Losing weight may be an easy and effective solution to reducing GERD symptoms

Looking for a way to help free yourself of persistent heartburn through lifestyle changes? The answer may lie in your body mass index (BMI), a test of whether your weight is too high. Frequent or persistent heartburn is the most common symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Symptoms of GERD can increase along with your waistline.

GERD occurs when stomach contents repeatedly flow back (reflux) into the food pipe (esophagus). In addition to heartburn, this can cause other symptoms such as throat irritation, difficulty swallowing, or repeatedly waking up from sleep.

"Being overweight doubles the risk for developing GERD," said Ronnie Fass, M.D., Chair of the Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology and Head of the Esophageal and Swallowing Center at MetroHealth Medical Center Cleveland, Ohio and member of the Medical Advisory Board of the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD). "In addition, increased body mass index increases the risk of more serious complications from GERD."

Over time reflux can damage the esophagus. Repeated backwash can irritate the lining of the esophagus, possibly leading to complications such as erosion of the esophagus, bleeding, or narrowing of the esophagus. In some cases, it leads to a potentially precancerous condition called Barrett's esophagus.

"Even a modest reduction in weight can help GERD symptoms. Ten pounds can make a difference," said Nancy J. Norton, president and founder of IFFGD.

In theory, losing weight is easy -- you simply need to burn more calories than you eat. In practice, this can seem hard. But, small steps can add up to big improvements. If you eat just 100 more food calories a day than you burn, you'll gain about 1 pound in a month, or over 10 pounds a year!

Here are 3 simple tips to help you start losing weight, and help reduce your GERD symptoms. Plan ahead so you don't give in -- At the store, stock up on a variety of nutrient-rich foods for meals and snacks all week. Choose more fruits and vegetables to help you avoid falling back on less healthful snack choices.

Know your serving sizes -- The biggest source of unwanted calories is from repeatedly overeating, not from eating the wrong things. If you're served a portion of food bigger than your fist, it's probably more than one serving. Only eat half, and save the rest.

Don't drink calories -- Many Americans consume nearly half of their daily recommended calories in liquids. Instead of sugary drinks, have water. Replace that pumpkin spice latte with black coffee.

Tell your doctor if you have frequent or persistent heartburn or other symptoms of GERD.

November 18-24 is National GERD Awareness Week. Learn more about GERD.