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Tips for Preventing Heartburn During Pregnancy

After having obtained a degree in biochemistry, Leah works for a small biotechnology company and enjoys writing about science.

Acid Reflux in Pregnancy

Progesterone causes the lower esophageal sphincter to relax, allowing stomach contents to reflux into the esophagus.

Progesterone causes the lower esophageal sphincter to relax, allowing stomach contents to reflux into the esophagus.

What Causes Heartburn in Pregnancy?

Many pregnant women suffer from indigestion and painful heartburn during their pregnancy. The biggest culprit is the hormone progesterone: this hormone supports the pregnancy and relaxes the uterine muscle. Unfortunately, this same action affects the muscles of the esophagus and stomach, which causes slow motility. The valve that separates the stomach from the esophagus is also relaxed. Since food moves slower through the digestive tract, it is more likely to wash back up toward the esophagus. The loose, relaxed sphincter allows the stomach acid to escape into the esophagus, causing the searing pain known as heartburn.

Later in pregnancy, the growing baby increases abdominal pressure. This increased pressure worsens the symptoms of heartburn as the pregnancy progresses. The pain and nausea can keep women up for hours at night and make eating an unpleasant experience.

Tips for Preventing Heartburn

One way to deal with pregnancy-induced heartburn is to prevent it from occurring in the first place.

  • Avoid foods high in fat.
  • Eat small amounts of food throughout the day rather than large meals.
  • Avoid acidic foods, such as citrus and tomato products.
  • Raise the head of your bed by at least 30°.
  • Avoid bending over.
  • Don't eat chocolate or drink carbonated beverages.

High fat foods slow digestion,and can worsen acid reflux. Acidic foods, chocolate, mint, cured meats, and carbonated beverages are also associated with an increase in heartburn symptoms.

Keep your head elevated and allow gravity to assist with digestion - lying flat in bed and bending over will cause your stomach contents to flow in the wrong direction. A simple wedge pillow may be used to raise your head and chest in bed, or a few books may be placed under the legs at the head of the bed to accomplish the same purpose.

Drink plenty of water throughout the day, but avoid drinking a lot of fluid during mealtimes. The sudden influx of a large volume of water with a meal may increase the likelihood of heartburn. Make sure your fluid intake is between meals rather than with food.

Avoid Fried Foods in Pregnancy

Avoid fatty foods in pregnancy, as these foods slow digestion and can increase heartburn symptoms.

Avoid fatty foods in pregnancy, as these foods slow digestion and can increase heartburn symptoms.

Treating Acid Reflux in Pregnancy

Several natural remedies for heartburn exist. These are preferred to medications in pregnancy, as most acid blockers and proton-pump inhibitor medications will cross the placenta and enter the developing baby's system. Natural remedies for reflux include:

  • Drink a glass of water. This often helps the pain of an acid attack subside.
  • Drink a mixture of baking soda and water to reduce stomach acid.
  • Ginger offers natural, effective heartburn relief.
  • Chew gum to increase the amount of saliva - this may offer some relief.

If natural methods are not helpful, there are several safe over-the-counter options for treating heartburn. As with any medication taken during pregnancy, get approval from your doctor before taking the following:

  • Tums, or other antacids containing calcium carbonate.
  • Antacids containing magnesium oxide or magnesium hydroxide.

Do not take antacids containing aluminum or aspirin - check the label on any over-the-counter bottle to verify its contents. Some antacid manufacturers combine a safe ingredient (like magnesium oxide) with an unsafe ingredient (like aluminum carbonate). Alka-Seltzer contains salicylic acid, which is the chemical name for aspirin: this medication is not safe in pregnancy.

The Acid Reflux Diet: Foods to Avoid

Food to AvoidReasonExamples

Caffeine

Caffeine reduces the pressure of the esophageal sphincter, increases stomach acidity, and elevates stress hormones.

Coffee, tea, chocolate

Citrus fruits

Citrus fruits may increase the level of acidity in the stomach.

Oranges, lemons, grapefruit

Chocolate

Chocolate contains caffeine and is relatively acidic.

Hot cocoa, candy bars

Tomatoes

Tomatoes are acidic and worsen acid reflux symptoms.

Spaghetti sauce, pizza, ketchup

Cured meats

Smoked and cured meats can trigger an increase in reflux symptoms for some people.

Deli meats, ham, hot dogs

Carbonated beverages

Carbonated beverages increase pressure in the stomach, increasing the amount of reflux.

Soda, sparkling water

Fatty foods

Fatty foods slow digestion and increase heartburn symptoms.

Fried chicken, doughnuts, fast food

Mints

Mint relaxes the esophageal sphincter and worsens heartburn.

Peppermint patties, mint tea, breath mints

Ranitidine (Zantac) is often prescribed for pregnant women with severe acid reflux.

Ranitidine (Zantac) is often prescribed for pregnant women with severe acid reflux.

Prescription Medication for Severe Heartburn

Sometimes heartburn is severe and becomes gastro-esophageal reflux disease (GERD). Women who experience GERD in pregnancy will often take prescription medication like Ranitidine (Zantac) or Famotidine (Pepcid). Both drugs are considered Category B drugs - they are likely to be safe in pregnancy, but should not be taken without a prescription and monitoring by a physician.

Zantac and Pepcid are both H2 Blockers - they reduce the amount of acid your stomach produces. These medications are highly effective at treating GERD in pregnancy, and may become necessary for a minority of women who suffer with prolonged, severe reflux symptoms.

Heartburn and Baby's Hair: A Poll

Heartburn and Baby's Hair: A Wive's Tale with Merit

An old wive's tale states that if a mother has a significant level of heartburn in pregnancy, her baby will be born with a lot of hair. While this was believed to be a myth, John Hopkins University actually studied the claim and found merit in the folklore.

A study performed by the Department of Gynecology and Obstetrics in 2006 (here) studied 64 women during pregnancy. The women were monitored for heartburn, and when their babies were born an independent panel evaluated the amount of hair on each newborn. 28 women reported moderate to severe heartburn - 23 of these women had babies with a greater-than-average amount of hair. 12 women reported no heartburn in pregnancy, and 10 of these women had babies with less-than-average or no hair at birth.

The researchers concluded that the same mechanism that causes heartburn in pregnancy also causes fetal hair growth. Higher levels of progesterone and estrogen will cause a greater relaxation of the esophageal sphincter, and will also increase the amount of hair growth on a baby's head.

© 2013 Leah Lefler

Comments

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on February 08, 2013:

Heartburn can be such a problem in pregnancy - I remember I would have HORRIBLE pain at night with my second son in the last trimester. Thankfully, it went away once he was born! I hope your wife finds some relief, BPSullo!

Bryan Sullo from Massachusetts on February 08, 2013:

Very helpful. My wife is pregnant, and has been having some infrequent heartburn, so she's going to try some of these tips.

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on January 12, 2013:

I had heartburn with my second pregnancy - Nolan was born with hair, but so was Matthew (and he probably had more hair, though it was lighter in color). I thought the research was interesting, though it didn't necessarily hold true for us. Both of my babies lost their newborn hair and ended up bald by 3 months of age, teaches, so I suppose it didn't really matter in the long run. Ha!

Dianna Mendez on January 11, 2013:

Your facts on the hair and reflux connection is interesting. I did not suffer from heartburn and my child had a good head of hair. I also like your chart on foods to eat, I am glad that tomatoes do not give me heart burn -- love them! Great post and very well done.

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on January 11, 2013:

I had terrible heartburn with my second son, AliciaC - it was almost incapacitating by the time I was in my third trimester. I was able to get by with Tums, but have to admit I was relieved when he was finally born and the acid reflux stopped!

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on January 09, 2013:

This information will be very useful for someone who is pregnant, leahlefler. Thanks for sharing all the informative and interesting details, as well as for creating the illustration!