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, 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
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
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."