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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.
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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Understanding Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) -- Symptoms

Not everyone with GERD has heartburn, but the primary symptoms of GERD are heartburn, regurgitation, and an acid taste in the mouth. Heartburn usually is described as a burning pain in the middle of the chest. It may start high in the abdomen or may extend up the neck or back. Sometimes the pain may be sharp or pressure-like, rather than burning. Such pain can mimic heart pain (angina). Typically, heartburn related to GERD is seen more commonly after a meal. Other symptoms of GERD...

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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.

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