You may enjoy sending your husband on a midnight run to McDonald’s for that pregnancy-induced cheeseburger craving. What you may not relish is the miserable burning in your chest that follows a Big Mac binge. Heartburn and indigestion are common complaints in pregnancy. Fortunately, there are simple things you can do to ease your symptoms—and even prevent them.
Does pregnancy cause heartburn?
Pregnancy does make you more susceptible to heartburn, explains Dr. Adelaide Nardone, MD, a Rhode Island OB-GYN and advisor to the Vagisil Women’s Health Center. “Pregnancy is a double whammy. Elevated levels of hormones relax the sphincter that keeps stomach contents from going into the esophagus. Then your internal organs are displaced so that your stomach is being pushed upwards.”
To explain, the tube that leads to your stomach, called the esophagus, has a sphincter or closure that prevents food from coming back up once it goes into your stomach. Hormones released during pregnancy can compromise your digestive system by slowing it down and relaxing the closure, allowing stomach contents (including acid) to more easily work their way into your esophagus—leaving you with a burning feeling deep in your chest. Think of it as if you were holding a large water balloon. As long as you hold the balloon closed with your fingers, no water will escape. If you loosen your grip even a little, water may leak out, especially if you’re moving around.
“Heartburn is usually noticeable in the first trimester when many women experience nausea,” says Dr. Nardone, adding that heartburn often subsides during the second trimester only to return in the last trimester when the growing baby adds pressure to the stomach.
What can I do to prevent heartburn?
How and when you eat can significantly ease heartburn symptoms. Here are some suggestions from Miriam Erick, a registered dietitian at The Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and the author of Managing Morning Sickness.
- Eat several small meals a day instead of three large ones. Half portions are helpful.
- Eat slowly. When you eat too fast—less than 15 minutes for a meal—you can easily overeat.
- Don’t wear tight-fitting clothing.
- Relax while you eat.
- Avoid eating for at least an hour before bedtime.
- When you go to bed, prop yourself up with pillows so gravity can help keep your stomach acids where they should be—in your stomach.
Do certain foods cause heartburn?
If you are experiencing heartburn, Dr. Nardone advises avoiding spicy and greasy foods. Additionally, Erick recommends keeping a food journal to help determine your heartburn triggers. Record the date, time, what and how much you ate, and when and where you started noticing heartburn pain. Use this information to avoid foods that give you problems.
Go over your journal with your OB-GYN or midwife if the heartburn becomes a concern. Certain sensations that seem like heartburn may indicate more serious problems.
Are there any foods that will prevent heartburn?
While no food will keep you from having heartburn, certain foods and drinks may relieve symptoms. Bland foods such as salty crackers may ease an upset stomach and are more easily digested than other foods. Milk, an acid neutralizer, can soothe your stomach by decreasing acid levels.
What over-the-counter heartburn medications are safe during pregnancy?
“Most antacids are fine during pregnancy,” says Dr. Nardone, though she suggests drinking a glass of milk before taking an antacid to see if symptoms subside. Erick points out that antacids can be counter-productive. “Acid is needed to digest food, so neutralizing the acid can result in the generation of more acid.”
You should consult with your OB-GYN or midwife before taking any over-the-counter medication. If your heartburn persists, your healthcare provider may give you a prescription medication.
Is there hope for heartburn relief?
Yes. Normally, heartburn in pregnancy is nothing more than a nuisance. “Your symptoms should subside within a couple of weeks after your baby’s birth,” reassures Dr. Nardone.
You may also take comfort in the old wives’ tale—if you have heartburn during pregnancy, your baby will come out with a full head of hair!