Allowing time for digestion after eating an evening meal is essential for a restful night’s sleep. While everybody has a unique metabolism that digests food at an individual pace, your digestive tract will still work during sleep.
Stop eating three hours before bed, regardless of your favorite sleeping position, as this gives your stomach and digestive tract time to settle. If you’re eating anything that could lead to heartburn, such as spicy food, wait longer.
When you get into bed, sleep on your left side. This position keeps food and stomach acids away from the lower esophageal sphincter, which connects the esophagus to the stomach. As a result, you’re less likely to experience heartburn or indigestion.
If you must sleep on your back or right side, elevate your head with pillows. This will make it harder for undigested contents of the stomach to reach your critical organs and throat, reducing the risk of heartburn and acid reflux.
Should I Digest Food Before Sleeping?
You should never get into bed immediately after eating. Most nutritionists recommend waiting at least three hours after an evening meal before retiring for the night.
This three-hour window is insufficient to digest everything you’ve consumed over a day, but this should be long enough to get comfortable. Your digestive system will continue to work while you sleep.
Avoid going to bed if you are experiencing any of the following.
- Bloated stomach
- Stomach pain
These symptoms suggest that your body is still adapting to digestion.
Some people have slower metabolisms than others, meaning it takes longer to process a meal. Other food groups are tougher to process, including red meat, spicy foods, and hard cheeses.
This chart provides examples of how long different foods and drinks may take to digest. As well as the food itself, portion size plays a role. So, eat heartier earlier in the day, and keep evening meals lighter.
If you get into bed too soon, no sleeping position will help your body process.
Does Sleep Influence Digestion?
According to Psychiatry Research, insomnia greatly enhances cortisol levels, aka “the stress hormone,” in the body. 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 so-called “fight-or-flight” response,) temporarily freezing digestion.
The stress caused by cortisol also impacts the mobility of your gut. If you don’t sleep enough, you’ll likely experience constipation, which can become inflammatory bowel disease.
Practice good sleep hygiene and get into a routine to ensure that your body enjoys superior digestion.
What Sleeping Position is Good for Digestion?
Everybody has a favorite sleeping position, and it’s important that you feel comfortable when climbing into bed. 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, aka 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 six inches with firm pillows. The Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology explains that lifting the head can reduce heartburn and reflux symptoms.
Get in a wedge pillow if you are adamant that you can only sleep while lying on your back. This will force your head to remain elevated, preventing acid from traveling into your throat.
This sleeping position requires training, so give a different posture equal consideration.
Does Lying On Your Stomach Help Digestion?
Sleeping on the stomach, sometimes called the prone position, is considered the least advisable nocturnal posture for digestion and beyond. Sleeping on the stomach places body weight on our core, which leads to potential spinal misalignment.
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 health alike.
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 choose to 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 that 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.
This position makes it less likely that you will struggle overnight.
Training Yourself to Sleep on Your Left Side
Falling asleep on your left side is only half the battle for a good night’s rest. 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; these don’t need to be ornate or elaborate. 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 your spine aligned and enhance comfort overnight.
You’re unlikely to immediately start sleeping through the night while remaining on your left side. Try practicing with brief naps, and continue taking all other precautions associated with minimizing the impact of indigestion at night.
This arrangement will be challenging if you share a bed, as pillows may take up more space than two people can spare. If this is the case, consider separate beds to ensure that everybody sleeps soundly – or change your lifestyle, so overnight digestion is not a concern.
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 at night with your evening meal, and take over-the-counter antacids to combat heartburn.
- Relax before bed to minimize your cortisol levels. Consider meditation, and avoid anything stimulating – especially screens and social media – for an hour before bed.
- Skip that alcoholic nightcap, giving your stomach time to process the acidic nature of alcohol before getting into bed.
The ambient temperature in a home can also impact digestion. Sleeping in a cool room is likelier to help you doze off and remain asleep. Cell Reports explains how cooler climes can also increase brown fat levels in the body, leading to a faster metabolism.
After eating, reduce your body temperature by taking a shower or cooling your feet in a water bowl. This will make it likelier that your body is ready to digest while you sleep, reducing the risk of insomnia caused by stomach bloat or indigestion.
Whichever position you choose to sleep in, you’ll need to manage your diet to enjoy a peaceful, restful night. You can bolster this likelihood by allowing yourself time to digest and lying on your side to the left.