You may already know that the hormone progesterone does a lot of really vital stuff during pregnancy; essentially, it creates a secure, healthy home/uterus for the fertilized egg and then the growing baby. But with the wonderful comes the not so wonderful in the form of a progesterone-fueled pregnancy side effect many parents-to-be can relate to: pregnancy heartburn.
Sorry to shatter the myth, but heartburn during pregnancy has absolutely nothing to do with how much hair your baby has. It's a result of the fact that progesterone, while relaxing the uterine muscles, also relaxes the valve at the top of the stomach. This allows gastric acid to splash back up — or reflux — into the esophagus.
And if you're wondering whether you have pregnancy heartburn, you probably don't. It's a pretty unmistakable symptom: an intense, disruptive burning sensation in the chest and throat that makes eating a challenge and can interfere with sleep.
"It's a rite of passage for about 60 percent of pregnant women," Dr. Sherry Ross, an OB-GYN at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California, tells SheKnows. According to Ross, heartburn typically begins in the second trimester and continues throughout the rest of the pregnancy.
"I don't usually see pregnancy heartburn in my clients before 24 weeks gestation," Karly Nuttall, licensed midwife and cohost of the Birth Kweens podcast, tells SheKnows. "As your growing baby starts to take up more room in your abdomen and shrink the stomach's capacity, it pushes the stomach's contents up through the relaxed esophagus, and voila — heartburn!"
We're not going to lie to you, pregnant people. You might not be able to avoid pregnancy heartburn altogether. But you can follow these expert tips to minimize the burn and get back to enjoying food (and sleeping) as much as possible.
Craving fried or fatty foods during pregnancy? That might be one longing you should try to resist. Foods with high fat content are more difficult to digest, says Ross. This causes a delay in the emptying of your stomach, which creates more acids. Instead, go for grilled, roasted or baked foods.
Another dietary no-no for heartburn sufferers is spicy foods, as these can irritate the lining of the esophagus. If possible, stick to blander foods with minimal seasoning during pregnancy (and look forward to that hot curry as soon as Baby is born). Acidic foods — including grains, sugar, dairy, processed foods, fruits and fruit juices — can also cause heartburn because they hike up acidity levels in the stomach. Safer alkaline alternatives include soy, unsweetened yogurt and milk, fresh vegetables, potatoes, beans, olive oil, avocados, nuts and seeds.
As well as avoiding common dietary triggers, Ross recommends eating several small meals a day instead of three large ones and taking your time when eating. Try not to wash down your food with too much liquid, which can increase the risk of acid reflux. It may be preposterous to say, "Don't lie down," to pregnant women, but... don't lie down straight after eating. When you do lie down, keep your head higher than your feet, such as by placing pillows under your shoulders. This helps prevent stomach acids rising up into your chest.
Nuttall recommends massaging your respiratory diaphragm to make more room for your stomach (this is easier than it sounds, and you can get great tutorials on YouTube — but check in with your midwife or OB-GYN first to make sure you're doing it correctly).
Other natural remedies for heartburn include slippery elm lozenges and taking a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar with every meal. Drinking baking soda (one teaspoon) dissolved in water (8 ounces) may also relieve heartburn symptoms because baking soda's alkaline pH means it neutralizes stomach acids. Ross recommends drinking a half-cup of aloe vera juice because its anti-inflammatory properties calm the stomach and esophagus that become inflamed from a buildup of acid. Another simple but often very effective home remedy for heartburn is chewing gum; this stimulates the salivary glands, helping to clear the buildup of acid in the stomach.
However, these strategies don't work every time for everyone, so if your heartburn is extreme or disturbing your sleep, you may need an over-the-counter medication.
Before you take any OTC meds for pregnancy heartburn, make sure they're safe. Medications such as Tums help coat the esophagus and minimize the burning sensation and are safe during pregnancy. (Nuttall recommends taking no more than two Tums per day.) Other OTC medications that help with heartburn symptoms include Zantac and Pepcid AC. These medications should be taken 30 minutes before each meal and before bedtime for optimal results, advises Ross. It's unusual to have to take a prescription medication for pregnancy heartburn symptoms, but consult with your obstetrician or health care provider if you don't get relief from OTC meds.
If you're feeling the burn during pregnancy, take some comfort from the fact that millions of other parents-to-be are fighting the same battle against stomach acids. (And that there is some good news: Heartburn usually disappears as soon as the baby arrives.)
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