Women in their late 40s who are regularly troubled with heartburn and GERD often question, “Why me?” Well, you aren’t alone. You will be amazed to know that around 42% of perimenopausal and 47% of postmenopausal women go through heartburn. Well, this is an estimation from a study conducted on 497 women.
The other day, I met a friend in her late 40s. After we exchanged pleasantries and I offered a chat over coffee, she helplessly began to tell me how the recurrent episodes of gassiness and heartburn kept her away from all her favorite foods. She had many visits to the doctor’s office. Here, reports came fine, and all that she was informed was that it was the play of the hormones since she was transitioning into menopause.
The feeling of heartburn is terrible! That burning sensation in your tummy that aggravates after a meal is dreadful. And what makes matters worse is that acidic feeling that travels from your stomach to your throat – leaving a bitter-sour taste in the mouth. Someone (like me) who has suffered from heartburn all their life can tell how helpless they feel during these episodes of acid reflux.
Someone once asked me, “Yes, Sabrina, I have heartburn, but what does that have to do with menopause?” There’s a connection. Are you bogged down with regular episodes of acid reflux or heartburn? Has your digestive system started behaving awkwardly all of a sudden? Well, then, this write-up is a must-read for you. I’ll surely walk you through the connection between menopause and heartburn and provide you with useful tips to manage heartburn during menopause.
Heartburn and Menopause – How are Both Connected?
I was in a conversation with another writer friend of mine the other day. She said, ‘Until I started researching hormones and menopause, I could never have imagined that our reproductive hormones are so impactful in affecting each one of our systems.” Her thoughts are bang on.
This section is about the connection between menopause and heartburn. Read on to learn about the relationship between the two. Understanding the role of estrogen and progesterone in a woman’s body that affects other internal biological things is essential.
How the Hormones Work
When the hormone levels are normal, all is well. But, a fluctuation accounts for all the problems women encounter during menstruation and menopause. You may have noticed that you were in great physical health in your 20s and early 30s with minimum ailments. However, after you stepped into the 40s, your body may have started acting weird. It’s all because of the play of the hormones.
Both these hormones (estrogen and progesterone) help in the growth and development of the uterus and are pivotal in fertility and reproduction. As a woman progresses in her growing years, her fertility eventually declines, being the lowest by the time she reaches 45, with minimum chances of pregnancy. A woman is most fertile between the late teen years and late 20s.
By 30, there is a decrease in fertility levels, which drops further by the time a woman is 35 years old. In her 40s, and particularly by age 45, fertility is the lowest, and the chances of pregnancy are almost nil since she is transitioning into menopause. The reason for low fertility is the low supply of eggs to the ovary. Lessened eggs result in low estrogen and progesterone levels that impact digestion.
Establishing the Connection – Menopause and Heartburn
The above explanations may have helped you understand that a fall in estrogen and progesterone levels results in indigestion and heartburn. These hormones aren’t just reproductive hormones but impact the entire body’s functioning. Here are some explanations of the same.
- Estrogen and Progesterone Controls the Digestive Tract
Over the years, researchers have identified the role of estrogen in controlling the digestive tract and relaxing the intestinal muscles through certain chemical mechanisms. Both hormones help control the intestinal muscles and ensure food travels smoothly down the intestinal tract. So it’s quite well understood why our digestive tract goes haywire when there is a decrease in these hormone levels.
- Estrogen is Effective in Pain Management
Estrogen also controls the pain quotient since it boosts serotonin levels. Increased production of serotonin means a good night’s sleep, a positive state of mind, and less pain. So, when estrogen levels dip, it will also affect serotonin, lessening your tolerance to pain.
- Low Estrogen Means High Cortisol
Did you know that when you are stressed, your body also gets affected alongside your mind? Do you feel the happy-go-lucky self that you were in your 20s and 30s, changing rapidly when you transitioned into your 40s? I felt that way, mostly because of the sleep problems and hot flashes I had.
The hormone that regulates your stress, cortisol, increases by nine times during high anxiety levels. The cortisol levels are also affected by the estrogen. Low estrogen levels mean high cortisol levels. Elevated cortisol levels have an adverse effect on the digestive system, aggravating symptoms of heartburn, bloating, acid reflux, flatulence, and abdominal cramps. This study evaluates the impact of increased cortisol levels on individuals with IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome). 
Women experiencing menopause or on the verge of it are more susceptible to GERD, heartburn, and bloating than others. If they always had the symptoms, it could elevate during the menopausal phase.
7 Tips to Find Relief from Heartburn During Menopause
My friend called me the other day, saying she has had enough of the medicines to manage heartburn. She couldn’t have them anymore. She wanted some tips that would help her from the disturbing symptoms. I gave her some tips that my doctor once suggested to me. I would love to share them with you as well.
1. Exercise Regularly
Since the time I started taking exercise seriously, I’ve been able to manage a whole lot of my digestive issues. 30-minute exercise 5 days a week keeps me fit. It is a combination of many things. Sometimes, it’s just brisk walking in the park. When I get a little time, I even do some jogging. The doctor advised cardio exercises for better digestion.
So, I have devoted my weekends to an aerobic class. If dancing is your foray, you could choose to join a zumba or salsa class. That’s an amazing cardio exercise also.
Yoga is also extremely beneficial for menopausal women, as it will help them live a better life. A study was conducted on 88 menopausal women who undertook a yoga regime for 12 weeks. At the end of it, they mentioned how yoga helped in decreasing several symptoms of menopause and also lessened the stress level.
2. Eat in Less but Frequent Intervals
In the mornings, I would mostly gulp down a jumbo sandwich and a glass of juice before leaving for work hurriedly. Little did I realize I was hurting myself this way, putting myself at risk of heartburn. Eating smaller meals throughout the day, instead of one or two big meals, puts less pressure on your digestive tract. It also helps to maintain a proper balance of stress hormones.
According to most experts, eating five small meals throughout the day would be ideal. However, make sure that you reserve the smallest meal for dinner time. That’s what I do. It will prevent your digestive system from overloading.
3. Eat at a Slow Pace
When you are eating in a hurry, you are doing a lot of damage to your digestive system. It deprives your body of breaking down the food before it travels to your stomach. It comes in the way of smooth digestion.
Also, eating fast means a lot of air is inside your system. It may trigger gassiness and bloating. That’s why eating slowly and chewing your food well is important. Even If I am in a hurry, I consciously try to slow down during mealtimes to avoid the troublesome heartburn episodes that may follow.
4. Avoid Drinking a Lot of Water when Eating
Having a lot of water or other fluids while eating will lead to acidity because it dilutes the gastric juices and slows digestion. That’s why it is advisable to avoid drinking while eating. If you have to, then half a glass of water will be fine, not more than that.
5. Reduce Caffeine Intake
If you swear by a cup of coffee like me, then it’s time you lessen your obsession with the same. It’s for the benefit of your health. Too much coffee can lead to many health problems, including heartburn and indigestion. In menopause, your digestive system becomes even more sensitive. So, it is always essential to take care of your diet. Avoid all the triggers that could elevate heartburn and make matters worse.
Besides heartburn, hot flashes are another common symptom during menopause, which gets aggravated if your caffeine intake is high. A study with 196 participants also validated this claim.
6. Decrease your Alcohol Consumption
Like caffeine, alcohol is also responsible for triggering hot flashes, insufficient sleep, heartburn, and other symptoms of menopause. A survey conducted on 255 women between 45 and 55 years of age showed that women who consumed alcohol daily were more prone to night sweats and alcohol.
There are contradicting results as well. Two studies, one conducted in 2005 and the other conducted in 2007, showed how alcohol helped to relieve hot flashes in menopause. However, here our concern is heartburn. And, if you have a sensitive digestive system, you should lessen your alcohol intake. However, if you have the urge to drink, limiting the consumption to 14 units of alcohol each week, which totals eight glasses of wine, wouldn’t hurt you much.
7. Cut Down on Smoking
Smoking increases acid production in the stomach, thus making one prone to heartburn and acid reflux. Besides this, if we talk about menopause specifically, smoking triggers hot flashes and sleep problems.
A study in 1962 conducted on 650 women deduced that around 20% of them had early menopause because of smoking. Another study conducted much later in 2018 also tried to establish a relationship between smoking and early menopause. Though the results lack consistency, it is high time you quit smoking if you are going through menopause.
NOTE: Besides alcohol consumption, smoking, and caffeine consumption, you should cut down on any food during menopause that might trigger heartburn and GERD. These may include spicy foods and high-calorie foods like chocolates, carbonated drinks, burgers, pizza, etc. Believe me, it was a tough choice. Cutting down on these tempting but damaging foods has helped me cope with heartburn better.
Can Taking Antacids to Relieve Heartburn During Menopause Be Bad for You?
I had become an antacid addict till the time my doctor literally threatened me with the severe consequences I would face if I didn’t do away with this habit.
Did you know? Prolonged usage of antacids to relieve heartburn could come in the way of calcium and magnesium absorption in your body. Both minerals play a significant role during menopause. Calcium takes care of bone health, while magnesium lessens depression, stress, and sleep problems When the levels of these minerals are hampered, it could be troublesome. So, what seems to give you instant relief may cause immense harm in the long run.
Is GERD, Heartburn, and Acid Reflux the Same?
With so many terms doing the rounds, you must be wondering if GERD (Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease), heartburn, and acid reflux are the same or not. No, they aren’t. When the contents of your stomach flows back to the esophagus, it causes acid reflux.
The burning sensation in your chest after meals or when you lie down is heartburn. While acid reflux in its aggravated form is GERD, where the constant backflow of acid damages the body in the long run.
Watery foods such as lettuce, cucumber, celery, and watermelon help in the dilution of stomach acid. Then there are foods rich in alkaline, such as melon, cauliflower, and bananas, which help to neutralize the stomach acids. Fiber-rich foods like sweet potatoes, brown rice, beans, and oatmeal help you remain full. So you will not have to eat a lot in one go.
The chocolates (dark), which contain caffeine and theobromine, could trigger acid reflux. At the same time, the cocoa present in the chocolates leads to a fluctuation in serotonin levels, the hormone that controls our mood.
Hope the details on heartburn in menopause will be of help to you all, particularly those dealing with it. If you’ve had a sensitive digestive system all your life, you will have to be super careful when you reach the menopausal age. It’s not as difficult as it sounds. By being conscious about what you eat and the way you live, you can manage these digestive disorders to a greater extent.
Remember one thing. It’s your body, and you know it the best. If heartburn is recurring and affects your daily life, do not sit with it and think it’s all due to the hormones. Seek medical help. It might be a medical issue that may get sorted when treated at the earliest.