Heartburn. You thought it was something only your old Aunt Gerda had. But now you’re pregnant, and suddenly, you’re up all night with a burning sensation in your stomach and chest.
Naturally, you start panicking.
“Will my baby be okay?”
“Am I having a heart attack?”
The good news is that you’re probably not having a heart attack. You’re probably suffering from heartburn – something that’s very common during pregnancy.
Table of Contents
- What is Heartburn?
- What Causes Heartburn during Pregnancy?
- Can You Prevent Heartburn?
- 10 Ways to Reduce Heartburn During Pregnancy
- 4 Natural Remedies for Heartburn
- When to Worry
- Heartburn Is a Part of Being Pregnant
What is Heartburn?
Don’t let its name fool you; heartburn has nothing to do with the heart, although some symptoms are similar.
Simply put, heartburn is irritation of the esophagus. This irritation is caused by stomach acid, and it can lead to a burning sensation in the lower chest and upper abdomen.
Where the stomach meets the esophagus, there’s a valve known as the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). This valve is what keeps your stomach acid where it belongs – in your stomach.
The valve opens up to allow food into the stomach or to allow for belching. But once the food passes through or the belching passes, that valve closes right back up.
Sometimes, the LES opens too often or doesn’t close tightly enough. When this happens, the stomach acid can creep up into the esophagus, which causes the burning sensation. This sensation may get worse when you lay down or bend over.
Occasional heartburn is nothing to worry about, and it’s very common during pregnancy. But chronic cases of heartburn can lead to serious complications down the road.
What Causes Heartburn during Pregnancy?
Why are you getting heartburn in the first place? If you’ve never had it before, you may be wondering why your pregnancy is causing these issues all of a sudden. The cause, not surprisingly, is probably pregnancy hormones.
Progesterone has a wonderful way of relaxing the muscles in the body – and that includes the muscular valve at the top of your stomach. Because that valve is relaxed, it won’t close as tightly, and may wind up opening more than usual. As a result, the acids in your stomach bubble up into your esophagus and cause the burning sensation.
Between week 30 and week 36, your heartburn may get worse. At this point, your uterus has grown and is pushing the stomach upward towards your esophagus.
Can You Prevent Heartburn?
Heartburn can be uncomfortable, and it can keep you up at night. Is there any way to prevent it during your pregnancy?
Probably not. The chances of having a heartburn-free pregnancy are next to none. But there’s no reason to worry. Pregnancy-related heartburn is completely normal and harmless. And it will disappear the moment you give birth.
10 Ways to Reduce Heartburn During Pregnancy
Although you may not be able to prevent heartburn completely while you’re pregnant, there are ways to reduce your symptoms or eliminate them completely.
1. Avoid Trigger Foods
Craving Mexican food? If you want to avoid heartburn, you may want to ignore those cravings and opt for something a bit milder instead. Spicy, greasy and fatty foods can irritate the esophagus and further relax the muscular valve that separates it from the stomach. These foods are more likely to give you heartburn, or make your symptoms worse.
Other foods that are known to cause heartburn include:
2. Eat Smaller Meals
Eating smaller meals can help prevent heartburn, and it can also help alleviate some other digestive issues you may be experiencing.
If you’re battling morning sickness, eating smaller meals shouldn’t be a problem. But if your appetite is normal (or stronger than usual), try to avoid eating so much that your stomach feels full. Whether you’re pregnant or not, an overly-stuffed stomach is a major cause of heartburn. Eating smaller meals doesn’t mean that you have to starve yourself. Rather than eating three big meals each day, try eating five or six smaller meals.
3. Slow Down
It’s easy to scarf down your food, especially when you’re really hungry. But make an effort to take things slow when you eat. Chew your food thoroughly, and take your time. The more you chew your food, the easier it will be to digest. Remember, digestion starts in the mouth. If your food is easy to break down, you’ll be less likely to develop heartburn – and other digestive issues.
Also, keep in mind that when you chew too quickly, you wind up swallowing air, too. All of that extra air creates gas pockets in the stomach. The last thing you want to deal with is both heartburn and gas.
4. Don’t Eat Too Late
It’s tempting to reach for a midnight snack or eat later in the evening if that’s your normal schedule. But eating too late can actually make heartburn worse.
Whether you’re cooking at home or going out to dinner, try to eat at least two hours before you plan on going to bed. This will give your stomach a chance to get a jumpstart on digestion before you lie down for the night. If you’re really hungry before bed, try to have a light snack that’s easy to digest.
5. Sit Up When You Eat
Your grandmother was right when she told you to sit up at the dinner table. Yes, proper posture also improves digestion and helps prevent heartburn, gas, indigestion and a host of other digestive issues.
But even after you’re done eating, try not to lay down right away. Stooping, laying down, slumping or slouching after you eat can also cause heartburn.
6. Prop Yourself Up When You Sleep
Laying down causes the acid in your stomach to creep up into your esophagus, so sleeping can be troublesome for a lot of pregnant women. The solution? Prop yourself up with some pillows when you sleep – even if it’s only for a little nap.
Try to make sure that your head is elevated at least six inches. Keeping your head up will ensure that your gastric juices stay in your stomach where they belong.
7. Wear the Right Clothes
Being pregnant is uncomfortable enough as it is. Don’t make things worse by wearing tight-fitting clothing. Loose, breathable clothing works best and won’t put extra pressure on your abdomen, which can make heartburn worse.
Tight clothing can cause discomfort in other areas as well, so do yourself a favor and choose comfortable clothing during your pregnancy.
8. Don’t Drink During Meals
Try to avoid drinking with meals. Instead, drink before and after you eat. When too much fluid mixes with too much food, it can cause the stomach to distend and make heartburn even worse.
9. Don’t Smoke or Drink
It should go without saying that drinking and smoking are bad ideas during pregnancy. Both are known to trigger heartburn. They cause a host of other pregnancy complications as well, so if you haven’t already, quit smoking and avoid alcohol until after you’ve given birth.
10. Be Careful When Using Antacids
When you’re dealing with heartburn on a regular basis, you want quick relief. Antacids are a great way to do that, but you need to be careful of which ones you choose. Avoid taking any antacids that contain aluminum, such as aluminum carbonate or aluminum hydroxide. Aluminum can cause constipation and can also be toxic in high doses. Tums or other calcium-containing antacids are better options.
Tip: Avoid taking Tums or any other antacids that contain calcium at the same time you take your prenatal vitamin. High doses of calcium can block iron absorption, which is an essential nutrient during pregnancy. If you’re looking for a natural alternative to antacids, try apple cider vinegar. Many moms have found that adding two teaspoons of the vinegar to water and drinking it reduces heartburn symptoms. Make sure that you use raw vinegar, like the one Bragg makes.
4 Natural Remedies for Heartburn
In addition to the 10 tips above, there are natural remedies that you can turn to when heartburn kicks in. While these remedies are generally safe for use during pregnancy, always consult with your doctor first to ensure that a remedy is safe for you and your baby.
We’ve already talked about apple cider vinegar as a natural treatment for heartburn. Here are 4 more:
1. Fresh Lemon Water
You’ve probably heard of the digestive benefits of fresh lemon water. Lemon juice stimulates the production of digestive juices and stomach bile, which boosts digestion while balancing stomach acid levels.
Try drinking a glass of lemon water first thing in the morning or an hour before you eat to wake up your digestive system. Ideally, the water should be room temperature, but you can also drink it as a tea with hot water. Feel free to add a little honey or stevia if you want a little sweetness.
Bonus: Honey can help prevent allergies and sinus issues during your pregnancy, which can be an issue for a lot of women.
2. Fennel Seeds
Fennel is a natural digestive-tract soother. It reduces inflammation and acid, so your stomach has an easier time breaking down the foods you eat. You can choose to chew on fennel seeds or add fennel seed oil to your foods to treat or prevent heartburn.
Talk to your doctor before taking fennel (in seed, oil or any other form) to make sure that it’s safe for your pregnancy. Excessive amounts of fennel can cause contractions, so be cautious.
3. Slippery Elm
Native Americans have long used slippery elm for digestive issues, as it’s known to coat the stomach as well as the esophagus. As you may have guessed, slippery elm comes from the bark of the slippery elm tree or Ulmus rubra. The bark contains a starch carbohydrate known as mucilage that swells up to create a slick gel when mixed with water. This mucilage is what coats the stomach and the esophagus to neutralize the acid. Research also shows that slippery elm can actually boost mucus production in the digestive tract, which also helps prevent and treat heartburn.
Talk to your doctor before taking slippery elm to make sure that it’s safe for your pregnancy. Some scientists believe it can cause miscarriages, and the effects of the herb on pregnant women are not well known.
If you’re suffering from heartburn and want natural relief, eating a handful of almonds may just do the trick. Experts believe it’s the high oil content in almonds that makes it so effective against heartburn. Almonds are also rich in vital nutrients that both you and your baby need.
When to Worry
Heartburn is typically no cause for concern, especially for pregnant women as it’s completely normal. But if you’re experiencing heartburn on a frequent basis, speak to your doctor to ensure that an underlying condition, like GERD, isn’t to blame. Over time, excessive and frequent heartburn can cause damage to your esophagus and teeth. It can also raise your risk of esophageal cancer.
If left untreated, chronic heartburn can cause:
- Esophageal ulcers.
- Inflammation of the lining of the esophagus, which can make it painful to swallow.
- Scarring along the lining of the esophagus, which can make it difficult to swallow food and drink.
- The wearing away of your tooth enamel, which can lead to cavities.
Heartburn Is a Part of Being Pregnant
Heartburn is just a part of being pregnant. While you can do a few things to try and avoid it, there’s a good chance that you’ll go toe to toe with heartburn at least once before you give birth. The good news is that you can put out the flames using one of the natural remedies above or a treatment option recommended by your doctor.
If heartburn is keeping you up at night or it seems to be getting worse, see your doctor as soon as possible to find a treatment that’s safe and effective for you. And as always, talk to your doctor before you try any herbal remedy, as not all herbs are safe for pregnant women to take.