updated 8/9/2006 12:38:02 PM ET 2006-08-09T16:38:02

Women who put on extra pounds raise their risk of getting frequent heartburn or making symptoms worse — even if they aren't overweight, a new study found.

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Compared to women whose weight didn't change, a moderate gain doubled the chances of heartburn and acid reflux. Shedding the pounds cut the risk by about 40 percent, according to the report in Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine.

"I see this as one more good reason to try to lose weight if you've put on a few pounds," said the lead author of the study, Dr. Brian C. Jacobson of Boston University Medical Center.

A good example is Suzanne Hagerty of Salem, N.H. Although still overweight, Hagerty said dropping 25 pounds allowed her to stop taking the heartburn drug Prilosec.

"Since I've lost the weight, I have no problems sleeping and I have no issues with reflux," said the 45-year-old human resources manager.

Persistent heartburn is the result of stomach acid backing up into the esophagus. It creates a burning pain in the chest or a bitter taste in the throat or mouth.

Hagerty's doctor at Boston University Medical Center said heartburn medicine is usually the first to go when patients drop weight and their symptoms ease.

"It's as little as 10 pounds. It's amazing," said Dr. Caroline Apovian, director of the Center for Nutrition and Weight Management.

The research used data from the long-running Nurses' Health Study. Previous research that showed a connection between weight and heartburn focused on the overweight and obese. Jacobson and his colleagues also looked at normal-weight women and studied how weight change over 14 years affected symptoms.

About 1 in 5 of the 10,545 nurses who filled out questionnaires said they had heartburn at least once a week, with about 60 percent describing symptoms as moderate to severe. Their body-mass index was calculated from earlier reports on their height and weight.

The researchers concluded there was a strong link between weight and frequent heartburn, with the risk rising along with body-mass index in both normal-weight and overweight women.

For example, a 5-foot-6 woman who weighs 125 pounds and one who weighs 140 pounds are both in the normal-weight range. The slimmer woman has a BMI of about 20, while the heavier woman's is over 22.

Based on their findings, Jacobson said, the 140-pound woman would be about 40 percent more likely to have heartburn symptoms than the 125-pound woman. Overweight or obese women would be two to three times as likely to have frequent heartburn.

Jacobson said he plans to study whether the same holds true in men.

In the nurses' study, the researchers found the link remained about the same when they took into account other factors that contribute to heartburn, such as smoking, drinking, diet and diabetes.

"It's one of the stronger pieces of data that support what many of us have believed but had difficulty proving," said Dr. Kenneth DeVault, of the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla., who was not involved in the study.

Treatment for frequent heartburn includes antacids, over-the-counter and prescription drugs, diet changes and eating smaller meals. Serious but uncommon complications include a narrowing of the esophagus and changes to the lining which can be precancerous.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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