Heartburn during pregnancy: symptoms prevention and treatment

During pregnancy, you may have expected some symptoms like swollen ankles and morning sickness, and even having to invest in a bigger bra. But where does this burning indigestion come from?The fact is that heartburn affects up to 85% of pregnant women2, with many women experiencing this uncomfortable feeling throughout all three trimesters of their pregnancy3.

Symptoms of heartburn during pregnancy

Heartburn (also called gastroesophageal reflux and acid indigestion) can feel like a burning sensation that starts behind your breastbone and travels up your oesophagus (the tube connecting your throat to your stomach). These acids can even make it all the way up your throat1. During pregnancy, the increase in the hormone progesterone causes the valve between the stomach and the oesophagus to relax3, which is why heartburn is more frequent during pregnancy3.

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Diet changes that can help reduce or manage heartburn during pregnancy

Hannelise Rademan, a Registered Dietitian currently volunteering at Worcester Provincial Hospital in the Western Cape, says that following a healthy, nutritious diet, which includes adequate fibre such as wholegrains, fruit and vegetables, is very important. Ideally, your diet should be low in fat4.

“Limit fried foods, cream sauces, gravies, fatty meats, pastries, nuts, potato chips, butter and margarine,” she says, and adds that moderate portions of protein should be included to stimulate a hormone called gastrin to aid digestion and increase valve (known as LES or lower oesophageal sphincter) pressure4.

Why do you get heartburn during pregnancy?

As your uterus expands with your growing baby, it places pressure on your stomach, which also increases the likelihood of acid reflux, especially if your stomach is full1.

Drinking liquids at the same time as eating your food can create a full “sloshy” stomach environment primed for heartburn1. “Fluids may be better taken between meals to avoid distension (or swelling) of the stomach and carbonated beverages should also be avoided,” Rademan says4.

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“Avoid large meals that increase gastric pressure, and rather eat smaller meals throughout the day”4, she says. This helps to avoid overwhelming the stomach and allows it to empty more quickly.

Rademan recommends that during acute bouts of heartburn, eat small frequent meals of soft and bland foods4.

Heartburn during pregnancy: symptoms prevention treatment foods to avoid

What foods can cause heartburn during pregnancy?

Fatty meals, coffee (both decaffeinated and regular), chocolate, peppermint and spearmint, garlic and onion are all foods that can exacerbate heartburn during pregnancy and should be avoided4. This includes acidic and spicy foods that create more stomach acid than blander alternatives, and should be avoided by those suffering from heartburn1.

Although smoking and drinking alcohol should not be part of pregnancy regardless, these can also negatively affect valve pressure and increase heartburn4.

What can you do to prevent heartburn during pregnancy?

Lifestyle adaptations can also be helpful to alleviate symptoms of heartburn4. These include not eating for within 3 to 4 hours before going to sleep at night, staying upright and avoiding vigorous activity after eating and not wearing tight-fitting clothing4.

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Treatment of heartburn during pregnancy

Some natural and alternative remedies that may help relieve symptoms include ginger and lemon water or chewing gum4. Eating yogurt or drinking a glass of milk or even adding a tablespoon of honey in a glass of warm milk might also help ease symptoms or heartburn5.

Heartburn is common and uncomfortable during pregnancy, but it should subside once you give birth and your hormone levels return to normal. While you may not be able to prevent heartburn altogether, simple lifestyle changes, such as eating small meals, avoiding spicy or fatty foods, and sleeping with your head and shoulders elevated, might help ease the symtoms1.

Information supplied by PregOmega for Gelusil Plus® which has been proven to be suitable and effective to relieve symptoms of heartburn during pregnancy6. Gelusil Plus® is an antacid suspension that can be taken to relieve heartburn in pregnancy3,6. This treatment has a dual mode of action that neutralises stomach acid whilst creating a barrier to reduce acid reflux into the oesophagus6.