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Obesity greatly contributes to severe heartburn

August 13, 2009 | 11:36 am

GERD Obesity contributes to many health problems, such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes. However, one condition -- gastroesophageal reflux disease -- stands out in its ties to obesity, say the authors of a new study. In the largest and most scientifically rigorous study to date, researchers at the University of Southern California were able to calculate that the effect of obesity on GERD is 13%.

"Everyone knows that blood pressure and cholesterol levels are related to obesity, but the strength of the relationship with GERD is every bit as strong or perhaps even stronger," the authors of the study, Dr. Shahin Ayazi and Dr. Peter Crookes, told The Times. The study is published in this month's issue of the Journal of Gastrointestinal Surgery.

As obesity rates have risen in the United States, so has GERD. One study suggested that GERD incidence increased 5% annually between 1992 and 2005. Almost 1 in 5 people have the disease. The volume and fat content of diet is linked to esophageal acid exposure as is high-calorie diets. The same dietary habits promote both obesity and GERD, the authors say.

The study was conducted by examining almost 2,000 patients with GERD over 10 years. Researchers measured the amount of acid in the esophagus and used a probe to check the strength of the valve in the lower esophagus that normally protects against acid reflux. They were able to relate those measurements to the height and weight of their patients.

The bad news about the study is that losing weight won't necessarily help with GERD unless someone is in the early stages of GERD and has mild reflux.

"Heavier people have more reflux, and they have more damage to the lower esophageal sphincter," the authors said. "If you don't have a good sphincter, then you are likely to get worse reflux ... The sphincter is a muscle and in most parts of the body, when the muscle is damaged, it does not return."

Of course, there are treatments for GERD. But the strongest message from this study is one for obesity prevention.

-- Shari Roan

Photo: The heartburn drug Prilosec. Credit: Tannen Maury / Bloomberg News

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