Will Losing Weight Help to Reduce Heartburn?

by Dr Sally Norton, Weight Loss Consultant & Health Expert. Founder of Vavista.com – lose weight…live life…diet free!

Q: “I have been getting a burning pain just below and sometimes behind my breastbone – worse if I eat a big meal. Recently, if I lie down flat or bend over I get acidy fluid in my mouth too. My GP says I have heartburn or acid reflux and has given me some tablets, which do help but I don’t want to take tablets for the rest of my life. He also told me to lose weight but when I get this pain, it helps to have milky drinks and even ice-cream! I am not sure that helps with losing weight! Is there anything else I can do?” JS

A: Hi Jen – firstly I’ll explain a little about heartburn/acid reflux – as so many people don’t know what triggers it!

Acid reflux occurs when the acidic contents of the stomach come back up (reflux) into the oesophagus (gullet) and even as far as the mouth. It is normal to get a bit of acid travelling up and down as the pressure rises in our stomach, but it is soon pushed back down again and we rarely notice it. However, if the valve mechanism between the oesophagus and stomach is weak, it can occur more frequently and the acid can irritate the lining of the oesophagus causing inflammation and a burning feeling. If there is widening in the diaphragm muscle that separates the chest cavity (where the oesophagus lies) from the abdominal cavity where the stomach sits, the stomach can be pushed up into the chest a bit (known as a hiatus hernia) which may worsen the problem.

The tablets your GP has supplied are acid-reducing tablets, which will help settle down the inflammation, but don’t prevent the reflux occurring. Drinking milk and eating ice-cream help reduce acidity temporarily and are soothing for an inflamed oesophagus – but aren’t long-term solutions you’re right! If you don’t want to take those tablets for good, you have to look at ways of reducing the acid. How can you do this? Weight loss is definitely a good step – many people find that reflux improves when they lose weight, as the abdominal pressure that forces the acid upwards, is decreased. Anyone who, like me, had bad reflux in late pregnancy followed by a welcome relief after delivery will know how true this is!

Gradually getting your weight down is a good move. Whilst you are working on that, there are a few other tips for reducing reflux:

Avoid large meals late at night – try to avoid eating after 6 o’clock so that your stomach has a chance to empty before you lie down. Sleep with an extra pillow – or if you slip down off your pillow, you can even prop the head of the bed up on a couple of bricks so that you are sleeping at a slight angle. Reduce caffeine and alcohol, which can cause the valve to relax. Finally, stopping smoking will help too… is there anything stopping smoking doesn’t help?!

In very severe cases when these lifestyle measures don’t work and even the tablets are failing to control the problem, surgery can help to tighten the valve and can prove a godsend to those who are severely troubled by these symptoms.

One final word of caution – acid reflux is very common but if you get sudden and severe onset of symptoms or worsening of previous symptoms, let your GP know, as that can rarely be more serious and needs checking out.