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How Losing Weight Can Help Reduce Your GERD Symptoms

If you have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), you know how much the symptoms can disrupt your life. Heartburn can be uncomfortable or even painful, regurgitation can keep you up at night and knowing how you’ll feel later can mean you avoid foods you used to enjoy.

It’s important to see a health care provider for diagnosis and treatment if you have symptoms of GERD. Getting the symptoms under control doesn’t just help you feel better. It lowers your risk of developing dangerous complications

“GERD can even lead to Barrett’s esophagus, which can increase your risk for esophageal cancer,” said Jalpa Patel, MD, a gastroenterologist with Banner Health.

GERD symptoms and your body weight are closely linked. So if you are overweight, losing weight may help reduce your GERD symptoms. 

The connection between GERD and weight

Having excess body weight can make you more likely to develop GERD and can also make your symptoms worse.

“Body weight, especially in the abdomen, compresses your stomach and relaxes the muscle called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) that sits between your stomach and your esophagus,” Dr. Patel said. “Then the acid in the stomach can travel up into the esophagus.”

Excess body weight is also associated with low-grade inflammation throughout the body. This inflammation can irritate and damage the esophagus and make it harder for the LES to work correctly. Plus the hormones and chemicals your fat cells produce can change how your digestive system works in ways that might increase your risk of GERD. By losing weight, you reduce the ways excess weight can impact GERD.

Weight loss tips for GERD

“Losing weight should always start with the least invasive option. The first line would be modifying your diet and taking in fewer calories,” Dr. Patel said.

  • Focus on foods like vegetables, fruits, lean proteins, whole grains and healthy fats like those found in nuts and avocados. With a few exceptions, these foods are also less likely to trigger GERD symptoms.
  • Eat smaller, more frequent meals to help prevent overeating and minimize GERD symptoms. You may also want to measure your serving sizes and use smaller plates to avoid eating too much.
  • Eat mindfully. Slow down and enjoy every bite, paying attention to the food’s taste, texture, temperature and aroma. Avoid screens or multitasking. Mindful eating can help you avoid overeating, and it promotes better digestion.
  • Avoid fatty and fried foods. They stay in your stomach longer and may relax the LES, so they can trigger your GERD symptoms. Since they are high in calories, they can also cause weight gain.
  • Drink plenty of water throughout the day so you feel more full. Still water is best — carbonated drinks can make acid reflux symptoms worse.
  • Get regular physical activity, which helps move food along through your digestive system and may reduce GERD symptoms. “Aim for a total of 150 minutes a week of moderately vigorous exercise, spread throughout the week,” Dr. Patel said. Low-impact activities like walking, cycling and swimming are good options. Finding something you enjoy will help you make exercise a habit.
  • Set small, achievable goals that work for your lifestyle – and make changes gradually. Avoid crash diets or extreme changes to what you eat. They can lead to unsustainable weight loss and harm your health. 

Be sure to talk to your health care provider before making any major changes to your diet or exercise routine.

Managing your stress can help

Stress is linked to both weight gain and GERD. When you’re stressed, your body releases a stress hormone called cortisol. Cortisol may increase your appetite and make you crave high-calorie comfort foods that can lead to weight gain.

Stress can also make your stomach produce more acid and make you more sensitive to GERD triggers.

You can reduce the way stress impacts your weight and your GERD symptoms with stress reduction techniques like deep breathing, meditation and mindfulness. Try to find a stress management strategy that you can work into your daily life.

Connect with professional support

Losing weight isn’t easy, and trying to do it when you’re dealing with GERD can be even tougher. You don’t have to do it alone. A health care provider can review your medical history, medications and health concerns and help you put together a strategy to manage your weight and GERD.

Along with lifestyle modifications, your provider may recommend medical treatment for your GERD symptoms and your weight. “If you have a body mass index (BMI) of more than 35 or have diabetes and GERD, you may want to consider weight loss surgery,” Dr. Patel said. “That may be an option if medications and lifestyle modifications don’t work.”

You should see a provider right away if you have any of these symptoms:

  • Chest pain other than heartburn
  • Persistent vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Difficulty or pain when you swallow
  • Black, tarry stools or vomit that looks like coffee grounds, which could be signs of bleeding in the gastrointestinal tract

The bottom line

When you’re overweight or obese, your body weight can make your GERD symptoms worse. Many of the steps you can take to lose weight can also help you keep your GERD symptoms under control.

Talk to your health care provider or a Banner Health expert if you would like personalized advice on losing weight when you have GERD.

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