refreshed, try reevaluating what your body is doing during your slumber.
Sleeping on your left side has been proven to cause a wide range of benefits, and improved digestion is just one of them. Keep reading to find out how left-side sleeping boosts your digestive system, and improves your overall health.
1) Eases Constipation
Some people have morning bowel movements like clockwork. However, if you don’t belong to this group, sleeping on your left side may be the best sleep position for constipation, as it increases your chances of having a bowel movement as soon as you wake up in the morning.
When you look at the anatomy of your digestive tract, it all makes sense. It’s a simple matter of where your organs are naturally placed, as well as how gravity determines the outcomes of your bodily functions. When you lie on your left side, you’re allowing your body to easily move food waste from the large intestine into the descending colon.
The small intestine removes waste and dumps it into the large intestine via the ileocecal valve (ICV). This valve ensures that waste matter does not re-enter the small intestine from the large intestine. The ileocecal valve is located on the right side of the body, where the large intestine begins. The large intestine runs up the right side of the belly and across it, where it removes its waste in the descending colon, situated on the left side of the body.
When you sleep on your left side, you’re allowing gravity to support the easy removal of food waste from the small intestine, through the ileocecal valve and into the large intestine. Thanks to gravity and sleeping on the left side, the descending colon continues to fill up with waste so that the body can quickly eliminate it as soon as you wake up in the morning.
2) Supports Pancreatic Function
Sleeping on your left side also allows your pancreas to hang naturally, which helps in the development of pancreatic enzymes. The pancreas is an organ gland 6 to 8 inches long that extends horizontally through the tummy. The most extensive section of the pancreas is located on the right side of the abdominal region, where the stomach is attached to the duodenum, which is the starting part of the small intestine. Here, partially digested food travels from the stomach and enters the small intestine, for further processing.
In the small intestine, the partially digested food mixes with pancreatic secretions, which are clear, alkaline juices containing numerous enzymes. These enzymes break down food into smaller particles so that they can be absorbed by the intestines.
Some of them include:
- Amylase: Breaks down carbohydrates
- Trypsin and chymotrypsin: Break down protein
- Lipase: Breaks down fat into fatty acids and cholesterol
Also, the liver and gallbladder also hang on your right side. Sleeping on your left, allows gravity to support bile secretions into the small intestine. Bile is a vital aspect of digestion, as it helps neutralize stomach acids and emulsify fats before they are digested.
3) Gives You More Energy
Sleeping on your left side in the night can help improve your digestion massively throughout the night. However, ancient Ayurveda also suggests that resting on your left side for 10 minutes following a meal can help the body digest food more efficiently. This is mainly because lying on your left side relieves the pressure in your stomach and pancreases, boosting their digestive activity.
Furthermore, gravity allows food to easily move through the stomach and enter the small intestine, where pancreatic secretions are released as needed – and not all at once. If you lie on your right side, your stomach and pancreas may hang in unnatural positions, causing them to drain out all their contents prematurely.
Moreover, lying on your right side impairs the digestive function of your stomach and pancreas, causing the stomach to dump its contents before it’s even ready. Lying on your left promotes the secretion of enzymes and digestive juices that help stabilize the acids formed in the stomach and prevent digestive discomfort from taking place.
And finally, because lying on your left side supports digestion in the body, it reduces the amount of effort needed to carry out the entire process. When you use up less energy during digestion, you may not feel as drained and lethargic during midday as you usually do. Just a short break lying on your left side can do wonders for your digestion, and keep you more energetic and alert during the day.
4) Acid Reflux Prevention
According to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology, lying on your right side after a heavy meal may cause heartburn, making the left side more ideal for relieving or preventing acid reflux. The study included a group of healthy participants, who were given high-fat meals to induce heartburn. Right after the meal, participants had to lie down for 4 hours on either side while researchers measured their esophageal acidity.
Researchers found that the total reflux time was much greater when participants lied down on their right side. Although the reason is not entirely understood, one hypothesis is that sleeping on your right side relaxes the esophageal sphincter, situated between the esophagus and the stomach. This makes it easier for stomach acids to travel upwards and cause acid reflux. Furthermore, sleeping on your left side keeps the junction between the esophagus and the stomach above your gut, reducing symptoms of acid reflux.
Since sleeping on your left improves pancreatic function, your food is digested better in the body resulting in less severe GERD symptoms.
It also helps to keep your head slightly elevated using pillows to lift your head about 6 to 9 inches, preventing acid from flowing back to the esophagus. In general, you’d also want to avoid fatty, spicy or sugary foods that trigger acid reflux. Junk foods and processed food also raise your brain activity and body’s metabolism, increasing your chances of having nightmares during your slumber.
Other Health Benefits of Sleeping on Your Left Side
According to a study released in the Journal of Neuroscience, how you sleep can help reduce your risk of developing cognitive issues in the future. Researchers found that how you position yourself while you sleep could have a significant impact on your brain’s waste removal system, also called the lymphatic system.
During sleep, your brain is continuously flushing out toxins via lymphatic vessels called lymphatics. On average, the brain eliminates about three pounds of chemicals, plaque, and toxins every year. The study found that lying on your side may the most efficient in removing toxins from the brain.
It also found that rodents in lateral position flushed out specific proteins about 25% better than when they were resting on their stomachs or their backs. These proteins may result in the accumulation of brain-plaque, which is tied to age-related cognitive impairment.
But this is not all. Keep reading to find out how sleeping on your left side improves your lymphatic function, and why it may be better for your heart.
1) Improved Lymphatic Function
In addition to helping the body flush out waste from the brain, sleeping on your left side also allows the body to filter the lymph fluid through the lymph nodes, in a more efficient manner. This mainly happens because the left side of the body is the dominant lymphatic side. Your lymphatic system is your body’s natural waste removal system, which unlike your blood circulatory system, functions without a pump (the heart).
75% of your body’s lymph fluid is emptied into the thoracic duct, which later drains into the left side of your heart, the left subclavian vein and the left internal jugular vein. During this process, lymph fluid containing glucose, proteins, other metabolites and waste materials is filtered and drained into the heart. This is why Ayurveda explains that problems on the left side of the body may be a result of chronic lymphatic congestion.
2) Helps the Spleen
Your spleen is a part of the lymphatic system, and interestingly, it’s also located on the left side of the body. The spleen is like a massive lymph node, which plays a role in filtering lymph. However, the only difference is that it also filters your blood. When you sleep on your left side, you’re facilitating drainage back to the spleen, thanks to gravity.
Because the lymphatic system drains all tissues in the body through movement and muscular contractions instead of being pumped, it’s essential to help keep things moving. Also, by working out regularly and avoiding sitting for long periods, you can help lymph to drain into the spleen and heart by sleeping on your left side.
3) Improved Heart Function
As we mentioned earlier, when you sleep on your left side, lymph drainage to the heart also becomes easier using gravity. This reduces the heart’s workload while you sleep.
The largest artery in your body, the aorta, emerges from the top of the heart and curves to the left before it travels down to the abdomen. When you sleep on your left, you’re helping your heart in pumping its largest cargo downward into the descending aorta. This, again, makes your heart’s job much easier.
Lastly, sleeping on your left also allows your intestines to hang away from your inferior vena cava. The inferior vena cava is a thin-walled vessel that brings de-oxygenated blood back to the heart. Since the inferior vena cava rests against the right side of your spine, when you lie on your left, most of your insides reside away from it, making the heart function better.
4) Reduces Snoring
When you sleep on your side, you’re keeping your tongue from falling into your throat and obstructing your airway. This can help prevent snoring. However, if side sleeping does not improve your snoring issue and you feel you may have sleep apnea, schedule an appointment with your doctor to diagnose your issue and find a solution that best fits you.
Quick Summary of Sleep Positions and How They Improve Digestion
So, how do you make sure that going to sleep doesn’t interfere with your digestion? We’re going to take a look at each sleeping position, and their pros and cons. We’ll find out whether your sleeping style is aiding or hindering your digestive system.
1) Lying Flat on Your Back (Supine)
According to research by the Sleep Assessment and Advisory Service, around 13% of people sleep on their backs. Some sleep with their arms down by their sides, while others sleep with their arms up around the pillow.
Sleeping in the supine position is thought to be best for the skeletal system. This is because the spine, neck, and head are properly aligned. Interestingly, Slovenian researchers also discovered that sleeping supine leads to the development of fewer facial wrinkles.
- Pros: Sleeping stretched out on your back allows the stomach and intestines to spread out, as they would when you’re standing up. This gives sleeping supine an advantage over sleeping curled up, which may squash your intestines. If you experience stomach discomfort, pain, or nausea, this position may help.
- Cons: Sleeping supine is one of the worst positions for acid reflux. Lying flat allows stomach acid to flow into the esophagus. This position can also make it more difficult for your stomach to digest food, leading to indigestion. Back-sleeping is also a bad idea for gas and constipation, as it allows for the least movement through the intestines.
2) Lying Flat on Your Front (Prone)
Only around 7% of people sleep on their front. Those who do tend to sleep with their head turned to one side with arms around the pillow. It has been dubbed the “freefall” position.
The unpopularity of this position may be attributed to the restricted ability to breathe. Sleeping prone can constrict the lungs, making it harder to take deep breaths. The nose and mouth can also be obscured by the pillow. However, it can help to prevent snoring problems.
- Pros: Like the supine position, lying prone allows for the gastrointestinal system to stretch out rather than being screwed up. Many people report that this position helps to free trapped gas, due to the position of the colon. As it puts light pressure on the abdomen, lying prone may also help to ease constipation.
- Cons: As with the supine position, lying on your front is not recommended if you have acid reflux. Again, stomach acid may work its way into your esophagus if you lie flat. Lying prone also puts pressure on the stomach. So, if you have indigestion, stomach pain or nausea, lying on your front may worsen it.
3) Lying on Your Right Side
The vast majority prefers to sleep on their side, rather than on their front or back. Around 41% sleep in the fetal position (on the side with legs curled up). A further 28% sleep stretched out on their side.
A study by the American College of Cardiology found that people with heart problems prefer to sleep on their right side. This is thought to be because the heart is on the left side of the body. So, sleeping on the left can put pressure on the heart.
- Pros: Although sleeping on the right is better for the heart, there aren’t many digestive benefits. Sleeping on the side, in general, can alleviate nausea, but it doesn’t have to be the right side. Some people may feel more comfortable on their right than their left.
- Cons: Due to the position and angle of the stomach, sleeping on the right can worsen acid reflux. It can allow acid to creep into the esophagus. Because the liver is on the right, sleeping on it can compress it. This may reduce its ability to secrete bile into the digestive tract, hindering digestion. It can also inhibit the movement of fecal matter through the colon, so it’s not ideal for constipation.
4) Sleeping Elevated
By propping yourself up with pillows, you can comfortably sleep at a less flat angle. This can be beneficial in many ways.
It alleviates post-nasal drip if you have a cold. It also helps to reduce snoring and sleep apnea by opening up the airways. If you get migraines or headaches, sleeping elevated can reduce pressure on the head.
- Pros: Sleeping elevated is great for preventing acid reflux. By keeping the esophagus higher than the stomach, there is a smaller chance of acid escaping. Gravity assists your stomach to digest food. So, if you get indigestion, sleeping elevated may help.
- Cons: Depending on your individual preference, you may find it hard to get to sleep without lying flat. Lack of sleep is bad for digestion in general. Also, if you sleep too upright, this can constrict your abdomen. It may not be the best position for constipation or abdominal discomfort.
5) Lying on Your Left Side
It’s easier on the liver, which is situated on the right of the body. It makes it easier for the lymph nodes to circulate lymph, a beneficial fluid, throughout the body. It also helps to encourage drainage of lymph and blood into the spleen.
- Pros: When lying on your left, your stomach’s acid level is below the esophageal opening. For this reason, it can be great for acid reflux. Due to the position of the transverse colon, it can also encourage the movement of fecal matter. So, it’s a good position for both constipation and gas. Lying on the left may also help alleviate nausea.
- Cons: If you sleep in the fetal position (with your legs curled up), this can contort and compress the gut. If you have abdominal pain, this could make it worse. This problem can be alleviated by stretching your legs out.
Why is My Gas Worse When Lying Down?
Contrary to popular belief, lying down, whether it’s on your left or face down is not the best solution for flatulence (gas). While it is completely normal and even healthy for gas to be present in your gut, sometimes you need assistance to get them moving.
Gas accumulates in the intestines and becomes trapped. If there’s an abundance of it, this can cause some pain and discomfort. During the day, when the body is active, gas can work its way through the intestines and escape. However, when lying down, it isn’t as easy to maneuver. A study in the scientific journal Gut found that the intestines are more likely to retain gas when lying down.
What Are the Causes of Gas?
There are two causes of gas in the body: swallowing air while eating or as a by-product of food being broken down and fermented in the colon via gut bacteria. Food that isn’t absorbed into the intestines (such as undigested plant fiber, gluten, and sugar) travel to the colon, where they are processed by bacteria, producing gas.
Certain foods produce more gas than others, particularly cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, beans, and onions. Fatty foods are also common culprits. Fat and fiber are slow-digesting, which give bacteria time to create gas. Eating too quickly, drinking carbonated drinks and smoking are also notorious for frequent flatulence.
As for swallowed air, most of it is released through burping, and the rest is either absorbed into the small intestine or moved through the intestines and eliminated through the rectum.
What Are the Symptoms of Stomach Gas?
A buildup of excess gas in the digestive tract may cause the following symptoms:
- Feeling bloated
- Frequently passing gas
- Tight feeling in the stomach
- Jabbing pain in the chest
- Loss of appetite
It is common to confuse flatulence with severe conditions such as appendicitis and gallstones, which also cause abdominal pain. However, these conditions are often more painful than feeling bloated.
How to Digest Food Faster at Night
Regardless of which position you sleep in, there are also some general rules you should follow when eating. These are as follows:
- Don’t eat for at least three hours before going to bed. Is it bad to go to bed on a full stomach? The answer is yes. Lying down on a full stomach is a recipe for indigestion and acid reflux. It’s easier for your body to digest food when you’re upright. So, wait at least three hours after your last meal before you lie down to sleep.
- Stay active during the day. Gentle, regular exercise helps your body to digest food. A study in the Southern Medical Journal found that exercise is beneficial for the gastrointestinal system. It even appears to reduce the risk of colon cancer.
- Eat regular, small meals. Our stomachs aren’t designed to cope with eating very large meals. Try eating four or five small meals per day instead of three larger ones. This reduces the load on your digestive system.
- Eat your food sensibly. Don’t swallow any large pieces of food without chewing them first. Large pieces of food are harder for your stomach to process. Also, try not to talk while eating, as this increases your chances of swallowing air.
- Drink warm liquids with food. Warm drinks can speed up digestion, whereas cold drinks slow it down. So, rather than opting for iced water with dinner, try a cup of hot tea instead. As a bonus, warm drinks can also help relieve constipation, and induce tiredness.
You should find that by following the above advice, your digestive discomfort will pass much more quickly. By practicing proper eating, exercising and sleeping habits, you should be far less susceptible to digestive problems.
However, in some cases, issues with the digestive system can be a sign of something more serious. If you experience nausea, heartburn, constipation or pain that lasts more than a few days, see a doctor. They’ll be able to examine you and help determine what may be causing your discomfort. It may be that you have a food intolerance or more serious digestive issue.