Heartburn occurs when stomach acid backs up into the esophagus -- the muscular tube that allows food to travel from the mouth to the stomach. According to the American College of Gastroenterology, more than 60 million people experience heartburn, also called acid reflux, at least once per month. Symptoms of acid reflux vary, but typically include a burning sensation in the chest. While anyone can experience heartburn, several factors specifically increase women's risk of the condition.
Hormonal shifts in women may provoke heartburn episodes. Hormones can cause relaxation of the valve at the lower end of the esophagus that usually keeps digestive acids in the stomach, allowing acid reflux to occur. Fluctuations in estrogen can play a role, but the hormone progesterone is also known to trigger heartburn. Progesterone levels increase dramatically during pregnancy, which is one reason why pregnant women often experience morning sickness and heartburn. Likewise, birth control pills containing estrogen or progesterone can cause heartburn.
Weight gain is another risk factor for heartburn. Excess abdominal weight puts added pressure on the stomach, which can encourage acid to back up into the esophagus. A June 2006 study published in "The New England Journal of Medicine" found that, of more than 10,000 women participants, those who were overweight and obese were two to three times more likely than normal weight women to experience acid reflux symptoms. The researchers noted that even modest weight loss can help improve the intensity and frequency of heartburn episodes.
In some cases, certain medications can irritate the esophagus and trigger heartburn symptoms. Women are apt to take several medications that have been linked to esophageal irritation, including antibiotics for urinary tract infections and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications, such as aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn). Bisphosphonate drugs used to prevent and treat osteoporosis can also cause esophageal symptoms. Common offenders include alendronate (Fosamax, Binosto), risedronate (Actonel, Atelvia) and ibandronate (Boniva). Taking medications exactly as prescribed helps prevent acid reflux. In particular, avoiding lying down for a period of time after taking pills can reduce the likelihood of heartburn.
A number of lifestyle choices make some women more prone to heartburn than others. Frequent consumption of caffeinated beverages, including coffee and tea, can trigger heartburn. Eating high-fat meals directly before bedtime increases the risk of acid reflux as well. Additionally, smoking and heavy drinking have been associated with heartburn. Keep in mind that for women, one alcoholic beverage per day is considered drinking in moderation.
- Canadian Family Physician: Treatment of Heartburn and Acid Reflux Associated with Nausea and Vomiting during Pregnancy
- The New England Journal of Medicine: Association Between Body Mass Index and Gastroesophageal Reflux Symptoms in Both Normal Weight and Overweight Women
- Gastroenterology and Hepatology: Pill-Induced Esophagitis
- Canadian Journal of Gastroenterology: Canadian Digestive Health Foundation Public Impact Series: Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease in Canada -- Incidence, Prevalence, and Direct and Indirect Economic Impact