Pregnancy and Heartburn

Chances are good that you’re one of many pregnant women who experience the churning and burning of heartburn or acid indigestion. It typically hits somewhere in the second or third trimester, and it can be miserable.

Heartburn doesn’t really mean your heart is burning, but it’s a good description of the discomfort that begins behind the breastbone and moves upward to the neck and throat. Officially, heartburn is known as gastroesophageal reflux, when acidic stomach juices or food and fluids back up into the esophagus.

Why does heartburn happen during pregnancy?

Many women who have heartburn during pregnancy have never had problems with indigestion before. Unfortunately, if you had heartburn before becoming pregnant, you’re more likely to have symptoms while you are pregnant. Although the exact reasons aren’t clear, most experts believe that pregnancy hormones, particularly progesterone, play a role. Hormones cause relaxation of the esophageal sphincter, a tight circular band of muscle at the top of the stomach; this allows partially digested food and stomach acids to backflow, or reflux, into the esophagus. In addition, progesterone also slows the digestive process, which keeps food in the stomach longer. The mere mechanics of pregnancy—the upward pressure of the growing uterus—also may play a role.

What makes heartburn during pregnancy worse?

Most spicy, greasy, fatty foods known for causing heartburn are also likely to cause problems for pregnant women. Because food doesn’t digest as well or move as quickly during pregnancy, eating large meals or overeating in general can also increase the risk for heartburn. Eating right before bedtime can cause problems, too.

What Relieves Heartburn during Pregnancy?

For most women, anything that helps reduce acid production or avoids reflux is helpful in preventing the discomfort of heartburn. Here are tips that may help:

  • Avoid spicy foods, as well as those with lots of fat or grease. Many people recommend avoiding citrus and chocolate, as well.

  • Eat multiple, small meals spread throughout the day, much like “grazing,” instead of three big meals.

  • Try elevating the head of your bed by several inches and wait a while after eating before going to bed or lying down.

  • Some women find that it’s better to drink fluids between meals, rather than with a meal, which can increase the amount of food in the stomach.

If your heartburn symptoms do not improve after the above recommended modifications, talk with your doctor about over-the-counter medications. Antacids are available as chewable tablets and liquids and work by coating the lining of the esophagus and stomach and neutralizing stomach acid. Heartburn medicines work by reducing the amount of acid produced by your stomach. Although most of these are considered safe in pregnancy, as with all medications, these should be avoided in the first trimester.

Heartburn symptoms are usually mild and manageable. Tell your doctor if your heartburn is severe, if you spit up blood, or have dark-colored bowel movements, a sign of blood in your digestive tract. Fortunately, heartburn usually ends with the birth of your baby.

It is important to speak with a physician if you are considering using a medication to help treat heartburn during pregnancy. Call (314) 996-5433 or email us to make an appointment to speak with a doctor.