Despite its name, heartburn has nothing to do with the heart. (Some of the symptoms, however, are similar to those of a heart attack or heart disease.) Heartburn is an irritation of the esophagus that is caused by stomach acid and is a common pregnancy complaint, especially in the third trimester when the growing uterus places pressure on the stomach.
With gravity's help, a muscular valve called the lower esophageal sphincter, or LES, keeps stomach acid in the stomach. The LES is located where the esophagus meets the stomach -- below the rib cage and slightly left of center. Normally it opens to allow food into the stomach or to permit belching; then it closes again. But if the LES opens too often or does not close tight enough, stomach acid can reflux, or seep, back into the esophagus and cause a burning sensation.
Occasional heartburn isn't dangerous, but chronic heartburn can indicate serious problems, such as gastritis or gastroesophageal reflux disease, also called GERD. Heartburn is a daily occurrence for 10% of Americans and 50% of pregnant women. It's an occasional nuisance for another 30% of the population.
If you didn't have heartburn before you were pregnant, it will probably go away when your baby is born.
Symptoms of Heartburn During Pregnancy
Common heartburn symptoms reported by pregnant women include:
- A burning feeling in the chest just behind the breastbone (the sternum) that occurs after eating and lasts a few minutes to several hours
- Chest pain, especially after bending over, lying down, or eating
- Burning in the throat -- or hot, sour, or salty-tasting fluid at the back of the throat
- Chronic coughing
- Wheezing or other asthma-like symptoms
Prevention and Treatment of Heartburn During Pregnancy
To ease heartburn during pregnancy without medications, you should try the following:
- Eat several small meals each day instead of three large ones.
- Avoid fatty, fried, spicy, or rich foods.
- Avoid chocolate, coffee, caffeine, and mint.
- Drink less fluid while eating. Drinking large amounts while eating may increase the risk of acid reflux and heartburn.
- Don't lie down right after eating.
- Keep the head of your bed higher than the foot of your bed.
- Wear loose-fitting clothing. Tight-fitting clothes can increase the pressure on your stomach and abdomen.
- Try to sleep on your left side. Your stomach is on the left, so it's harder for acids to get into the esophagus at this angle.
- Chew a piece of gum. This creates more saliva with bicarbonate, which neutralizes the acid in the esophagus when swallowed.
If your heartburn persists, see your doctor. They may recommend over-the-counter antacids or prescribe drugs that are safe to take during pregnancy. Pregnancy-related heartburn usually disappears after childbirth.