Digestive Problems During Pregnancy

Pregnancy can disrupt the physiological processes of the body, with the gastrointestinal system being one of the most common. Digestive problems like indigestion, heartburn, nausea, flatulence, haemorrhoids and constipation all often occur during pregnancy. All these issues and how you can ease or prevent related symptoms are going to be discussed below.

Indigestion When Pregnant

Being pregnant means that high levels of hormones are produced,most of which relax the muscles in the body, including those of the gastrointestinal system. During pregnancy, progesterone is one of the most common hormones that the body produces more of. This hormone acts as a muscle relaxant, particularly for the uterus muscles,thus avoiding premature labour. This relaxation has a direct effect on the digestive system, causing indigestion accompanied by bloating, feeling full, discomfort in the chest or stomach and heartburn. As the baby grows, pressure is created in the stomach which can worsen the above symptoms.

Who is more likely to experience indigestion:

  • Women who have suffered from indigestion before getting pregnant.
  • Women who have been pregnant before.
  • Women at the later stages of pregnancy.

How to avoid and relieve indigestion and its symptoms:

  • Eat small meals throughout the day.
  • Avoid large portions.
  • Eat dinner at least 3 hours before going to bed to avoid indigestion at night.
  • Avoid extra pressure on the stomach after a meal.
  • Do not lie down for at least an hour after a meal.
  • Drink a glass of milk, which can help to ease any symptoms.
  • Avoid fatty and spicy foods which can irritate and take longer to pass through the digestive system
  • Avoid caffeine as it also affects digestion.
  • Avoid chocolate and fruit juices as they could be trigger factors.
  • Avoid bending over.
  • If symptoms persist the GP may prescribe you an acid-suppressing medication like omeprazole or ranitidine.

Heartburn When Pregnant

Heartburn is a digestive problem that pregnant women often experience. Progesterone is again responsible for this discomfort as it affects the oesophageal sphincter. This muscle is found at the top of stomach, and is designed to prevent the contents of the stomach, including stomach acid, moving up into the oesophagus. When that muscle relaxes, the stomach acid that is used for digestion, can move up to the oesophagus causing pain and discomfort. This is known as heartburn. Moreover, as the baby grows, it squeezes the stomach thus further displacing the acid. This is why, many women are suffering from heartburn during the second and the third trimesters.

How to avoid and relieve heartburn:

  • Eat smaller portions.
  • Eat slowly and chew your food well.
  • Stay upright after meals and avoid laying down in bed or on the couch to help digestion.
  • Avoid drinking while eating.
  • Drink peppermint or ginger tea, which can soothe the digestive system.
  • Wear loose clothes.
  • Keep a journal with foods that cause you heartburn and avoid them.

Constipation When Pregnant

40% of women will suffer from constipation at some point during their pregnancy. Progesterone is once again responsible for this symptom.  Normally, the bowel moves stools and waste products as the muscle that lines the bowel contracts and relaxes; a process known as peristalsis. Increased levels of progesterone, however, make it difficult for the bowel muscles to contract, making it harder for the stools to move along, thus leads to constipation.

What causes constipation:

  • Hormonal changes: increased production of progesterone.
  • Increased pressure in the intestinal area as the baby grows.
  • Increased levels of iron taken from supplements.
  • Lack of fibre intake.
  • Lack of fluids, including water.
  • Lack of exercise.

How to avoid and relieve constipation:

  • Drink water as this helps keep the stools soft.
  • Have a warm drink.
  • Exercise: Gentle exercise like yoga stimulates peristalsis.
  • Magnesium or Vitamin C supplements draw water in the bowel, stimulating peristalsis.
  • Maintain a healthy gut flora.

Nausea & Vomiting When Pregnant

Almost 90% of women will experience a form of food aversion, nausea or vomiting during pregnancy. Most of these symptoms are experienced during the first trimester. Nausea is a result of the hormonal changes in the body.

The most common food aversion that pregnant women face, is to protein. From an evolution perspective, scientists suggest that nausea is a mechanism to protect the baby against toxins and dangerous substances that could harm it. For instance, meat could contain bacteria or parasites that could put the baby in danger. Food aversion in smoky and spicy foods can also be explained using the same approach, as flavoured foods can mask the smell and taste of spoiled meat.

Nausea usually gets worse when blood sugar becomes low. However, during pregnancy, blood sugar levels tend to be high as the developing foetus requires a good supply of energy to grow. Thus, when a woman is experiencing nausea, it could be a sign that the body requires more energy.

How to avoid and relieve nausea:

  • Eat carbohydrates like cereals, crackers and bagels.
  • Avoid high fat foods.
  • Eat or drink ginger; known for reducing nausea.
  • Eat creamy food like avocados, yoghurts and cottage cheese.
  • Drink smoothies with coconut milk.
  • Take cod liver oil.
  • Iron supplements can often cause nausea. Take them with food or two hours after having a meal.

Haemorrhoids When Pregnant

Increased pressure in the veins of the anorectal area during pregnancy can cause haemorrhoids. Constipation can also be a factor. Haemorrhoids are swollen veins found in the lower rectum and around the anal area, which can either be internal or external. Haemorrhoids are associated with pain, severe itching at the opening of the rectum and difficulty in sitting. If haemorrhoids are left untreated, they can become worse as the pregnancy progresses, especially during the pushing stage of birth.

How to avoid and relieve haemorrhoids:

  • Avoid constipation.
  • Avoid standing still or sitting for a long time.
  • Use topical creams available in pharmacies.