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All women will not suffer from acid reflux during pregnancy and many will only have occasional heartburn. A significant number will have some reflux and for one-quarter of women it will be on a daily basis.
Pregnancy sometimes does cause acid reflux as a side effect of the many changes a women goes through during pregnancy. Why is this? There are two main factors that are believed to be the cause. First, hormonal changes during pregnancy lead to changes in the gastrointestinal tract. For example, the high levels of progesterone cause the GI tract to relax, this includes the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), the doorway between the stomach and esophagus. When the LES is weakened or damaged, or in the case of pregnant women relaxed, it is easier for stomach acids and digesting food to pass back into the esophagus.
Another factor is the actual size of the growing fetus, which may be why reflux symptoms in the third trimester are the worst. During the course of being pregnant organs have to gradually readjust their placement to make room. The intestines place pressure on the stomach, which can put pressure on the LES, again leading to unwanted opening.
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Simple Ways to Reduce Symptoms
Try the following tips to help reduce the symptoms of acid reflux disease. For women who experience little to no heartburn, simply taking these measures may be enough to bring relief during pregnancy. Even for women who require some form of treatment, whether natural or the use of medications, these tips can also greatly help to reduce the severity of symptoms.
- After the last meal of the evening, remain upright for at least four hours
- When sleeping, use pillows to elevate the torso (this can be difficult in the third trimester when women are told to sleep on their left side, but an extra two or three pillows can provide some elevation even when on your side)
- Eat small meals throughout the day, rather then larger meals
- Do not drink fluids with meals
- Avoid potential triggers, including fatty, spicy and greasy foods, coffee, soda, alcohol and sodium bicarbonate
- As long as it is approved by your doctor, do some exercise, such as a twenty minute walk a day
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Considering Natural Remedies
Using natural remedies is a way to relieve symptoms without introducing any drugs into your body. While all of these are generally safe, talk to your doctor before use, particularly before using any herbal remedies.
For natural, dietary changes to reduce symptoms you can add more carbohydrates to your diet. As nutrition is important, go for non-refined products — think oatmeal, brown rice, whole wheat bread and crackers. Make papaya a regular part of your diet. This fruit is rich in plant enzymes that will help with digestion. You can also find chewable papaya tablets in your local health food store to reduce heartburn. Eating a fresh, red apple after a meal may also improve digestion and prevent problems. Apples are by no means a cure, but some people have found this fruit, particularly the bright red varieties, to help. When symptoms do occur, try drinking a glass of warm soy milk or rice milk to bring relief.
You can also consider drinking herbal teas to bring relief. Two of the most gentle herbs that are excellent for calming the GI tract are chamomile and fennel. Ginger, which stimulates digestion and circulation, is a natural remedy for GERD symptoms but also for nausea during pregnancy (on the other hand, peppermint, which is often recommended to ease nausea, can contribute to reflux symptoms). Linden is a soothing herb which also relaxes the nerves and lowers blood pressure. Marshmallow root has both anti-inflammatory properties and it is rich in mucilage, soothing the inflamed tissue of the esophagus. Try any of these herbs only after talking to your doctor. Also, if they appear to aggravate symptoms, stop using them.
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Are Medications Safe?
If changing your eating habits and keeping your body elevated does not help, some women may be interested in taking the next step — over-the-counter or prescription medications. There are many different medications which can be used to treat acid reflux symptoms. Your doctor will recommend or prescribe you what can be used during pregnancy safely, although the fetus will inevitably be exposed to anything you put into your body.
As with herbs, do not take anything without talking to your doctor first. That being said, some antacids are relatively safe, especially if they are only used on occasion. Stay away from antacids that contain sodium bicarbonate, salicylclate (aspirin) or aluminum. Chewable calcium carbonate tablets and magnesium hydroxide or oxide tablets are considered to be safer. If you require more than the occasional antacid, talk to your doctor about a prescription medication that is safe for you.
Acid reflux during pregnancy is simply a part of the experience for many women. There are solutions. Do what you can in terms of improving your diet and lifestyle habits and see how effective this is. If more is necessary, talk to your doctor about what treatment methods are right for you.
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Sklar, Jill and Annabel Cohen. Eating for Acid Reflux. (Marlowe and Company, 2003).
Balch, Phyllis A. Prescription for Nutritional Healing.Fourth Edition (Penguin Books, 2006).
Briggs, Gerald. "Which heartburn medicines are safe during pregnancy?" Baby Center, http://www.babycenter.com/404_which-heartburn-medicines-are-safe-during-pregnancy_1440876.bc
photo by Josefine Stenudd