Nearly half of pregnant women will experience heartburn at some point in time during their pregnancy and it’s one of the most common complaints, according to a National Center for Biotechnology Information study.
What exactly is heartburn and why does it happen?
“Heartburn (also known as gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD) is felt when acid from the stomach, instead of going toward the lower GI tract, comes back up the esophagus. There is a sphincter (the lower esophageal sphincter) which functions as a valve that normally prevents the acid from traveling backwards,” Dr. Pinkard says. “For certain reasons this valve may not work as well as it should.”
Heartburn can also be associated with nausea and vomiting during pregnancy, she adds. Common symptoms can include:
- A burning sensation in the throat or chest
- Upper abdominal pain
- Nausea or vomiting
- Sore throat
Dr. Pinkard explains that women undergo so many hormonal changes during pregnancy, and the increase in the hormone progesterone, causes the sphincter that separates the stomach from the esophagus to becomes weaker, allowing acid into the esophagus. This change starts in the first trimester which is why some women start experiencing symptoms early in the pregnancy, even before the pregnancy begins to show.
“Also, in the second and third trimesters as the baby grows, there is less room for the stomach and some acid is more likely to work its way up,” she says.
What are some tips to prevent heartburn?
Dr. Pinkard recommends the following five tips to ease heartburn symptoms while pregnant (or not):
- Eat small frequent meals: Instead of having two to three large meals per day try to eat smaller, healthy meals five to six times per day. Having an overly-full stomach can lead to heartburn.
- Elevate your head: This can be done by using a couple of pillows to lift your head or by placing lifts under the head of the bed. Use gravity to your advantage.
- Avoid certain foods: While #TacoTuesday or your favorite cheeseburger may be calling your name during pregnancy, try to avoid fatty, spicy or greasy foods which may trigger your symptoms. If you are noticing regular heartburn symptoms, keep a food diary to try to identify triggers and work to limit those foods in your diet. Caffeinated beverages, tomatoes and citrus juices are other common triggers.
- Stay hydrated: Keep hydrated throughout the day and don’t try to drink a whole days’ worth of liquid with your big meals. Spread it out throughout the day. Staying hydrated is key to preventing many pregnancy-related symptoms.
- Don’t eat and then go to sleep right away: Give yourself at least one to two hours from the time you eat to going to sleep. Allow your body some time to digest your food and your stomach to lower its acid levels before lying flat.
What are treatment options?
If you are experiencing heartburn symptoms, it’s important to discuss them with your doctor at your next prenatal appointment.
Dr. Pinkard says that many physicians may recommend a calcium carbonate supplement (which can be found Tums).
“Over the counter medications to avoid: antacids containing the ingredient magnesium trisilicate (Gaviscon),” she adds. “Sodium bicarbonate found in Rolaids and Alka-Seltzer when used throughout pregnancy can also put mom and baby at risk for fluid overload. Talk with your doctor before starting either of these medications in pregnancy.”
Dr. Pinkard says that if diet and lifestyle changes are not helping, your doctor may recommend prescription or over-the-counter medication.
“If your symptoms are severe, your doctor may recommend a consultation with a GI specialist,” she says. “Heartburn is very common and uncomfortable, however if you are experiencing severe chest or abdominal pain or have other sudden changes in your health, call your doctor or go to your nearest emergency room for evaluation.”
“Typically, symptoms resolve quickly after delivery,” Dr. Pinkard says. “If your symptoms persist after your baby is born, discuss this with your primary care provider or OB/GYN.”
About the Author
Sarah Scroggins, health enews contributor, is the director of social media at Advocate Aurora Health. She has a BA and MA in Communications. When not on social media, she loves reading a good book (or audiobook), watching the latest Netflix series and teaching a college night class.