Women who have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) may notice that their symptoms may change at different points in their menstrual cycles. In fact, this is a very common phenomenon that many women with IBS experience. It is due to changes in the amount of hormones present in a woman’s body at different points in her menstrual cycle.
How do hormones cause IBS symptoms to change during a woman’s period?
Hormones are chemicals that are produced by the body and circulate through the body’s systems. The primary function of hormones is to deliver information that affects and controls how the body’s systems function. The sex hormones called “estrogen” and “progesterone” play an important role in controlling a woman’s menstrual cycle. These hormones have what are called “receptor cells” that are located inside of the digestive tract. This means that the digestive tract is directly affected by the changing levels of these two hormones in a woman’s body at different points in her cycle.
A recent study found that half of women with IBS had bowel-related symptoms during their periods, compared with around one-third of women without IBS. Researchers are still working to understand exactly how and why the same hormonal changes can cause IBS symptoms to get much worse for some women, but not for other women. In fact, one study found that a small percentage of women have IBS symptoms that improve during their periods.1-3
How do IBS symptoms tend to change during the menstrual cycle?
Women’s IBS symptoms can change in different ways at different stages of the menstrual cycle. However, there are some common trends. During a woman’s period, the levels of sex hormones in her body are at their lowest. During this time, many women have an increase in the severity of IBS symptoms such as abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea, and bloating. Many women also find that during the days immediately after ovulation in the menstrual cycle (usually around day 14), symptoms such as bloating and constipation can get worse. For some women, this can last until the beginning of their periods and into the first 1-2 days of bleeding.1-3
Are there other links between IBS and your period?
Women who have IBS tend to have more frequent and severe symptoms such as insomnia, fatigue, backache, cramping, bloating, and food sensitivity around the time of their periods. However, they are not any more likely to have mood-related PMS symptoms that women who do not have IBS. Women with IBS are more likely to have painful menstruation and chronic pelvic pain, which is reported by around one-third of women with IBS. During and after menopause, the levels of sex hormones in a woman’s body stop fluctuating. As a result, many women tend to have IBS symptom improvement after menopause.2,3
What are some tips for dealing with IBS and your period?
Some women find it helpful to keep a diary that tracks their menstrual cycle and their IBS symptoms. This can help you to identify patterns with IBS and your period that you may not have noticed before and develop strategies to lessen symptoms. For example, if you tend to have more gas during your period you can try to avoid food triggers that cause gas. Other women find that taking a calcium supplement during their periods can help to reduce diarrhea.2,3
Palsson O and Whitehead W. Hormones and IBS. Available at http://www.med.unc.edu/ibs/files/educational-gi-handouts/IBS%20and%20Hormones.pdf
Bolen B. How your menstrual cycle can affect your IBS. Available at https://www.verywell.com/why-your-period-makes-your-ibs-worse-1945377
About IBS. Gynecological aspects of irritable bowel syndrome. Available at http://www.aboutibs.org/signs-and-symptoms-main/gynecological-aspects-of-irritable-bowel-syndrome-2.html