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Heartburn/GERD Health Center

No More Heartburn

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WebMD Feature from "Good Housekeeping" Magazine

By Lisa Collier

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Yesterday, 15 million Americans were miserable. That's how many women and men get heartburn every single day. Over the past month, some 60 million people experienced either the main symptom — a severe burning sensation in the chest — or another one, such as discomfort in the back of the throat. In some cases, food comes back up, along with a sour taste. If you're one of those millions, the good news is that simple, new treatments can help you feel better fast.

Heartburn is primarily a mechanical problem. When you swallow food, it travels down the esophagus and enters the stomach via a small, muscular valve.

Normally, the valve then closes and stays shut. But sometimes it becomes weak and floppy and doesn't close properly. That's when trouble begins: Food and stomach acids gurgle back up into the esophagus — a condition known as acid reflux. If this happens to you frequently (twice a week or more) and if your symptoms are severe, the condition is called gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD.

Heartburn can strike anyone, but women suffer more often than men, and pregnant women are especially susceptible. Weight is another key risk factor, and it doesn't have to be extreme. If your weight is normal, but at the upper end of the healthy range, your chances of having frequent heartburn are higher, reported the Harvard Nurses' Health Study last June. For example, if you're a five-foot-four-inch woman weighing 128 pounds, gaining as few as six pounds can up your risk of GERD 38 percent.

As for your diet, it may not be as important as doctors once thought. For years, the forbidden list for heartburn sufferers included spicy or salty dishes, high-acid foods (like oranges), caffeine, carbonated drinks, alcoholic beverages, even chocolate. But a recent review of research at Stanford University questions whether restricting these foods and drinks really helps. "There's currently not enough evidence that they make heartburn worse or that cutting them out will make it go away," says gastroenterologist Lauren Gerson, M.D., lead researcher on the study and director of the university's Esophageal and Small Bowel Disorder Center. Of course, if a certain kind of food seems to aggravate your symptoms, do try dropping it from your menu. And if your diet, whatever type, is causing you to put on pounds, losing weight should improve symptoms, says Dr. Gerson.

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