While women generally have an easier time talking about our health than do our male counterparts, one area in which we lag behind is being open about our digestive issues. Many women have chronic digestive issues that come with us to work and impair productivity, while reducing overall quality of life at home. Feeling stigmatization about digestive issues is associated with decreased access to medical care and greater psychological distress.
Digestive disease in women
Common signs and symptoms of digestive dysfunction include:
- trouble swallowing
- acid reflux
- abdominal pain
Women are less likely than men to develop gastrointestinal reflux disease (GERD), peptic ulcers, colitis, and gastric cancer. Research shows that estrogen may have a protective role in the development of these particular conditions.
Women, though, draw the short straw with a higher prevalence of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), celiac disease, and colon cancer than men. Women with IBS tend to experience more abdominal bloating, nausea, constipation, depression, and anxiety than do men with IBS. But some evidence suggests that IBS pain may improve after menopause.
Your digestion on hormones
Since there are receptors for estrogen and progesterone in the gastrointestinal tract, these reproductive hormones have a bearing on digestion.
- For premenopausal women, the follicular phase of the menstrual cycle begins with the first day of menstrual flow and ends with ovulation. This phase is marked by high levels of estrogen. Research suggests that motility of the gastrointestinal organs is decreased among women during this time, which could contribute to constipation.
- The luteal phase of the menstrual cycle begins with ovulation and ends with the onset of menstrual flow. In this phase, estrogen and progesterone levels are low. It’s common to experience loose stools during this phase.
- During menstruation, diarrhea is the most commonly reported digestive symptom.
- Pregnancy is supported by high progesterone, which tends to slow down gastrointestinal motility. This may contribute to pregnancy-related constipation, reflux, and biliary dysfunction.
Food: Friend or foe?
For most people, fiber-rich foods (oats, asparagus, legumes), and probiotic-rich foods (sauerkraut, kimchi, plain yogurt) are helpful for a happy tummy. But these very foods can sometimes aggravate digestive distress, and this is when it can be helpful to consider small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), FODMAP intolerance (FODMAPs are specific carbohydrate molecules in some foods), and food sensitivities as underlying contributors to your symptoms.
Along with your health care practitioner, develop a diet plan that works for you. Supplements may also help, which should be taken with supervision (see BetsyHealth note below). Examples that may help digestion include:
- licorice root
By Dr. Cassie Irwin, ND
BetsyHealth Note: This article is for educational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, treat, prevent or cure any disease. Consult your healthcare provider before trying a supplement, especially if you have a medical condition, including being pregnant or nursing, take prescription or over-the-counter medications, or are planning on having surgery.
Article copyright 2023 by Alive Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
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