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How Obesity Causes Heartburn

Obesity and Heartburn

New research shows that obesity and heartburn are linked.


What Is Heartburn and How Is It Linked to Obesity?

Occasionally, heartburn is only mildly problematic. But when faced with heartburn or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) regularly, you could find yourself in serious discomfort or even facing cancer! That's right. GERD increases your chances of esophageal cancer and other serious conditions, like erosive esophagitis.

GERD and heartburn are linked to another serious condition too: obesity. So if you needed one more reason to shed the pounds, now you have it because multiple studies have revealed a definitive link between GERD and obesity. As your body mass index (BMI) rises, so do your chances of developing GERD and heartburn.

But first, let's get back to the basics:

What Is Heartburn and GERD?

Heartburn – also called acid reflux – is a fairly common condition and despite the name, it has absolutely no relation to your heart health. So there's a bit of relief, right?

It's named for its hallmark symptom of causing a burning feeling near the heart. In fact, heartburn can be so severe that you could mistake it for a heart attack! The pain can be that severe.

Heartburn occurs when the acids in your stomach rise up into the esophagus. Normally, the opening to your stomach – called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) – works like a valve, staying closed unless you're eating, drinking or burping. But sometimes, the valve stays open or it doesn't close entirely, allowing stomach acids to back up into your esophagus. This is what causes that awful burning sensation.

If you suffer heartburn on a chronic basis, you may be diagnosed with GERD. Conditions such as pregnancy, obesity and hiatal hernias make you more prone to developing GERD.

GERD can be potentially dangerous because those stomach acids are very powerful. They're intended to break down and digest food; unfortunately, that same process occurs when the acids come in contact with your esophagus. You can end up with esophageal erosion, which is a bit like an open sore in your esophagus.

The chronic tissue damage from the acid prompts your body to form scar tissue; this can result in a narrowing of your esophagus, known as esophageal stricture. The damage also leaves you prone to developing a very serious pre-cancerous condition called Barrett's esophagus.

GERD can have many causes, like exposure to beryllium, which can lead to esophageal cancer that has GERD as a symptom. Beryllium exposure can be a result of occupational hazards.

How Is GERD Linked to Obesity?

GERD and heartburn can be caused by a few conditions that all share one thing in common: they increase the amount of pressure in and on your stomach, pushing those stomach acids up into your esophagus. Conditions that relax the muscles that comprise your lower esophageal sphincter also contribute to heartburn symptoms.

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Your diet causes GERD both directly and indirectly. When you munch on highly acidic foods or foods that are high in fat and oil, the muscles of the lower esophageal sphincter start to relax. So you're basically left with an open valve that lets the stomach acid rise up into your esophagus. A large meal will also increase the pressure in your stomach, making heartburn more likely to occur.

Certain foods also prompt more acid production, making the condition even worse. Some common offenders are citrus fruits and citrus juice, tomatoes, onions, garlic, peppermint, coffee, chocolate and even alcohol.

Diet is indirectly linked to GERD and heartburn because food – and eating too much of the wrong foods – leads to obesity. Obesity is another cause of GERD.

In fact, numerous studies have confirmed the link between obesity and a higher risk of GERD. According to a report by Howard Hampel, MD and his team at the Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center at Houston's Baylor College of Medicine, “The association between [a high] BMI and GERD complications was markedly consistent.”

In eight out of nine studies reviewed by Hampel and his team, the incidence and severity of GERD symptoms rose as the subjects' body mass index increased.

The exact mechanism linking GERD and obesity is unclear. We only have theories. One theory holds that the weight and bulk of an obese person's body fat places pressure on the stomach, causing the acids to rise up into the esophagus. And while it's a bit of a generalization, obese people do tend to eat more fatty foods, which can relax the lower esophageal sphincter and increase stomach acid production.

What Other Conditions Cause GERD and Heartburn?

Pregnancy is a common cause of heartburn and GERD. The condition worsens as you progress in your pregnancy because the growing baby puts pressure on the stomach, causing a painful back-up of stomach acids. The condition usually resolves once you give birth.

Heartburn or GERD could also be caused by a condition known as a hiatal hernia. Hiatal hernia arises when a portion of your stomach protrudes through the diaphragm. Normally, your esophagus passes through a small opening in the diaphragm, called a hiatus. But if you develop a hiatal hernia, your stomach will start bulging through that small diaphragm opening. This increases the pressure in your stomach, leading to heartburn.

Some medications cause excess stomach acid production and/or relax the lower esophageal sphincter. So if you're suffering from GERD, check out the side effects for the medications you take. You could find that your heartburn is actually a side effect.

And if you're getting stressed over your GERD symptoms, don't! You're just making it worse! That's because stress and a lack of sleep increase your body's production of stomach acid. More stomach acid means more heartburn, so calm down!

The most effective natural remedies for GERD are exercise, weight loss and limited intake of foods that exacerbate heartburn. One study even found that chewing gum for 30 minutes can ease your symptoms. Aloe vera juice and slippery elm have also been found to offer heartburn relief by coating and soothing the esophagus.

Recap: to avoid GERD:

  • Lessen your intake of citrus fruits and citrus juices like tomatoes.
  • Avoid stress
  • Ask your doctor for GERD-friendly medications

These help treat GERD:

  • Losing weight
  • Exercise
  • Chewing gum
  • Slippery elm
  • Proper sleep
  • Aloe vera juice

GERD can be caused by your weight gain. Burning your fat also stops the burning in your throat.