Heartburn and pregnancy

Why is heartburn so common in pregnancy?

Nutritional Practitioner, BA (Hons), DN, DNT (Distinction)
Ask Ali

An introduction to heartburn and pregnancy

Most people are likely to experience heartburn at some point in their lives. The burning sensation under the breastbone (as the name suggests) is a result of stomach acid making contact with your sensitive oesophagus – ouch!

Your stomach is equipped with a protective mucous layer to protect it from the strong hydrochloric acid found in your tum – your oesophagus isn’t so prepared and feels the burn if any splashes back up.

But why is heartburn more likely in pregnancy?

Well, you are probably aware that during pregnancy there are hormones running wild all over the place. A hormone called relaxin is one of these. Relaxin is released by the ovaries and the placenta throughout your pregnancy and has an important role in preparing your pelvis and cervix for childbirth.

It also relaxes your muscoskeletal system in order to make room for the expanding fetus in your womb. As the muscles around your body relax (this can also give rise to back pain in pregnancy) so does the small circular muscle which connects your oesophagus and stomach. This is known as your lower oesophageal sphincter (LOS).

This important muscle opens up to let the food you have swallowed pass into the stomach. After the food has moved through, it quickly closes again to prevent any food or gastric juices splashing back up. However, if this muscle relaxes too much (as often seen in pregnancy) you can suffer from heartburn as a result.

As well as the circulating relaxin causing issues in your tum, the growing fetus in your womb also has an effect. Your womb expands to many, many times its normal size, not really taking your other poor organs into consideration.

Your bladder gets crushed – hence the frequent trips to the loo! But that’s not all; your stomach isn’t much better off. It also gets squashed and as a result the pressure inside increases which affects the LOS; it causes it to open and – hello heartburn!

Relaxin peaks at around 10 - 14 weeks in to your pregnancy and from then on your baby’s growth really starts to accelerate – so, it’s not surprising up to two-thirds of mums-to-be don’t manage to escape the dreaded heartburn.

You are not only at a higher risk of heartburn as you progress through your pregnancy but it’s also more likely to occur in subsequent pregnancies and, unsurprisingly, if you already suffered from digestive complaints before you became pregnant.

Heartburn in pregnancy is perfectly normal once you understand why, so there’s nothing to worry about! We understand it can be extremely uncomfortable though so luckily for you we have produced some self-help steps you can take to try and ease your discomfort.

We also want to add that most new mums will notice their symptoms disappearing after the birth of their little one which is always a bonus.

What are the symptoms of heartburn in pregnancy?

So, how do you know you have heartburn during pregnancy? Here are some common symptoms to look out for:

  • A burning sensation (hence the name) felt high up in the abdomen under the breastbone
  • Having a full and uncomfortable stomach, especially after eating a meal
  • Belching or burping along with the burning sensation
  • An acidic taste in the mouth
  • Nausea or even vomiting, again more apparent after eating

Heartburn is very often the cause of your complaints but just be aware that pregnancy does put you at a slightly higher risk of problems with high blood pressure (pre-eclampsia), developing gallstones and liver issues. So, if you are in any way unsure about the pain in your upper abdomen, don’t be afraid to be extra cautious and ask your GP for peace of mind.

What can you do to keep your symptoms under control?

So, what can you do if the heartburn is really getting you down? We outline some general lifestyle tips, natural remedies and conventional options which may offer you some relief.

Eating habits and lifestyle tips

Follow the following link where we outline some easy to follow eating techniques and lifestyle tips which can help to keep your pesky heartburn under control. You might be surprised to know that often how you eat rather than what you eat can really help to keep heartburn under control. Consider some of our top tips including eating slower, avoiding drinking water with meals and posture control.

Additionally, if you are pregnant and heartburn is particularly troublesome, you may find it useful to eat little and often. Try eating 5 - 6 small meals per day rather than 3 bigger meals which will put less pressure on your stomach.

Also, try to avoid eating late at night, especially if your symptoms are particularly bad after you go to bed.

Can any natural remedies help?

There are also some natural remedies which are worth considering to help you overcome the burn. Some examples include:

  • Ginger – Ginger is a natural anti-spasmodic so can help calm down an unsettled tum which may be giving rise to heartburn. Ginger is also effective in helping to combat nausea; with or without the heartburn! Fresh ginger can be grated and added to your food or drinks or try switching to some ginger teabags
  • Other herbal teas – Chamomile tea, for example, may be useful if you are suffering from digestive issues throughout your pregnancy as it has a calming effect. Remember to always double check with your doctor or midwife first before trying new herbal teas
  • Lemon water – did you suffer heartburn before you were pregnant? In many cases heartburn is due to us not having enough stomach acid. The problem can then be exacerbated by a malfunctioning LOS or increasing pressure during the pregnancy. Drink some hot water with fresh lemon slices and you could feel the difference
  • Pineapple and papaya – these tasty fruits are packed full of vitamins and minerals but also contain naturally occurring enzymes which support your digestion. Add them into your daily diet as a tasty, refreshing snack and it may help with the heartburn as a bonus

Are there any conventional options available?

If your symptoms are particularly bad, a trip to your local pharmacy or GP may be necessary. Here you will find a few options available. 

Certain antacid medications are safe for use in pregnancy which can help to temporarily neutralise your stomach acid. Be sure to always read the directions or double check to make sure they are suitable for you.

Stronger medication may be available from your GP but always be aware of any side effects they may have.

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