Suffering from acid reflux is a very common occurrence during pregnancy – it affects approximately 80% of expecting mothers. While most pregnant women begin to experience acid reflux in their third trimester, it can start at any time. Unfortunately, symptoms of acid reflux only increase in intensity throughout the pregnancy, which can cause considerable discomfort as the pregnancy progresses. The good news is that pregnancy-induced acid reflux rarely causes any complications, and with proper diet and treatment, it should resolve itself after delivery.
The cause of acid reflux during pregnancy is twofold:
- The pregnancy hormone progesterone
- The pressure and shifting from a growing baby
Progesterone causes muscles and tendons in a pregnant woman’s body to loosen up in preparation for a growing baby and eventual delivery. Although progesterone is there to help, it isn’t picky about which muscles it relaxes, which can cause some problems.
The LES, or lower esophageal sphincter is among those muscles that are affected by progesterone. The LES is what keeps food and stomach acid where they ideally belong – in the stomach. If the LES is not functioning properly, i.e. if it’s been relaxed by progesterone, then food and stomach acid can work their way back up into the esophagus, causing a burning sensation around the heart (“heart burn”) and general discomfort.
Now, combine a loosened LES with a growing baby that is pushing upward against the stomach for more room, and you’ve got a great recipe for some bad acid reflux.
Because a pregnant woman’s body won’t stop producing progesterone until after delivery, and the baby continues to grow, it’s easy to see how the symptoms of acid reflux will only continue to worsen. While most women don’t experience the symptoms until their third trimester, there are many women who develop acid reflux as early as their first trimester.
While acid reflux is very common and it can be very uncomfortable if not downright painful, there are ways to properly treat it and ease the discomfort it causes. One of the most widely recommended methods is a simple change in diet.
At her first natal check up, a pregnant woman is generally advised on a proper diet and nutrition to help keep her and her growing bundle of joy as healthy and happy as possible. In that vein, diet is a key proponent in properly managing acid reflux caused by pregnancy. Acidic drinks and foods should be reduced or even completely avoided when symptoms of acid reflux first appear. Drinks such as coffee, soda and some teas are often culprits, as are spicy foods, chocolate, and even some aged cheeses.
Changes in diet may help considerably, but for many women, that alone isn’t enough. Should symptoms of acid reflux continue to rear their ugly heads, pregnant women can always resort to natural remedies or over-the-counter solutions. Acid-reducing drugs come with risks, but thankfully most of those risks seem to be for long-term users. The real risk may be becoming dependent on them – quitting acid-reducing drugs can sometimes cause a “rebound effect” where your body overcompensates by producing too much acid once your off the drugs.
There are of course prescription medications available for treatment; however they are not generally necessary in normal cases of pregnancy-induced acid reflux, and should always be discussed with a doctor prior to use.
A final word of advice is to avoid lying flat. Because progesterone will continue to relax the lower esophageal sphincter throughout pregnancy, food and stomach acid can still re-enter the esophagus if the neck is level with the body. Elevating the upper body with additional pillows to support the neck and upper back can prevent any backflow and keep stomach acid and food where they belong – in the stomach.
Throughout her pregnancy, a woman’s body will go through countless changes. Some, such as glowing skin and luxurious hair, are very welcome. Other changes, such as acid reflux – not so much. The last thing a pregnant woman requires is extra discomfort is not at all needed. Dietary changes, natural and over-the-counter solutions, and a simple change of elevation are all tried and true methods to bring relief.
- “Treatment of heartburn and acid reflux associated with nausea and vomiting during pregnancy” (Feb. 2010) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2821234/)
- “Heartburn” (May 17, 2018) https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseasesconditions/heartburn/symptoms-causes/syc-20373223
- “Indigestion and heartburn during pregnancy” (Nov. 27, 2017) https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/indigestion-heartburn-pregnant/
- Tim Petrie, “Progesterone and Acid Reflux”, https://www.livestrong.com/article/413318-progesterone-and-acid-reflux/