Feeling the Burn? Common Causes for Heartburn in Pregnancy and 5 Ways to Find ReliefJan 04, 2021
Are you feeling the burn? Not the good “I’ve just finished a strong and solid workout and my muscles are on fire” kind. The burn that bubbles up like a flame, rising from your belly to the back of your throat…that kind. The heartburn kind. Gulp. I’ve been there and it was a sometimes day and night occurrence in the third trimester of each of my pregnancies, so I get it. And it can be B-R-U-T-A-L. But fear not, I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve from those fiery experiences, along with some knowledge nuggets as to what brings the heat in the first place, and I want to share them with you. Let’s explore the reasons why you may feel like a dragon breathing fire as your pregnancy progresses. And better yet, I’ve got my best 5 tips that might make it feel more manageable. No fire extinguishers necessary.
First, let’s take a look at what's going on in there. Sure, you are growing a human being and all (high five, because THAT in itself is amazing!) but why-oh-why does that have anything to do with what brings the heat you’re feeling? I mean, we aren’t working a math problem here (now THAT would make me sweat) but I am willing to wager that at least 50 % of this hot equation boils down to your pregnancy anatomy. The way that pregnancy is changing your body anatomy inside has a lot to do with what feels like is trying to make its way outside of your body. We aren't just talking about that bun you’re baking in there. I'm referencing all the lovely life sustaining bits that you had before that little wheat sprout was planted. That’s right, your organs. Or at least a few of them. And pregnancy hormones play a part here too!
As your baby grows in your womb space, the space remaining for what surrounds it becomes less and less. Bodies are magnificent, stacking and connecting internal organs in a strategic puzzle-like fashion. While many of them are shifted or squashed in pregnancy, the ones we will focus on in this post are the uterus, stomach and esophagus. And there are cascades of hormones shifting through your body too, but we’ll just look at progesterone and relaxin for now. To break this down a bit, let’s follow a piece of food from your plate to your stomach and then back up again.
What’s your favorite thing to eat right now? Although it’s less likely to give you that burning sensation then other food choices (we’ll get to why in a second,) I’m loving avocado toast way too much currently, so let’s imagine that. The crisp bread, topped with fresh micro greens, a giant smear of smooshed ripe avocado (a pregnancy superfood!) and a sprinkle of everything but the bagel seasoning. Oh yes, this is my jam. You take a bite of food and the breakdown begins. That once beautifully presented (and likely WAY overpriced at nearly every restaurant) morsel is being mashed around in your mouth, moving from your tongue to your teeth and then back again. Your saliva gets to work on the ground up pieces, forming a bolus of food. You swallow and down it goes! Your esophagus carries this food bolus to your stomach, which by the point of your third trimester is nearly flat as a fluffy pancake. And now I want pancakes. Ha! But let’s bring the focus back to your stomach, and also what lies beneath it. Sure, sure, there are intestines and such...but it’s the uterus that puts the pressure and partly contributes to the bounce back of that bolus we created earlier. But why?
Your uterus is the mega muscular organ that houses your baby as they grow, stretch, kick and flip, preparing for their birthday. While it plays a big role in contracting to get your baby down and out, it also pushes nearly everything else up, over or down as it gets bigger, to accommodate your growing baby. This includes the stomach that your avocado toast just landed into. Your stomach functions in digestion by secreting gastric juices that help to break down your food further and then churning those bites into smaller pieces before passing the breakdown baton to your intestines. Pre-pregnancy, and even in the first and second trimesters, your stomach still has space to move food through each of its segments. Third trimester? That sucker is squashed. Add in the effects of the hormone progesterone and the stomach is also delayed in emptying by its heightened presence in pregnancy. So, often what enters in food form wants to creep back up after mixing with bile and other secretions that break it down before it starts moving on.
You may wonder...aren’t there stopping or blocking points in our body to help keep this stuff from coming back up? Yes! These are called sphincters and there is one located at the bottom of your esophagus that generally does a darn good job of keeping food from traveling back up from your stomach. But in pregnancy, we have another fun factor to consider hormone wise, especially in that home stretch that is the third trimester Enter relaxin. While this pregnancy hormone is fantastic at keeping things pliable, stretchy and supple (which is a good thing for birth!) it also becomes a bit pesky when relaxing the smooth muscles of both our stomach and that esophageal sphincter we just mentioned. Strikes and gutters, I tell ya!. So, up travels some of what your body has worked so hard to break down. Up from your stomach, to your esophagus and maybe even into your mouth. And whoa baby, it burns!
While that fancy avocado toast is pretty mild in an acidic manner as a whole, there is a grocery-long list of foods and beverages known to contribute to heartburn, whether you are pregnant or not. In the moment, that morning cup of coffee or that dinner bowl of pasta topped with tomato sauce might call your name and be oh-so-tasty. Hot items to consider are fried foods, acidic fruit juices or liquids and things that are spicy. While these aren’t necessarily off limits, pay attention to the after effects and take note if you find them fueling the heartburn (or even reflux) flame. Some folks feel the heat while others remain cool and unaffected.
Now that we know what can contribute to this common form of fiery discomfort, let’s shift to relief. If you are experiencing this currently or have in the past, you know how desperately this can be sought out. Here are my top 5 tips for relief:
Analyze your intake choices. Is there an obvious culprit here? Or one you are now very much aware of and want to avoid or limit consuming more of in the future? When browsing options, consider whether they’ve been a burning trigger for you in the past. If yes, maybe pass on the chance to have it return to haunt you.
Examine your intake amounts. Thinking back to your stomach, consider its current capacity. It’s less now, right? Consider smaller meal portions so that there are less contents being kicked back up. Progesterone hormone presence is slowing the digestive process, giving food a longer hang time in your stomach. Hey, calorie needs are increased at the end of pregnancy, I get it. But smaller meals, more frequently, may be helpful.
Let gravity be your friend. If you opted IN instead of passing on that heat-inspiring item to eat or drink or maybe even had a second helping (or third...no judgement here), let gravity work in your favor. This means remaining upright for a bit after that last bite. Ever notice how heartburn can hit you most at night? A horizontal position may be to blame here, as you are leveling the playing field for that ball of fire to travel through when you are laying flat. Leaving time between eating and sleeping can also be helpful.
Weigh in on your hydration. Give that food something to swim in. I’m talking about water here. Water is your friend (especially in that third trimester!) for things like heartburn, swelling and pre-labor contractions! Not only can hydration help relieve swollen feet and ankles (sounds counterintuitive, I know, but it’s true), it also helps balance out those Braxton-Hicks contractions. If you are dehydrated, all of those things can intensify right along with heartburn. So, help bring ease to many end of pregnancy discomforts at once by remaining mindful of hydration. When was the last time you drank water today? Could you benefit from a drink of water right now as you are reading this?
Talk to your provider. Relief looks different for each and every birthing person. While some shy away from the idea of taking anything at all, others shout “give me all the goods if they make this [insert current ailment or feeling here] go away.” And you know what? If you are making an informed decision and feel good about it, that matters more than if you are doing the same as your friend/sister/mother/co worker/etc. Did, right?. If you are seeking natural relief methods, talk to your provider about chewable papaya enzymes, ginger lozenges or herbal teas, such as this Heartburn one from Earth Mama Organics (←--That was my favorite, if I’m sharing what worked for me!). If you are feeling concerned about the symptoms you are experiencing, having a sit down with your midwife or OB can feel helpful and even identify or rule out other contributing factors or causes for concern. Some folks request or require medication, so whether it is a script being written for meds or a supportive talk to explore more options, keeping that conversation open with your provider can help you find relief too.
If you’ve tried All! The! Things! with little or no relief, sometimes TIME is the magic fix. Once your baby is in your arms, you may find that your heartburn disappears completely, as organs and hormones return to more pre-pregnant places.
Now that we know what has potential to cause heartburn in pregnancy and I’ve shared a few tried and (for some folks) true methods for minimizing intensity or finding relief, I want to hear about YOUR experience. What relief measures have you found to work in slaying the heartburn fire-dragon? Drop a comment below so we can share minimizing measures together!
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Looking for that yummy Heartburn Tea that I had mentioned helped me so much? You can find it right here in the shop and through February 5th, Earth Mama® Organic Heartburn Tea is 10% off when you purchase it through The Chosen Nest!