Pregnancy Indigestion and Nausea

Pregnant woman with upset stomach

Pregnancy indigestion and nausea include more than just morning sickness. Some women have occasional nausea and heartburn throughout the pregnancy. Some experience worsening symptoms as the baby grows. In the worst cases, nausea and vomiting are so severe that the woman must be hospitalized.

Why Pregnancy, Indigestion, and Nausea Go Together

Digestive problems are common in pregnancy. The two most frequent are:

  • Morning sickness
  • Heartburn

No one knows exactly why some women get morning sickness and others don't. A woman's natural levels of estrogen and progesterone change rapidly when she becomes pregnant, and doctors think the nausea and vomiting are related to these changes. Morning sickness can come on as early as the first week of pregnancy and usually disappears by the fourth month.

Heartburn tends to appear later in the pregnancy. It happens when stomach acid doesn't stay in the stomach. Normally, a band of muscle at the top of the stomach clamps down like a valve to hold digestive acid in. During pregnancy, hormones cause that muscle to relax, letting the valve loosen and leak. At the same time, the hormones cause digestion to slow down. As the pregnancy progresses and the baby grows, the uterus also presses against the stomach, making heartburn more likely.

Getting Over Morning Sickness

Early in pregnancy, indigestion and nausea are often due to morning sickness. Most women stop having morning sickness around the end of the first trimester, but some continue to have nausea throughout the pregnancy.

Here are some ways to ward off nausea:

  • Eat frequent, small meals with foods high in protein, vitamins, and complex carbohydrates that are low in fat.
  • Keep a snack by your bed and eat it before you actually get out of bed each morning.
  • Have small snacks as often as every hour or two.
  • Drink plenty of water - especially warm water as that is often easier on your stomach.
  • Avoid cigarette smoke and other strong odors.

When nausea strikes, try these remedies:

  • Sip ginger tea or nibble on candied ginger.
  • Switch to simple foods like clear broth and plain crackers.

Pregnancy and Heartburn

Young women often experience heartburn for the first time when they're pregnant. If you've never felt it before, heartburn can be frightening. It's a burning sensation that starts below the sternum and may travel all the way up to the throat. Sometimes, there's also a bad taste at the back of the mouth or a chronic sore throat. Older people sometimes mistake heartburn for a heart attack.

Heading Off Heartburn

Making careful food choices can help ward off heartburn.

  • Eat small meals.
  • Drink fluids between meals and drink only a small amount of liquid with food.
  • Avoid trigger foods. Fatty foods can set off heartburn and so can caffeine, chocolate, peppermint, and spicy foods.

These tips can also help:

  • Raise the head of your bed or prop up your pillow. Lying flat allows acid to seep out of the stomach.
  • Don't lie down immediately after eating.
  • Avoid tight clothing. Restrictive clothes can push on a pregnant belly and aggravate symptoms.
  • Avoid gaining more weight than necessary for a healthy pregnancy.

Heartburn Medicines

Check with your doctor before taking any medicine for pregnancy indigestion and nausea, even over-the-counter medicine. Doctors often recommend the following treatments:

  • Magnesium-based antacids like Mylanta and Milk of Magnesia.
  • H2 blockers, over-the-counter medicines that slow down production of stomach acid.
  • Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), also sold over-the-counter. PPIs slow down acid production in a different way. They are usually used only if H2 blockers fail to help.

When to Worry

Some amount of pregnancy nausea and indigestion is inevitable. However, some women have such severe symptoms that they become seriously ill. Unrelenting nausea and severe indigestion can put the baby at risk, too. Check with your doctor any time you're worried about your symptoms. If you develop any of the following symptoms, don't delay: call your doctor immediately.

  • Vomiting blood.
  • Vomiting dark material that looks like coffee grounds (This may be blood that has spent some time in the stomach).
  • Frequent vomiting, more than three times per day, or inability to keep food and liquid down.
  • Weight loss.
  • Constant heartburn or heartburn that wakes you at night.
  • Bloody stools.
  • Bowel movements which are very dark and sticky (this may be blood that has passed through the digestive system).

Morning sickness that lasts beyond the first trimester is often normal, but it sometimes can reveal a problem with the pregnancy. See your doctor if you're still having nausea and vomiting after the first few months.

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