It’s called heartburn, although that burning feeling in your chest has nothing to do with the heart. Uncomfortable and frustrating, it bothers many women, particularly during pregnancy.
The first question you may have is how to make it stop. You may also wonder if treatments are safe for your baby. Learn what causes heartburn during pregnancy and what you can do about it.
What causes heartburn during pregnancy?
During normal digestion, food travels down the esophagus (the tube between your mouth and stomach), through a muscular valve called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), and into the stomach. The LES is part of the doorway between your esophagus and your stomach. It opens to allow food through and closes to stop stomach acids from coming back up.
When you have heartburn, or acid reflux, the LES relaxes enough to allow stomach acid to rise up into the esophagus. This can cause pain and burning in the chest area.
During pregnancy, hormone changes can allow the muscles in the esophagus, including the LES, to relax more frequently. The result is that more acids may seep back up, particularly when you're lying down or after you've eaten a large meal.
In addition, as your fetus grows during the second and third trimesters and your uterus expands to accommodate that growth, your stomach is under more pressure. This can also result in food and acid being pushed back up into your esophagus.
Is acid reflux a sign of pregnancy?
Heartburn is a common occurrence for most people at one time or another, but it doesn't necessarily mean you're pregnant. However, if you also experience other symptoms, such as a missed period or nausea, these could be signs that you need to take a pregnancy test.
Does pregnancy cause heartburn?
Pregnancy increases your risk of heartburn or acid reflux. During the first trimester, muscles in your esophagus push food more slowly into the stomach and your stomach takes longer to empty. This gives your body more time to absorb nutrients for the fetus, but it can also result in heartburn.
During the third trimester, the growth of your baby can push your stomach out of its normal position, which can lead to heartburn.
However, each woman is different. Being pregnant doesn't necessarily mean you'll have heartburn. It depends on many factors, including your physiology, diet, daily habits, and your pregnancy.
Can I make lifestyle changes that help make it stop?
Relieving heartburn during pregnancy typically involves some trial and error. Lifestyle habits that can reduce heartburn are often the safest methods for mother and baby. The following tips may help relieve your heartburn:
- Eat smaller meals more frequently and avoid drinking while eating. Drink water in between meals instead.
- Eat slowly and chew every bite thoroughly.
- Avoid eating a few hours before bed.
- Avoid foods and beverages that trigger your heartburn. Typical culprits include chocolate, fatty foods, spicy foods, acidic foods like citrus fruits and tomato-based items, carbonated beverages, and caffeine.
- Stay upright for at least one hour after a meal. A leisurely walk may also encourage digestion.
- Wear comfortable rather than tight-fitting clothing.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Use pillows or wedges to elevate your upper body while sleeping.
- Sleep on your left side. Lying on your right side will position your stomach higher than your esophagus, which may lead to heartburn.
- Chew a piece of sugarless gum after meals. The increased saliva may neutralize any acid coming back up into the esophagus.
- Eat yogurt or drink a glass of milk to quell symptoms once they start.
- Drink some honey in chamomile tea or a glass of warm milk.
Alternative medicine options include acupuncture and relaxation techniques, such as progressive muscle relaxation, yoga, or guided imagery. Always check with your doctor before trying new treatments.
What medications are safe to take during pregnancy?
Over-the-counter antacids such as Tums, Rolaids, and Maalox may help you cope with occasional heartburn symptoms. Those made of calcium carbonate or magnesium are good options. However, it may be best to avoid magnesium during the last trimester of pregnancy. Magnesium could interfere with contractions during labor.
Most doctors recommend avoiding antacids that contain high levels of sodium. These antacids can lead to a buildup of fluid in the tissues. You should also avoid any antacids that list aluminum on the label, as in “aluminum hydroxide” or “aluminum carbonate”. These antacids can lead to constipation.
Finally, stay away from medications like Alka-Seltzer that may contain aspirin.
Ask your doctor for the best option. If you find yourself downing bottles of antacids, your heartburn may have progressed to gastroesophageal acid reflux disease (GERD). In that case, you may need a stronger treatment.
When should I talk to my doctor?
If you have heartburn that often wakes you up at night, returns as soon as your antacid wears off, or creates other symptoms (such as difficulty swallowing, coughing, weight loss, or black stools), you may have a more serious problem that requires attention. Your doctor may diagnose you with GERD. This means that your heartburn needs to be controlled to protect you from complications such as damage to the esophagus.
Your doctor may prescribe certain acid-reducing medications to reduce your symptoms. Research indicates that medications called H2 blockers, which help block the production of acid, appear to be safe. Another type of medication, called proton pump inhibitors, is used for people with heartburn that doesn't respond to other treatments.
If you're concerned about the effects of medications, be sure to talk to your doctor. Doctors can help you control your symptoms while keeping your unborn child safe.