Wondering what the best sleeping position for digestion is? A gastroenterologist shares which ones can help alleviate heartburn, bloating, and more.
While you may feel like you’re resting as you’re fast asleep, your body is actually hard at work. Your muscles repair themselves, your brain clears toxins that have accumulated throughout the day, and your digestive system processes the food you ate. “Your body is extracting nutrients and—for lack of a better phrase—making poop,” explains Niket Sonpol, MD, an NYC-based internist and gastroenterologist and faculty member at Touro College of Medicine. “That’s why when most people wake up in the morning, they have to go to the bathroom.”
And while we know what we eat affects our digestion, research is revealing that how we eat—and what we do after we eat—can impact our bodies too. Everything from the timing of our last meal to how quickly we eat our food impacts the body’s digestive processes. But what about your sleeping position? Does that affect your digestive system? It turns out that how you choose to snooze can either support a more comfortable digestive process or potentially trigger certain side effects.
Keep reading to discover the best sleeping positions for digestion (as well as the worst), according to a gastroenterologist.
Does Sleeping Position Affect Digestion?
In short, not exactly. “Sleeping position doesn’t affect your digestion [directly] because the processes are enzymatic,” explains Dr. Sonpol. “These kinds of processes are independent of factors like gravity.”
However, certain sleeping positions can cause some unwelcome side effects such as heartburn, bloating, and nausea. Meanwhile, sleeping in other positions can help make the digestion process more comfortable—especially for those prone to the aforementioned symptoms.
What Sleeping Position Is Best for Digestion?
So what exactly is the best sleeping position for digestion? According to Dr. Sonpol, there are a few that rise above the rest.
Sleeping On an Incline
If you’re prone to heartburn, Dr. Sonpol says the best thing you can do is sleep with your shoulders and head on a slight incline. While you may be tempted to simply stack your pillows, you’ll need something that will lift your shoulders and chest too. Look for a wedge pillow that will slightly lift your upper body. “A five- to 15-degree incline can put gravity into place and allow a person to not have as much heartburn at night,” Dr. Sonpol says.
Sleeping on Your Right Side
If you tend to get bloated at night—or you simply want to help pass things along—Dr. Sonpol says sleeping on your right side might help. “Though there’s no real science to it, when you sleep on your right side, gravity helps you move things down the GI tract more,” he says, “whereas if you sleep on your left side, gravity is putting things more into your stomach as opposed to your intestines.” One small study showed that sleeping on the right side is better for stomach emptying, but more research is needed on the subject. Dr. Sonpol also notes that everyone is different, so it’s worth experimenting to see what works best for you.
Sleeping on Your Left Side
For those who suffer from heartburn, another sleeping position to try is on your left side (with your head and shoulders elevated). Studies have found that sleeping on the left side with your upper body elevated can decrease acid reflux episodes and heartburn. Again, you’ll need to invest in a wedge pillow to ensure your upper body is properly elevated to get the benefits of this sleeping position for digestion.
The Worst Sleeping Positions for Digestion
We’ve covered the best sleeping positions for digestion, but what about those that are less ideal? Dr. Sonpol walks us through two sleeping positions that can make the process of digestion uncomfortable for some.
Sleeping Flat on Your Back
“If you’re somebody who has heartburn, sleeping flat on your back can actually increase your symptoms,” Dr. Sonpol says. When you lay flat in bed, your throat and stomach are at the same level, making it easy for stomach acids to flow up your esophagus. That’s why sleeping with your upper body at a slight incline can help alleviate symptoms of heartburn and acid reflux.
Sleeping on Your Stomach
While there isn’t much science around this, Dr. Sonpol says that, anecdotally, people can feel uncomfortable while stomach sleeping. “Depending on a person’s size and weight, sleeping on your stomach can make you feel uncomfortable,” he says. “I’ve had patients who say that when they sleep on their stomach after eating they feel like they’re going to vomit.” This is likely because sleeping face down puts pressure on your stomach, which can cause discomfort, especially if you eat late in the night or very close to bedtime.
How to Support Digestion Before Bed
We’ve established that your sleeping position can support a more comfortable digestive process, but many other things can, too. Dr. Sonpol shares the best things to do before bed to support optimal digestion.
Eat One to Two Hours Before Bed
“The most important thing is to never go to bed immediately after eating,” Dr. Sonpol says. Your last meal should be at least one to two hours before you go to bed. And while that can be difficult for some people, it makes a huge difference. “It doesn’t necessarily affect or slow your body’s ability to digest, but it makes it less likely that you’re going to have normal digestion,” he continues. “You’re probably going to experience side effects like heartburn or feeling bloated or gassy.”
Drink Enough Water
You’ve heard it a million times, but it’s true: Drinking enough water is key to supporting digestion. Water moves everything through your GI tract and helps your body eliminate waste. Aim to drink eight to 12 cups of water every day, and ensure you’re drinking enough water at dinner. One caveat: Try not to drink too much water before bed, as you’ll likely have to wake up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom.
Eat Enough Fiber
Most Americans aren’t eating enough fiber, according to the American Society for Nutrition. Fiber works to build up our stool and help our bodies with elimination. If you’re not eating enough of it, you may notice it’s difficult to go to the bathroom (or you might even experience constipation). Eating enough fiber throughout the day is important, but Dr. Sonpol says adding a fiber-rich component to your dinner in particular can help with digestion as you sleep.
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Keep a Regular Sleep Schedule
Keeping a regular sleep schedule promotes regular bowel movements. “That’s part of the reason why people get constipated when they travel: because their sleep schedules are erratic and they get very dehydrated,” says Dr. Sonpol. “When your sleep schedule is thrown off, your bowel movements get thrown off.” With that said, try going to bed and waking up at the same time. Not only will it benefit your digestion, but your sleep quality and heart health, too. (In fact, a new study has tied irregular sleep as an early marker of cardiovascular disease.)
Get Enough Sleep
Last but not least, getting enough sleep is one of the most important tips to support your digestive system. If you’re not sleeping enough, you may experience digestive distress in the form of bloating, gas, heartburn, and more. According to the Centers for Disease Control, most adults should get at least seven hours of sleep per night. This amount will improve your overall health—digestion included. “Sleeping is the best for everything,” Dr. Sonpol concludes. “When sleeping gets thrown off, everything goes out of whack.”
So stay in and snooze a little. Your gut will thank you.