On a mission to uncover what really happens to your digestion when you lie down after eating 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.
What happens in your digestive system when you lie down after eating?
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 study published in the journal Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism reported additional benefits of sitting upright while eating as opposed to reclining. 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 ever advisable to recline 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?
“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.)
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.
“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 hours—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.
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