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Heartburn/GERD Health Center

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Are GERD and Sleep Apnea Related?

Sleep Arousal May Result From Reflux, but Could Acid Reflux Result in Sleep Apnea?
WebMD Health News

Oct. 13, 2003 -- Gastroesophageal reflux and sleep problems go hand in hand. At least 80% of the 60 million Americans who have been diagnosed with GERD report worse symptoms at night, and three in four say they routinely wake up from sleep because of them.

GERD affects more than 20% of Americans with weekly heartburn symptoms.

This association makes sense because when you're awake, gravity helps keep acids needed to digest food down where they belongs -- in the stomach. But when you're lying down, these acids can leak back into the esophagus, damaging its lining and significantly boosting the risk of esophageal cancer.

Some researchers believe that obstructive sleep apnea results in airway pressure changes that can cause reflux to occur, yet other researchers believe that the reflux of acids may result in spasms of the vocal cords that can then lead to sleep apnea.

"With sleep apnea, people tend to breathe harder because their breathing has stopped, and that could induce reflux to flow into the esophagus," says gastroenterologist Ken DeVault, MD, of the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla., and spokesman for the American College of Gastroenterology. "It's been thought that this causes reflux to enter the esophagus."

"But so far, it's largely a chicken-and-egg question: Does sleep apnea cause acid reflux, or does this reflux cause sleep apnea by pooling in the esophagus and making it harder to breathe?"

A new study, presented today at the annual meeting of the American College of Gastroenterology, is attempting to find out. And so far, preliminary results from the first part of an ongoing study show that "there may be a casual relationship between reflux and sleep events in people with obstructive type sleep apnea," says lead researcher U.S. Army Major Brian P. Mulhall, MD, MPH, of Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., in a news release.

"The reflux and apneas aren't consistently occurring at the same time in the patients we've studied, so we suspect they are caused by different mechanisms," says Mulhall.

"Initially, the thought was that it may cause sleep apnea in adults, but we're not seeing a clear relationship between acid reflux and apnea," he tells WebMD.

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