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America Asks About Heartburn & GERD

Heartburn? Lose Weight for Relief

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Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Anyone who has ever suffered from heartburn or acid reflux knows all too well the discomfort and burning sensation in their chest after eating too much or the wrong kinds of foods. 

Following a heartburn diet -- one that typically eliminates alcohol, caffeine, and spicy foods -- is usually the first line of defense. Not smoking, sleeping with an extra pillow, medications, loose fitting clothes, and not overeating are other measures that can reduce symptoms. 

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Effects of Uncontrolled Heartburn

For most people, the painful burning sensation in the chest that comes from heartburn is just an occasional mild annoyance. But for those who experience it on a regular basis, uncontrolled heartburn can turn into a very serious problem. Heartburn is the most common symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. GERD results from the improper working of the a valve, called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), that normally keeps food and acids inside the stomach. When it doesn't work correctly,...

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But experts say losing weight can also help, especially if you are overweight.  

The Link Between Weight and Heartburn

Studies have shown that adults (both men and women) who gain a few extra pounds can increase their risk of heartburn – but losing weight can spell relief. 

How does excess body fat increase the risk of heartburn? The exact mechanism is not well known, but researchers surmise that extra fat around the belly increases the pressure on the stomach, forcing fluid up into the esophagus.

Added pressure impacts the sphincter between the stomach and the esophagus, causing it to relax and allow acidic stomach contents into the esophagus. Extra weight can also impair the body’s ability to empty the stomach quickly. Overeating, even among thin people, can also increase pressure on the stomach and sphincter, as can pregnancy.

Researchers who analyzed 10,000 women in the Nurse’s Health Study found that weight gain of 10 to 20 pounds was associated with a threefold increase in heartburn symptoms. And when overweight people become obese, it further heightens their risk for developing gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD.  Obese people are nearly three times more likely than normal weight people to have heartburn.

But losing weight can reduce a woman’s risk of heartburn by as much as 40%, according to the Nurse’s Health Study.

How to Choose a Weight Loss Plan for Heartburn

Choose a heart-smart diet controlled in calories that you can stick with.  A heart-healthy diet is also heartburn healthy. 

It doesn’t really matter if the diet is high in fat, high in carbs, or low in protein, according to a study in The New England Journal of Medicine.  Researcher Frank Sacks, MD, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, found little difference in weight loss when he compared four different diet plans that all varied in nutrient composition.

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