Heartburn During Pregnancy – Causes and Ways to Minimize It

Heartburn is one of the most common complaints women report during their pregnancy. Although the word is involved in the name, the symptom has nothing to do with the heart.

Heartburn is a burning feeling in the chest that can be a source of discomfort and frustration. Why does it happen to women carrying children and can it be avoided?

Causes of Heartburn during Pregnancy

How does heartburn happen? Well, a bite is all that’s needed. The digestive system gets to work when food makes its way from the mouth.

Acids rush into the stomach to break down whatever was eaten, and sometimes they get out of control because the lower esophageal sphincter, which is responsible for letting food in and closing to prevent acids from getting into the esophagus, occasionally malfunctions.

This then results in a burning sensation in the chest area. It’s a fairly common complaint outside of pregnancy but what can trigger it when someone is with child?

Heartburn and Pregnancy

Some pregnant women have reported symptoms of heartburn during their second and third trimesters. The changing of hormone levels can be blamed for this happening during pregnancy as it affects digestive tract muscles and tolerance for different kinds of food.

Hormones linked to pregnancy allow the lower esophageal sphincter – which lets food in and closes to prevent acids from slipping through – to relax. As a result, acids race into the esophagus causing a burning sensation in the chest area.

Tractus intestinalis esophagus.svg

By Olek Remesz (wiki-pl: Orem, commons: Orem) – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0, Link

The abdomen can be a bit crowded as well due to a larger uterus during pregnancy. This results in stomach acids being pushed forward.

Heartburn is usually reported during the first and third trimester. The first trimester is marked by esophageal muscles being rather slow in pushing food towards the stomach.

The stomach also takes a bit longer to empty during this period. While this scenario gives the body more time to absorb nutrients needed by the unborn baby, it can lead to heartburn.

A fetus gets larger every trimester, and by the third, the growing baby crowds the abdomen resulting in the stomach being pushed out of its normal position. This results in heartburn.

It’s important to note that not all pregnant women experience heartburn. The chances of it occurring depends on a number of factors, including diet, daily habits, and the pregnancy itself.

Gallstones may also be linked to heartburn during pregnancy. This happening, however, is quite rare. It’s best to get checked by a doctor to confirm.

Ways to Minimize Heartburn during Pregnancy

A change in lifestyle habits is the best way to prevent heartburn – including the next instance of it – during pregnancy. It’s also the safest as it doesn’t require taking any medication.

Since each woman is different, it takes a bit of trial and error to see which method or a combination of methods will ease the discomfort caused by heartburn.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Eat small meals. Pregnant women are eating for two or more people, but this doesn’t mean that they always have to eat large meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Eating several small meals throughout the day can help.
  • Eat slowly. Rushing meals is never a good idea, pregnant or not. Take time between bites to ensure that everything goes down smoothly.
  • Avoid food that triggers heartburn. Food that is fatty, fried, or spicy are the usual culprits for heartburn sufferers. These foods allow the lower esophageal sphincter to relax thus increase the chances of getting heartburn. Acidic foods like citrus fruits also cause heartburn and so does tomato-based items. Caffeine and carbonated beverages should also be avoided.
  • Lessen drink intake while eating. Consuming a lot of liquids when eating increases the chance of suffering from heartburn and acid reflux.
  • Refrain from lying down immediately after a meal. Stomach acid remains in the esophagus for longer periods when lying down. Plus, saliva that can neutralize acids isn’t swallowed as much when asleep. Instead of lying down immediately, try doing something (watching a film or series on television or streaming services, reading, writing, etc) for about an hour. Taking a walk is also a good way to encourage digestion.
  • Chew sugarless gum after meals. The chewing of gum increases saliva, which can neutralize acids entering the esophagus.
  • Avoid wearing tight-fitting clothing. While there are certain clothes that will make pregnant women look and feel good, clothes that fit too tightly should be avoided. Why? Tight clothing will push into the abdomen, and the pressure can trigger acid reflux.
  • Use pillows for support. Elevating the upper body may help reduce the risk of heartburn. It may also help to sleep on the left side as lying on the right pushes the stomach higher and can result in heartburn.
  • Eat yogurt to alleviate heartburn symptoms. Yogurt has a hit and miss relationship with heartburn. On the one hand, it is a probiotic formula intended to keep the digestive system healthy, and on the other, it can contain lots of fat which makes acid reflux worse. Each person is also different so it may take trial and error to see which brand of yogurt eases the discomfort.
  • Ask a doctor about using over-the-counter medications. There are some solutions that are safe to use during pregnancy such as Maalox or Tums. However, it’s best to always ask first.
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