A study found that smokers were much more likely than nonsmokers to have acid reflux, a condition that causes acid from the stomach to leak upward into the esophagus, the tube that food travels through. Smoking sometimes goes hand in hand with other habits, like drinking coffee or alcohol, that are thought to fire up the burn in your body.
Nicotine, a key part of tobacco, is thought to relax the ring of muscle in the lower esophagus that keeps acid in the stomach, where it belongs. When that ring relaxes, acid can trickle up and cause that burning sensation.
Smoking can also cause your mouth to make less spit, which might mean more heartburn symptoms. When reflux happens, acid gets into the lower part of the esophagus, says Ronnie Fass, MD. Saliva offsets the acid. Fass is director of the division of gastroenterology and hepatology at MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland. Cigarettes may also make it harder for your body to make a substance that helps guard you from stomach acid.
“Chewing tobacco is even worse,” Fass says. Because nicotine is released constantly, it could mean more heartburn. Nicotine gums and patches are safer bets for overall health than chewing or smoking tobacco, and they are less likely to give you heartburn. “Chewing gum may have some positive effect, and nicotine gum is likely a better choice than smoking cigarettes,” Pannala says. One small study found no increase in heartburn risk in people who used a nicotine patch.
There’s no guarantee that quitting will get rid of your heartburn, but it’s worth a try, especially given the other well-known health dangers of smoking.
If you’re overweight, you may want to shed some pounds, too. A recent study of smokers with severe acid reflux symptoms found that quitting only helped those who weren’t overweight. If your body mass index is outside the healthy range, Fass says, “quitting tobacco is not enough. You have to also lose weight.”