Healthbeat Report: Feeling the Burn

February 17, 2012 4:29:41 AM PST
Indigestion, a fiery sensation and bitter taste that lingers for hours, is on the rise, and it could be more than just a nuisance.

It's being called the new epidemic of heartburn and acid reflux. Recent research finds a dramatic increase with an estimated 15 million people experiencing daily symptoms.

So what's behind the spike?

"I walk fast, talk fast, eat fast, think fast, move fast," said Jane van der Zanden-Thompson, who juggles family, career -- and some tummy trouble.

"You know, it's just the burning feeling here," she said.

Kevin Dorsey knows her pain.

"Was on all types of medications through out my 20s, 30s and even 40s," said Dorsey.

These professionals have joined the ranks of millions suffering the burning discomfort of heartburn or acid reflux.

"We are definitely seeing more heartburn now. There is no question about it," said Dr. Jay Goldstein, gastroenterologist, University of Illinois Hospital.

Dr. Goldstein says drug companies are responding with an abundance of over the counter and prescription remedies.

A recent study finds the number of people experiencing at least one acid reflux attack a week has risen from about about 11.5 percent to slightly over 17 percent in over a decade. Our hectic lifestyles and overindulgence seem to be driving the epidemic.

"We work a lot longer hours. We come home a lot later. We eat late, we go to bed," said Dr. Michael D'Astice, gastroenterologist, Little Company of Mary Hospital.

Acid reflux happens when a muscle relaxes and digestive juices from the stomach backwash into the esophagus, your food pipe.

The causes aren't clear for everyone but issues such as weight gain, overeating, ulcers, inflammation even smoking can play a role.

Occasional heartburn is nothing to worry about, but doctors say frequent bouts two times or more a week could be a sign of a real medical condition known as gastroesophageal reflux disease or gerd.

Repeated bouts can do damage over time and, left untreated, could contribute to the development of esophageal cancer. But for most people that risk is slight.

"Just because you have a little heartburn does not mean you are going to get cancer," said Dr. D'Astice.

While indigestion was once considered a bigger problem for men, women seem to be catching up. One study finds slightly overweight females are more than twice as likely to develop reflux . Another study shows in women the incidence of gerd goes up with age.

"There is some talk of hormonal changes possibly with women causing or increasing incidence," said Dr. Goldstein.

Thompson spent many years living with persistent heartburn she finally mentioned it to her doctor.

"I'm not a huge fan of taking medication the rest of my life but I was willing to try to see if this would change things and it certainly has," she said.

For others, lifestyle changes are all it takes; for instance, lose at least 5-10 pounds if you are overweight and eat smaller meals earlier in the day.

Foods that can make symptoms worse include alcohol, coffee, chocolate, peppermint and high fat foods. Cutting back is key.

Dorsey is now off all medications, trying to live a healthier lifestyle. But he still enjoys an occasional glass of red wine.

"I can't tell you the last time I could actually say, Oh God, I had heartburn," he said.

You might be surprised to know that some medications such as those for blood pressure can also cause heartburn. And there are even certain exercises such as crunches and abdominal work that can aggravate symptoms because they increase pressure on the abdomen.


American College of Gastroenterology

American Gastroenterological Association