Heartburn is common in pregnancy, with an incidence rate of up to 45%, according to a study published in the medical journal BMJ Clinical Evidence. The risk of heartburn actually increases as the pregnancy progresses, increasing from an average of 22% in the first trimester to 72% in the third. Statistics aside, if you’re pregnant and getting indigestion more often, it’s not just you, it has to do with the changes in your body, and there are steps you can take to get symptom relief.
Pregnancy heartburn is top-of-mind partly because I work with other adults to find reflux relief and also because my wife and I were recently pregnant, and she suffered from more than her fair share of heartburn episodes. Heartburn can be especially terrible because it can impede you from sleeping and getting the rest you need, aside from simply just making pregnancy less bearable.
This article shares some of the medical research to help you learn more about why you’re getting heartburn and indigestion, and what you can do about it.
Why Heartburn is Common During Pregnancy
Indigestion and heartburn are common during pregnancy because the symptoms arise as a result of:
- Changing hormone levels that affect your digestive tract, changing the way your body reacts to different foods and slowing down your digestive system.
- As your lower esophageal sphincter loosens as a result of hormonal changes, the risk of stomach acid flowing back up into your esophagus increases.
- As your baby grows, the uterus begins to crowd your abdomen and can cause stomach acid to flow upward. A growing baby is why acid reflux and indigestion increase in likelihood over the pregnancy process, with the highest rates seen during the third trimester.
Suffering from heartburn or indigestion during pregnancy is natural. Still, it’s uncomfortable and can even cause pain, not to mention a loss of energy. There are ways to find symptom relief. I’ll start with one that I personally found a lot of success with.
Find Relief with a Reflux Relief Wedge + Body Pillow Combo
Pregnancy body pillows are a fantastic purchase because they are so useful during the pregnancy and continue to be useful after. We still use the pregnancy body pillow I gifted my wife 17 months post-pregnancy, both because of its sheer utility and also because the body pillows we use (yes, we now have two) are simply so comfortable. Hint: if you’re a partner looking for a great gift, a good, high-quality body pillow is a home run.
For women who are getting indigestion or heartburn during pregnancy, a step up from a pregnancy body pillow is the MedCline Reflux Relief System. Originally developed by Dr. Carl Melcher, who had been diagnosed with Barrett’s Esophagus, suffers from acid reflux, and was not finding symptom relief with any of the traditional solutions, the Reflux Relief System combines a specially designed wedge pillow with a body pillow for enhanced comfort.
The Reflux Relief System is well worth the price tag, as the symptom relief potential is clinically verified and can be well worth it. In a 2015 study, clinicians found that the system significantly decreased reflux symptoms and that 91% of patients continued to use their system after 3 months. Another 2015 study, specifically researched the impact on acid reflux during pregnancy and found that the MedCline Reflux Relief System produced significant symptom relief.
In other words, positioning therapy can truly make your pregnancy experience much better, less painful, and more comfortable. And it’s natural relief, without recourse to medication. What’s great about the MedCline is that it comes both with the positioning device — the wedge — and the body pillow, giving you a lot of value and a pillow that you’re likely to continue using beyond the pregnancy.
Change Your Diet
Much of the research on indigestion and heartburn during pregnancy focuses on the effects of diet on your symptoms. The American College of Gastroenterology makes a number of diet-related recommendations:
- Eat smaller meals
- Avoid eating before going to bed
- Relatedly, don’t lie down (to take a nap) after eating
- Avoid greasy, spicy, and acidic foods
Similarly, the British NHS recommends cutting down on caffeine, as well as on fatty and acidic foods.
Rather than focus on a lists of “don’ts” or “avoids,” my partner and I found it easier to focus on a list of do’s:
- Eat more fruits and vegetables, which are loaded with fiber and other minerals.
- Starchy foods like bread, rice, pasta, and potatoes are great. According to the NHS, starches should make up about 30 percent of a pregnant woman’s diet.
- Although not all seafood is good for you, eating protein like shrimp, salmon, mackerel, or chicken is good for you and the baby.
- Drink a lot of milk and each calcium-rich foods.
As you can see, a healthy diet during pregnancy is not necessarily super restrictive. It’s full of yummy foods like bread and pasta, so finding a balance between healthy and savory is not quite as daunting as it first seems.
Avoid Alcohol and Smoking
It almost goes without saying that alcohol and smoking are bad both for you and the baby. Apart from other ill health effects outside of this article’s scope, both alcohol and smoking can contribute to acid reflux and indigestion.
Over-the-counter (OTC) medication for reflux symptom relief is common, although not all medication is baby-friendly. The American College of Gastroenterology looks at three categories of OTC drugs and makes the following recommendations:
- Antacids: Antacids that contain aluminum, magnesium, or calcium are considered safe during pregnancy. Antacids containing magnesium should be avoided in the third trimester, however, because they can interfere with uterine contractions. Avoid antacids with sodium bicarbonate, as this chemical can cause fluid overload in both the fetus and the mother.
- Histamine-type II (H-2) Receptor Antagonists: These are medications like ranitidine (e.g. Zantac®). The scientific literature on these types of OTC drugs is relatively limited, and existing studies on ranitidine suggest that taken once or twice daily can provide symptom relief without putting the baby at risk.
- Proton Pump Inhibitors: Proton Pump Inhibitors (PPIs) are best reserved for people who have severe heartburn symptoms and are not responding to antacids. There is limited research on the impact of PPIs on pregnancy.
When it comes to trying medications, of course, always consult with your doctor.
Seek a Professional Medical Opinion
It’s always a good idea to get your doctor’s opinion on what your best options for symptom relief are. You should especially seek a medical opinion if you:
- Are waking up at night due to heartburn
- Are having trouble swallowing
- Spitting up blood
- Are losing weight
- Have black stool
- Suffer from any chest pain
Reflux Relief is Worth It
Heartburn during pregnancy can cause a lot of discomfort, stress, and unhappiness. Although indigestion and reflux are common during pregnancy, that doesn’t mean you can’t do anything about them. Exploring symptom relief is well worth it and there are safe options available to you right away, whether that’s a reflux relief system or making small changes to your diet.