Obesity Effects Heartburn Gerd

GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) is a digestive disorder that affects up to 60 million Americans, according to the American College of Gastroenterology (2010). GERD and obesity often occur together, with evidence suggesting that being overweight greatly increases the risk of GERD. If you’re looking to eliminate GERD and heartburn, weight loss may be the answer.

Heartburn Causes and GERD

The lower esophageal sphincter (LES) connects the esophagus to the stomach. The LES normally only opens when food is passed from the esophagus into the stomach, preventing stomach contents from backing into the esophagus. GERD occurs when the LES relaxes at the wrong time, allowing stomach contents to “reflux” or flow back into the esophagus. Stomach fluid is acidic and burns the delicate esophageal lining when it flows back into the esophagus, causing discomfort or heartburn.

Obesity and GERD - Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease

GERD Symptoms

Although there are several GERD symptoms, heartburn is the most common. Other GERD symptoms may include:

  • Aspiration (breathing regurgitated stomach fluid into the lungs)
  • Asthma symptoms
  • Cough
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Hoarse voice
  • Increased belching/burping
  • Increased flatulence
  • Regurgitation of stomach contents into the throat or mouth
  • Sleep disturbances caused by choking on reflux
  • Water brash (an increase in saliva due to acid reflux).

GERD symptoms may not be noticeable in each case of GERD. When this happens, it’s referred to as silent reflux.

Effects of Obesity on GERD

Being overweight or obese increases your risk of GERD. A Scandinavian study published in the Journal of American Medical Association (2003) estimates that people who are obese or overweight are up to six times more likely to develop GERD than their healthy counterparts. This study also notes that GERD symptoms worsen as BMI (body mass index) increases.

The link between GERD and obesity may be quite simple. GERD symptoms worsen when people lie down. Extra body weight and fat tissue puts pressure on the stomach, which may push stomach contents through the LES. A similar situation happens to women during pregnancy, when the expanding uterus puts pressure on the stomach, resulting in increased heartburn.

GERD symptoms may result from a hiatial hernia, which occurs when a portion of the stomach protrudes through the diaphragm into the chest. Rates of hiatial hernia are higher among the overweight and obese.

Heartburn, Weight Loss and GERD

A study published by the New England Medical Journal (2006) emphasized the effect weight loss has on GERD symptoms. Researchers found that a reduction in BMI of only 3.5 points can cause up to 40 percent less heartburn. Weight loss can improve GERD symptoms significantly.

In addition to losing weight, medical professionals recommend that people with GERD and obesity:

  • Avoid alcohol, caffeine, carbonated beverages and foods that relax the LES
  • Avoid food that irritates damaged esophageal tissue (citrus products, tomato products, peppers and spicy foods)
  • Decrease meal portions
  • Elevate their heads six inches when laying down
  • Not eat within three hours of going to bed
  • Quit smoking.


American College of Gastroenterology. (2010). Is it just a little heartburn or something more serious? Retrieved June 8, 2010, from http://www.acg.gi.org/patients/gerd/word.asp.

Jacobson, B. C., Somers, S. C., Fuchs, C. S., Kelly, C. P.