Vanessa Selene Williams
A look at the cause
During pregnancy, your uterus expands to make more room for baby... which also means less room for your stomach. Pregnancy hormones also relax the sphincter separating your esophagus from your stomach, allowing acid to seep up through your esophageal sphincter. Your esophagus lacks the barrier that protects your stomach from acid: "heartburn" is the result.
Most women experience heartburn as a burning sensation around the chest area: other women experience heartburn as sharp chest pains. Simple things such as what you eat, the way you eat, and your daily activities may trigger symptoms. This discomfort can occur at any time of the day -- although it is most common at night -- and appears without warning.
Bethany from Maine's experience is typical among pregnant women. She began getting heartburn at around 20 weeks. Of the pain, she says, "It happens so bad at night I want to cry."
Heartburn may be an unavoidable consequence of pregnancy, but there's a lot you can do to prevent and relieve this nuisance.
What you can do during meals
What you eat and the way you eat it may encourage heartburn. It may be difficult to distinguish which foods trigger the pain, but here are some suggestions.
Avoid fatty and fried dishes, hold off on the chocolate and skip anything containing peppermint or spearmint. These foods contain chemicals that promote further relaxation of the sphincter separating the esophagus from the stomach. (Pregnancy hormones are also responsible -- but you can't do anything about that.) You will also want to pass on oranges, grapefruit and other citrus fruits (including juices) and anything with tomatoes. In the beverage department, all the usual favorites are out: regular and decaffeinated tea and coffee, alcohol (which is best avoided during pregnancy anyway) and cola beverages.
Lay off the hot stuff
Avoid food containing black pepper, red or hot pepper or chili powder. These contain chemicals that aggravate heartburn.
Change your habits:
- Eat small, frequent meals, as large feasts take longer to digest and they distend the stomach, permitting acid to seep into the esophagus. Specifically, experts suggest five or six small meals per day in place of the typical three large ones.
- Eat slowly and chew food thoroughly. Help your stomach digest your food: the more you chew, the less acid produced. (Remember what your parents told you when you were younger: chew each bite 30 times, then swallow.) Eating too quickly also may cause you to swallow air. That, and too much fluid, allow less room in the stomach for food and push acid into the esophagus.
- Wear loose clothing. Tight clothing may compress your stomach and may otherwise be uncomfortable.
While food is digesting, take precautions. You are most prone to heartburn after meals, when acid begins to enter your stomach. This process can last up to two hours after a meal.
Change your after-dinner habits: Start with taking a walk after meals. Walking after meals promotes digestion by stimulating food to go down the digestive tract. Side benefits include helping to prepare your body for labor, as well as relieving constipation.
Avoid lying down or bending over after meals for at least two hours. This promotes the oozing of stomach acid into the esophagus.
Sleep with your head elevated at least six inches. Elevation prevents acid from attacking you while you sleep. Gravity is your friend (in this case) it forces acid to stay in your stomach while you sleep. Remember, wait at least two hours after a meal before sleeping or napping
When all else fails
If none of the above suggestions helps, consult your caregiver. He or she may suggest you take antacids or a natural supplement for preventing and relieving heartburn.
Many women can't live without this extra help. Cheryl from Connecticut experienced heartburn since she was five months pregnant, and recalls "I used Tums. They worked like a charm. I kept them by my bed." While she didn't find that one particular food was giving her heartburn, "I was taking at least two a day."
Before taking an antacid, check with your healthcare provider first to see which is best for you. (Always get the go-ahead from your caregiver before taking even an over-the-counter remedy.) While over-the-counter types are generally considered safe, no studies of their effects on humans or animals have been done. Plus, some brands contain lots of sodium -- not good if you retain water, and downright bad if your blood pressure is running high. While the active ingredient in Tums is calcium carbonate, but it's important to note that not all antacids are alike. For example, Rolaids contain an aluminum-based antacid, and Maalox's is magnesium-based. Further, Pepto-Bismol is specifically contraindicated during pregnancy,
Many women -- such as Nora Schauer, pregnant with her third child -- turned to bromelain supplements and papaya tablets for relief. These supplements, both of which may be found at a health food store, contain enzymes that help your stomach digest protein.
Nora, who experienced heartburn three to four times per week, explained her regimen: "I have been taking a bromelain [from pineapple] and papain [from papaya] supplement, 500 milligrams in the evening, plus one capsule HCl with pepsin," which she considered to be an effective remedy. She also ate plenty of pineapple, as fresh pineapple and papaya may be an inexpensive -- and tasty -- alternative to supplements.
Is heartburn harmful?
Heartburn may be annoying, but, fortunately, it is not harmful. "Heartburn does not affect the mom or baby in any way," says Frans. Tell your healthcare provider, of course, if your heartburn is so severe that it interferes with a proper diet.
And while it's not harmful, it's also not a sound predictor of your baby's appearance! Contrary to popular belief, pregnancy-related heartburn doesn't mean a baby with a headful of hair.
The next time you feel that familiar pain settling in, don't worry! Heartburn may be annoying, but it is not harmful to you or your baby. In most cases, the pain will disappear right after the birth of your little one.