There are many uncomfortable symptoms that may arise during pregnancy, and not all are related to the lower abomen and growing uterus. Some of these symptoms can occur higher up the torso and affect the digestive tract. Heartburn and indigestion are two common symptoms that occur in pregnancy and most pregnant women will experience it at some time during the course of pregnancy.
For some women, these symptoms may be severe and persist for long periods of tim. It can even occur throughout the pregnancy. However, it is important to differentiate repeated heartburn and indigestion that was present prior to pregnancy from pregnancy-related digestive symptoms. Pregnancy can cause an aggravation of pre-existing conditions and symptoms.
Heartburn vs Indigestion in Pregnancy
It is not uncommon to confuse heartburn and indigestion. Both conditions present with similar symptoms and the causes may overlap.
Heartburn is a burning chest pain that occurs as result of the acidic stomach contents flowing backwards from the stomach into the esophagus. It is not due to any problem with the heart despite its name. Instead heartburn is a result of weakening of the valve between the stomach and esophagus. This is known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or acid reflux. Heartburn is a symptom and is usually accompanied by other symptoms like nausea and loss of appetite.
Indigestion is a group of digestive symptoms such as abdominal discomfort after eating, a bloated sensation, burning in the upper abdomen, nausea and excessive belching. It may sometimes culminate in vomiting. Most of the time this arises after overeating, greasy meals, with alcohol consumption and so on. Indigestion may occur in various upper digestive conditions like gastritis, peptic ulcers and gallstones among a host of other conditions.
Causes of Heartburn and Indigestion
Some of the more common causes of pregnancy-related heartburn and indigestion have been discussed below. However, it is important to note that all causes of heartburn and indgestion, even those that are unrelated to pregnancy, need to be considered.
The growing uterus occupies more space in the pelvic and adbdominal cavities. As a result this increases pressure within these cavities. The rising intra-abdominal pressure presses against the stomach and can push stomach contents into the esophagus resulting in heartburn. It can also hamper stretching of the stomach and gastric emptying which may contribute to indigestion.
The elevated hormones that are normal in pregnancy can also have undesirable effects. Some of these effects extend to the digestive tract. Pregnancy hormones may further weaken the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) which results in acid reflux. Therefore heartburn is common in pregnancy.
The elevated hormones in early pregnancy is also responsible for morning sickness. While nausea and vomiting may not persist throughout the day, it can nevertheless contribute to other digestive symptoms that are broadly referred to as indigestion. However, some women may experience a persistent form of morning sickness that may last all day and throughout pregnancy.
Overeating and Diet
Changes in appetite and diet are common in pregnancy and normal for most pregnant women. One of the consequences is overeating. This can contribute to both indigestion and acid reflux. Furthemore it is not uncommon for pregnant women to eat unusual foods, spicy or greasy meals which may be related to cravings.
Sometimes there are cravings for indigestible items. This is known as pica and may be related to nutritional deficiencies. On the other hand, some women may experience a decrease in appetite. Apart from eating smaller meals, there may also be a tendency to not eat for long periods of time. Upon eating thereafter, heartburn and indigestion may occur.
Inactivity and Lying Flat
Physical activity can help with digestion. It expedites gastric emptying which may reduce heartburn and indigestion. However, many women are less active during pregnancy and especially after meals. Lying flat or sleeping after eating also play a role in aggravating heartburn and indigestion. This is more likely to occur after eating large meals, which in turn may cause a person to feel bloated and lethargic.
Remedies of Pregnancy Heartburn and Indigestion
There are many over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription drugs which are safe for pregnant women that can assist with heartburn and indigestion. However, it is always advisable to avoid medication during pregnancy. Any drugs, no matter how safe it may be, should only be taken with approval by a doctor and only when dietary and lifestyle remedies have failed to yield satisfactory results.
- Avoid greasy and spicy meals. If there cravings for these foods then consume it in small quantities and not with consecutive meals.
- Eat smaller meals more frequently. Do not have three large meals. Rather opt for 5 or 6 small meals spread throughout the day.
- Limit the snacking. While good nutrition during pregnancy should not be compromised, excessive snacking can contribute to heartburn and indigestion.
- Choose healthy snacks. Processed foods are more likely to contribute to heartburn and indigestion. Rather opt for small portions of fruit and vegetables for snack options.
- Identify trigger foods. Tolerance of certain foods can change in pregnancy. It is therefore important to identify and avoid foods that trigger/worsen heartburn and indigestion.
- Light physical activity after meals. Walking around, doing light household chores or other physical activity after a meal can minimize heartburn and indigestion.
- Sit upright after eating. Do not lie down flat even after a meal, even if awake. When light physical activity mentioned above is not an option, at least stand or sit upright.
- Do not eat before bedtime. Meals should be avoided too close to bedtime. Not only can it result in heartburn and indigestion, it may also result in poor quality sleep.
- Drink plenty of water. Ensure that sufficient quantities of water are consumed during and after a meal. The fluid can assist with gastric empty and prevent heartburn and indigestion.
- Avoid alcohol and caffeine. Alcohol in particular should not be consumed in any quantity during pregnancy. Not only can it contribute to heartburn and indigestion but it poses a risk to the fetus. Caffeine does not hold the same dangers although it should be minimized or preferably avoided in pregnancy.