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Even a Little Weight Gain – or Loss -- Can Affect Your Heartburn

Even a few extra pounds increases your risk of heartburn. Losing weight can bring fast relief.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Venkat Mohan, MD

Anybody can get heartburn, even the skinniest person you know, but the more excess weight you carry the more likely it is, researchers have long suspected.

Now a new study offers some surprising news: Gaining just a few extra pounds can boost your heartburn risk, even if your body mass index (BMI) is still within the so-called healthy range.

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What Is Acid Reflux Disease?

At the entrance to your stomach is a valve, which is a ring of muscle called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). Normally, the LES closes as soon as food passes through it. If the LES doesn't close all the way or if it opens too often, acid produced by your stomach can move up into your esophagus. This can cause symptoms such as a burning chest pain called heartburn. If acid reflux symptoms happen more than twice a week, you have acid reflux disease, also known as gastroesophageal reflux disease...

Read the What Is Acid Reflux Disease? article > >

Another recent study offers somewhat reassuring news: If you lose that excess weight, it may be one of few lifestyle changes you'll need to make to find heartburn relief. Yes, you might be able to keep sprinkling those hot pepper flakes on your pizza!

Heartburn Defined

Heartburn, a burning, painful feeling felt around the middle of your chest, affects about 60% of people at some time each year.

That discomfort is caused when stomach juices, full of acid, flow backward, up into your esophagus. At the root of the problem is the lower esophageal sphincter. When this muscular ring is too relaxed -- or not working correctly -- it can't keep stomach acid in its place.

But heartburn isn't just about the discomfort. If severe or persistent -- and left untreated -- it can lead to the more serious condition of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). And that in turn can boost your risk of esophageal cancer or ulcers of the esophagus.

Weight Gain and Heartburn Risk

While medications are readily available to treat heartburn, lifestyle changes are likely to be advised first. That's where your weight comes in.

"Any excess body fat gives you excess risk for having heartburn," says Brian C. Jacobson, MD, MPH, assistant professor of medicine and a gastroenterologist at Boston University Medical Center, Massachusetts.

Exactly why this is true isn't certain, but one speculation is that surplus fat around the belly causes increased pressure against your stomach, causing fluid to rise up.

"We can say for sure that men and women have a higher risk of heartburn when they are obese [compared to those of normal weight]," Jacobson says. But gaining just a bit of weight, even if your BMI still falls within the normal range, can boost your heartburn risk, too, reports Jacobson and colleagues in The New England Journal of Medicine.

The recent study focused on women (though Jacobson suspects findings hold true for men, too) who self-reported their weight at age 18 and then compared it to their weight when they were 52 to 77 years old.

Women with a normal BMI (under 25) at the start of the study, who then had an increase in BMI of more than 3.5 points, had a nearly three times greater risk of getting acid reflux symptoms than did those with no weight changes.

That means, for instance, if a 5-foot-4-inch woman with a starting weight of 120 pounds (a BMI of 20.6) gains 21 pounds, boosting her BMI to 24.2, she nearly triples her risk of frequent symptoms, although she is still not officially overweight.

In all, Jacobson's team evaluated 10,545 women; 22% said they had heartburn at least once a week.

"There may be more to putting on 10 pounds than just having to buy new pants," Jacobson says, hoping his study will be another motivator helping people to keep weight down.

To start losing excess weight, he says, "people sometimes need a kick in the pants or sometimes a burn in the chest."

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