To mark National Obesity Awareness Week from 8th to 14th January 2018, we are looking at the impact that being obese has on our digestive health.
Obesity is a growing problem around the world and one of the leading preventable causes of death. We know that being obese is bad for our health but what does it actually do to our digestive system?
Being overweight contributes to so-called intestinal motility disorders. This is where the gut loses its ability to co-ordinate muscular activity, leading to painful spasms or intestinal paralysis.
The latter can affect our ability to recognise when we are full, leading to a growing tendency to overeat.
People who are obese are more likely to experience acid reflux, which is a painful burning sensation (heartburn) caused by acid travelling upwards from the stomach into the oesophagus. Excess abdominal fat puts pressure on the muscle at the top of the stomach that is designed to prevent the upwards flow of acid, causing acid to leak out.
Hiatus hernia and GERD
In some cases, people who are obese develop a hiatus hernia, which is when part of the stomach protrudes through an opening in the diaphragm into the chest. The hernia itself rarely produces any symptoms however it can trigger gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GERD) which is a form of chronic heartburn.
GERD can cause the oesophagus to become severely irritated as a result of its exposure to stomach acid. Sufferers of GERD are normally advised to make lifestyle changes, such as eating smaller, more frequent meals and avoiding lying down for three hours after eating or drinking. Surgery is generally only offered as a last resort.
Erosive oesophagitis and Barrett’s oesophagus
GERD can lead to a whole range of other medical complications some of which can be serious. Erosive oesophagitis is where the lining of the oesophagus becomes inflamed and worn away. If left untreated, it can lead to bleeding, ulcers and chronic scarring, which can narrow the oesophagus and eventually lead to difficulties in swallowing.
Stomach acid can change the cells lining the oesophagus leading to a condition called Barrett’s oesophagus which can increase the likelihood of cancer. Stomach acid can also travel into the throat and lungs where it can cause a chronic dry cough or asthma.
Sometimes GERD can cause a crushing pain in the chest, producing symptoms identical to a heart attack, although unrelated.
If you are at risk of GERD or other digestive complications, it is important take steps to prevent a deterioration in your digestive health.
These include lifestyle changes and medication that can help to manage symptoms. Talk to your gastroenterologist who can offer you personalised advice.