Man with his hand on his chest, from heartburn.Sleep apnea and acid reflux (GERD) are both conditions that affect a large number of people in the United States. GERD is estimated to affect 7 million people in the U.S., and sleep apnea is thought to affect as many as 18 million. Although the two disrupt your body in very different ways, studies have found that the two may be related.  Results have not shown whether acid reflux causes sleep apnea or vice versa, but offer strong evidence of a link between them.

Acid Reflux Symptoms

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), commonly called acid reflux, is a condition where stomach acid frequently enters the esophagus. The lining of the esophagus is not designed to withstand acid, and becomes burned and irritated. People who experience heartburn twice or more per month may have GERD. Symptoms include coughing, increased heart rate, bad breath, or chest pain in addition to heartburn. In some cases, prolonged acid reflux can lead to a condition known as Barett’s esophagus, which increases the likelihood of developing esophageal cancer.

Difficulty Sleeping and Sleep Disordered Breathing

Surveys conducted in Norway between 1984 and 1997 found that GERD was associated with sleep problems such as insomnia and sleepiness. Subsequent studies have found that 89% of people with GERD symptoms experience nighttime heartburn that causes them to have difficulty sleeping deeply at night and may result in multiple nighttime disturbances. One of the sleep disturbances that people often experience is sleep disordered breathing.

Studies published in the early 2000s found that 58%-60% of participants suffering from obstructive sleep apnea also experienced GERD symptoms. Several studies have found that sleep apnea treatment has shown improvement in GERD symptoms. The use of CPAP reduced the overall length of time that acid was in contact with the esophagus lining at night as well.

Are The Two Conditions Related?

Current results from studies on the relationship between GERD and sleep apnea have not proven the exact relationship between the two conditions. It is possible that the two are not directly related, but have the same risk factors associated with them. For example, obesity is a risk factor of both sleep apnea and GERD, so individuals with a high body mass index may suffer from both symptoms due to their weight. Age is another risk factor for both conditions. GERD is more common after middle age as the valve near the bottom of the esophagus weakens, and sleep apnea appears in many individuals in this same age range.

Given that sleep apnea treatment has been shown to reduce nighttime GERD symptoms, it is not unreasonable to say that the two may be related. Not all people who suffer from sleep apnea report heartburn, but they also might not notice the symptoms. Future studies that evaluate whether or not sleep apnea patients who do not report heartburn have more esophageal injury than expected are needed to determine a causal relationship. If future research finds that sleep apnea is a risk factor for GERD, people suffering from sleep apnea will need to be examined for esophagus damage and treated accordingly.

Whether or not GERD is directly linked to sleep apnea, it is important to seek treatment if you experience sleep disordered breathing. When you are not resting well at night, your physical and mental health are in danger. Diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and depression have all been found to be related to sleep apnea in some way. Getting the treatment that you need can help to prevent complications later on, and will improve your alertness and overall task completion.

For more information about the benefits sleep apnea treatment may have for you, please call (303) 691-0267 for an appointment with a Denver dentist at the TMJ Therapy & Sleep Center of Colorado.