What Happens to Your Digestive System When You Lie Down After Eating?

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Over the past few months, I’ve started noticing something strange at the end of each day. After eating dinner or enjoying a late-night snack and curling up on the couch to watch my K-dramas, belches come and go like waves. They’re not painful or sour, but they’re still frequent enough to make me wonder what the deal is. This situation eventually got me wondering whether my eating habits, night owl tendencies, or sparkling water intake could be the culprit… until I realized that since getting a new (exceedingly cozy) sofa, I've started to revel in my post-nosh TV marathons in a completely horizontal position.

Experts In This Article
  • Peyton Berookim, MD, board-certified gastroenterologist at the Gastroenterology Institute of Southern California

On a mission to uncover what really happens to your digestion when you lie down after eating (or eat lying down) and how to best avoid the symptoms that can arise from doing so, I reached out to Peyton Berookim, MD, MA, FACG, AGAF, a double board-certified gastroenterologist at the Gastroenterology Institute of Southern California. To sum things up, lying down after eating (as tempting as it may be to do so), isn't exactly going to help ease digestion—here's why.

What happens if you lie down after eating to your digestion?

If you can relate and also love going straight to sprawling out after dinner (or any meal—I see you, fam), Dr. Berookim says that while it's nothing to lose sleep over, there are a few things you should know about how your digestive function may be affected. “When you lie down after eating, there is a possibility that the food you just ingested—which has made its way through your esophagus and to the entrance of your stomach—will make its way backwards, now with some of the acids of the stomach, and up into your throat,” Dr. Berookim says. In other words, your digestive system makes like Missy Elliott circa 2002, flipping and reversing the natural flow of breaking down your food. When this happens, you may experience symptoms of heartburn and acid reflux.

“This could present as a burning sensation in your chest and throat, a sour taste in your mouth, or belching,” Dr. Berookim continues. He adds that reflux has the potential to irritate your airway and result in a cough, which may even mimic some slight asthma symptoms.

Moreover, a small study published in the journal Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism reported additional benefits of sitting upright while eating as opposed to reclining1. After the researchers studied the effects of protein ingestion in both positions, they concluded that feeding in an upright body position as opposed to a lying position “accelerates gastric emptying and increases the postprandial rise in plasma amino acid availability by increasing protein digestion and amino acid absorption rates.” In simple terms, this means that you can promote optimal digestive function and nutrient absorption if you eat protein-rich foods while seated upright versus reclining. (Not to mention reduce your risk of experiencing the heartburn and reflux symptoms cited above if you remain upright following said meal.)

Is it okay to lie down in bed after eating?

Many people tend to lie down after eating, especially following a big, hearty meal (*cue my cravings for Thanksgiving food*). But as comfortable as it may initially feel to undo a button or two, put your feet back, and rest on your back, is this ever preferable for digestion?

To cut to the chase, the gut health expert says you may want to hold off on hitting the hay immediately after noshing on your dinner, and some even recommend walking after eating a big meal. Why? Well, it's simple: It physically doesn't help with digestion, quite literally. “There aren’t really any types of conditions or scenarios in which we recommend reclining after eating,” Dr. Berookim says. “It just goes against the natural direction of gravity that promotes healthy digestion.” In addition, he mentions that people with certain medical conditions should take particular care to remain upright following their meals. “People who have underlying gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or conditions such as hiatal hernia should definitely not lay supine after eating,” Dr. Berookim says, as doing so is likely to exacerbate discomfort.

TL; DR: Dr. Berookim confirms that, as a general rule, it’s always best to sit upright after eating. (The exception, as he previously told us, applies to people who experience heartburn and reflux may actually benefit from standing while eating since it can help minimize the stomach pressure that produces undesirable symptoms.)

Also keep in mind of how sleep affects digestion, but more specifically different sleeping positions. “Multiple studies have shown that sleeping on the right lateral position increases acid reflux episodes and heartburn as compared to the left lateral position,” Ali Rezaie, MD, a gastroenterologist at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, previously shared with Well+Good. In short: Certain sleeping positions can affect the compression of the stomach, and, in turn, how easily food is digested. "This is thought to be due to positioning of the stomach, which lays above the distal part of the esophagus when sleeping on the right side,” Dr. Rezaie says. Additionally, head placement can also play a role in digestion. (Elevating the head has been associated with less reflux or heartburn.)

How long you should ideally wait to lie down after eating

Whether you’re at the beach and want to lay back on your towel after a fresh lunch, or at home and ready to curl up to binge watch the newest release on Netflix following a late meal, Dr. Berookim recommends certain time frames to wait before doing so, spanning from 30 minutes to four hours, in most cases.

“It is usually recommended to wait at least 30 minutes after eating before reclining fully,” he says. However, if you rest in an angled, semi-upright position and/or have some pillows to stack up, you don’t have to watch the clock as diligently. “If you’re just going to lay on the couch but with a higher elevation of your head, then it’s usually okay to do so shortly after eating,” he clarifies.

Yet when it comes to catching your ZZZ’s after dinner, the ideal time frame is a bit longer. “In general, we recommend eating early enough so that you leave two hours after dinner to go to bed,” Dr. Berookim continues. And if you do happen to struggle with GERD, one study published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology found better outcomes by waiting at least three hours2—and even more significant benefits by holding out for four hours.

The bottom line? Lying down directly after a meal has the potential to trigger digestive distress—particularly for those who already struggle with conditions such as heartburn and reflux. However, you don’t necessarily have to stay *completely* upright, be stiff as a board, or rule out post-meal relaxing completely. While Dr. Berookim reiterates that it isn’t ideal to be supine straight after eating, “if you want to recline, aim to do so at a 45-degree elevation,” he advises. Also, if the symptoms outlined above manifest even if you do switch up your post-meal relaxation routine, Dr. Berookim says that cutting back on carbonated beverages may also help achieve a happy and healthy gut. Of course, it's always best to consult with a medical professional should any additional concerns arise.

Struggling with digestion? This herbal tincture can help soothe the gut:

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
  1. Holwerda, Andrew M et al. “Food ingestion in an upright sitting position increases postprandial amino acid availability when compared with food ingestion in a lying down position.” Applied physiology, nutrition, and metabolism = Physiologie appliquee, nutrition et metabolisme vol. 42,7 (2017): 738-743. doi:10.1139/apnm-2016-0522
  2. Fujiwara, Yasuhiro et al. “Association between dinner-to-bed time and gastro-esophageal reflux disease.” The American journal of gastroenterology vol. 100,12 (2005): 2633-6. doi:10.1111/j.1572-0241.2005.00354.x
  3. Person, Erik et al. “A Novel Sleep Positioning Device Reduces Gastroesophageal Reflux: A Randomized Controlled Trial.” Journal of clinical gastroenterology vol. 49,8 (2015): 655-9. doi:10.1097/MCG.0000000000000359

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