- Food moves through the gastrointestinal tract through muscular contractions called peristalsis.
- Lying down immediately after eating can worsen heartburn or acid reflux symptoms.
- A dietitian can help you make nutrition changes to improve your overall digestive health.
It is not bad for your health to lie down after eating, but some people could experience painful digestive symptoms. These include acid reflux, excessive burping, and general discomfort.
In this article, you’ll learn how lying down can impact your digestion and overall health and what you can do to reduce these side effects.
What Happens to Your Digestive System After You Lie Down
Digestion happens in your gastrointestinal tract (also called the GI tract), which starts at your mouth and ends at the anus. Several key areas of your GI tract help absorb vitamins and minerals, water, electrolytes, and other essential nutrients.
In healthy digestion, food travels downwards through your digestive tract through peristalsis.
The muscles around the walls of the GI tract contract and push food down the esophagus, into the small intestine, and through the large intestine.
Sometimes, lying down can interfere with the downward movements of peristalsis, and stomach contents can come back up into your esophagus. This unpleasant sensation can be very alarming the first time it happens.
What is Acid Reflux?
Acid reflux is medically referred to as gastroesophageal reflux (GER) or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
The symptoms include painful heartburn that emanates from the middle of the chest.
Some people also experience mild regurgitation and can taste food or stomach acid.
Other symptoms which are lesser known include:
- Generalized chest pain.
- Pain or discomfort while swallowing.
- Chronic coughing and throat clearing.
The lower esophageal sphincter should squeeze tightly shut to prevent any backflow into the esophagus.
Sometimes the esophageal sphincter relaxes when it shouldn’t, and the entrance to the esophagus opens.
People who are diagnosed with GER or GERD can experience worsened symptoms if they lie down immediately after eating because the food hasn’t passed through the upper intestinal tract.
Staying upright after eating, either by sitting or standing, can help reduce the intensity of symptoms after a meal.
Who is At Risk For Developing GERD?
The National Institute of Health has stated these factors can increase the risk of developing GERD:
- Being overweight or living with obesity.
- Being pregnant.
- Smoking or inhaling secondhand smoke.
A management plan for GERD is highly individualized. Some people improve their symptoms through diet changes, but medications may be beneficial too. You and your healthcare provider should review your treatment options.
Tips to Improve Digestion
How you feel after eating will be individualized, and keeping a journal to track your digestive symptoms can be helpful.
Important factors to include in your journal are what you ate, the quantity, the time you ate it, and your stress levels.
Stress and feelings of anxiety can worsen digestive symptoms.
Journaling can help uncover trends in your symptoms and offer valuable pieces of information you may have missed, like eating food every day that unknowingly was worsening your symptoms.
Common dietary culprits include fried foods, spicy foods, carbonated and caffeinated drinks, alcohol, mint, and most ultra-processed items. Additional foods may affect you more than others; try to abstain from eating them until your symptoms improve.
Changes you can make today include:
- Slowing down how quickly you eat.
- Chewing your food thoroughly.
- Trying to limit overeating and consuming large meals in one sitting.
- Limiting distractions while eating.
- Listening to your hunger and fullness cues.
Nutrition changes that support healthy digestion include regularly consuming fiber-rich foods such as nuts and seeds, legumes, fruits and vegetables, and whole grains.
Drink water throughout the day to help food move easily through your digestive system. Eating probiotic-rich foods such as yogurts or fermented vegetables may also be helpful.
Depending on your symptoms and medical history, you may benefit from following a specialized diet that can reduce digestive symptoms.
This is a highly restrictive guide, and clinical supervision is recommended.
The Gut-Brain Connection
The gut-brain axis, or the gut-brain connection, refers to the active communication channel between your digestive system and brain. If there are any issues with digestion, a signal is sent to your brain as an update.
This will elicit a series of hormonal responses to try and resolve the problem.
Maintaining a healthy gut microbiome is essential to help your gut and brain work efficiently.
This includes a GI tract that is rich with probiotic bacteria (which are health-promoting bacteria) that can support immune function, boost mood, and decrease digestive symptoms.
Probiotic supplements can improve digestive symptoms, but you must take the right strain of bacteria to experience improvements.
A dietitian can help you find the right product and offer nutrition suggestions too.
Sleep and Digestive Health
Adequate sleep is crucial for your health, and according to a study published in 2007 with 772 participants, 50% of insomniacs reported digestive problems.
People have difficulty falling asleep because of painful side effects linked to digestive disorders.
One night of poor sleep will not affect your overall health, but frequent lack of sleep can.
If you consistently lose sleep because of digestive discomfort, you should contact your healthcare provider to discuss care options to improve your sleep quality.
Tips to Improve Sleep
Sleep hygiene refers to healthy sleeping habits that set you up for a night of successful rest. This includes addressing behaviors before going to bed, including eating.
Leave more time between your last meal and bedtime.
If you know that lying down after eating triggers digestive symptoms, you should plan to eat your last meal or snack a few hours before bed.
This can give more time for food to move further down your digestive tract and reduce the chances of esophageal reflux.
Limit high-fat foods before bed (if it is a known trigger for you).
Fat is a dense macronutrient and takes a long time to digest. Eating high-fat foods can exacerbate digestive symptoms, and these foods should be avoided 1-2 hours before sleeping.
Sleep with your head elevated.
Using a wedge pillow to elevate your head and upper body can help decrease symptoms of reflux and aid with digestion.
Follow a nightly routine.
Try to go to bed at the same time every night. Following a routine can prime your body so it is ready for sleep when you reach the bed.
Limit caffeinated beverages and alcoholic drinks before bed.
Caffeine is a stimulant that can hinder your ability to fall asleep. Even some teas may be too high in caffeine for caffeine-sensitive people. Alcohol can reduce the quality of your sleep, and consuming large amounts can harm your digestive system.
Light Physical Activity Can Help Digestion
Regular movement can help relieve symptoms of gas and bloating. A 2021 study found that people who walked for 10-15 minutes after eating for one month reported less gas, bloating, and abdominal pain from gas.
The findings from this study suggest that movement, instead of lying down after eating, can improve digestive symptoms.
Physical activity can also reduce symptoms of stress and anxiety, which are known to exacerbate digestive symptoms. Finding a way to move your body that is enjoyable and appealing is crucial to help you stick with your fitness goals.
You can make movement fun by dancing around your house or finding a partner to walk with.
Digestion Patterns Change Over Time
Your digestive health is prone to change based on your daily choices. Food, drink, sleep, stress, physical activity, and general health status can influence how efficiently your digestive system functions.
Finding ways to manage these changes can be overwhelming, but working with a trained expert can alleviate any concerns.
How a Dietitian Can Help
Lying down after eating should not affect your overall health, but it can worsen symptoms of GERD in some people.
A registered dietitian can help you make nutrition changes that will ease digestive symptoms and help you feel better overall.
They are expertly trained in nutritional therapy and can recommend specialized diet protocols if appropriate.
Nourish offers one-on-one nutrition counseling that is covered by the most popular insurance companies. Book a virtual appointment with a registered dietitian today!
Frequently Asked Questions
See a Registered Dietitian with Nourish
- Covered by insurance
- Virtual sessions
- Personalized care