Heartburn is common in adults – especially during pregnancy. While some research suggests women who have moderate heartburn during pregnancy give birth to babies with fuller heads of hair, having symptoms more than twice a week might be a sign of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), or recurrent heartburn.
According to a study of 510 pregnant women, approximately 26% have GERD symptoms during the first trimester. The rate jumps to 36% in the second trimester and 51% during the third trimester. That’s substantial compared with the 20% of adults in the U.S. who experience heartburn.
Why the increase in symptoms during pregnancy? Progesterone, a hormone that increases early in pregnancy, relaxes smooth muscle in the body. It helps your uterus stretch to accommodate the growing fetus, but also reduces the reliability of the esophageal sphincter – a ring-like structure that seals off stomach contents from the throat.
Increased pressure placed on the stomach externally from the growing uterus, especially in the third trimester, can also worsen heartburn symptoms such as:
- Burning pain in the center of the chest, especially after eating
- Sour or bitter taste in the mouth
- Sore throat or cough
Thankfully, there are several pregnancy-safe ways to deal with acute heartburn and ongoing cases of GERD.
"Progesterone, a hormone that increases early in pregnancy, also reduces the reliability of the esophageal sphincter, which means that certain foods such as spicy dishes may trigger heartburn symptoms."
Heartburn treatment options during pregnancy
Consider these diet and sleep modifications to relieve or prevent heartburn:
- Avoid tobacco and alcohol. These substances worsen the symptoms, and it’s already recommended for all women during pregnancy to avoid smoking, vaping, and drinking alcohol. Need to quit? We offer a free tobacco cessation program.
- Shift your eating schedule. Smaller, more frequent meals fill the stomach less and may reduce symptoms. Also, avoid bending over or lying flat after meals to reduce acid reflux.
- Prop yourself up in bed. Try sleeping with an extra pillow under your head or a small wedge under your pillow. The incline can help prevent stomach acid from splashing into your lower esophagus.
- Skip the sauce or spice. If you notice that certain foods such as tomato sauces or spicy dishes trigger symptoms, avoid them until after the baby comes.
Heartburn and GERD symptoms are less severe when there is less acid in the stomach. That said, you need a certain amount of acid to properly digest food. Three types of medication can help create that balance.
Oral antacids like aluminum and magnesium hydroxide (think Maalox or Mylanta) and calcium carbonate (like TUMS) neutralize acid already present in the stomach. Calcium carbonate has the added benefit of supplementing calcium intake during pregnancy. It’s safe to follow the directions on the package – there’s no need to change the dosage or schedule due to pregnancy.
On the flip side, two types of medications actually reduce acid production before it can enter the stomach.
H2-receptor antagonists (H2-blockers) reduce H2 histamine, which stimulates cells in the stomach to produce acid. Thus, less stomach acid is produced. Examples include ranitidine (Zantac), cimetidine (Tagamet HB), and famotidine (Pepcid). All of these are available over the counter and in generic forms.
Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) block an enzyme in stomach cells that’s needed to produce acid. These drugs are available over the counter but can take several days to provide maximum relief, so you might consider trying an antacid or H2 blocker first. Examples of PPIs include lansoprazole (Prevacid) and omeprazole (Prilosec), as well as generic versions. Both brand name and generic are considered safe during pregnancy.
Please note, because stomach acid is necessary for iron absorption, H2 blockers and PPIs can decrease the effectiveness of iron supplements. Talk to your doctor if this might be an issue for you.
Related reading: 4 common pregnancy-related GI issues
When to call the doctor
If heartburn symptoms are associated with headaches or swelling of the hands and face, talk with your provider before trying these remedies, especially if the symptoms are new and present in the last trimester of pregnancy.
Heartburn-like pain can be a symptom of preeclampsia, or dangerously high blood pressure during pregnancy. Preeclampsia puts mothers and babies at risk, and further evaluation may be necessary.
As mentioned, heartburn is very common in pregnancy. If your symptoms don’t resolve with diet changes or medication, let your provider know so you can find an effective treatment.