Sometimes, being a woman and dealing with your monthly flow may seem hard enough. But to top that off, many women also experience digestive disturbances at the same time of the month. Although menstruation is truly a beautiful thing, it can come with some not-so-fun symptoms. Your period and digestion are interrelated more than you think.The hormones and chemicals that work to regulate our cycles can impact our digestive system too, causing gas, bloating, diarrhea, and constipation. It is very common for healthy women to experience at least one digestive symptom before or during their period. For those women with preexisting gastrointestinal disorders, digestive symptoms are even more common. These symptoms can range from mild, manageable distress, to quite a severe discomfort. By understanding what these symptoms mean, it can help you manage them, or avoid them altogether.
Why do women experience diarrhea with their periods? Is there a relationship between your period and digestion?
During your period, the body releases prostaglandins, chemical messengers that stimulate the uterus to contract. This is the body’s way of telling the uterus to shed the uterine lining (aka. bring on the period). Prostaglandins, especially present at high levels, are responsible for the pain or cramping experienced by some women during their period. But, these compounds also have an effect on the surrounding intestinal tissue, increasing the contraction and motility of the smooth muscle of the digestive system, causing diarrhea that can come with menses, also known as “period poop”. When prostaglandins are measured in menstruating women, women who experience diarrhea with their periods have been found to have high levels of circulating prostaglandins at this time.Interestingly, estrogen levels may also be associated with prostaglandin synthesis. This could mean that women with hormonal imbalances that create an estrogen dominant state may have higher circulating prostaglandins – meaning more pain and diarrhea with their periods. This is important information when it comes to treating the root cause.
What about constipation and the menstrual cycle?
All women are different and the hormonal fluctuations you experience may actually cause constipation rather than diarrhea – although, this is typically experienced premenstrually, or before your period. This is likely due to progesterone, the hormone that dominates the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle. After ovulation, we get an immediate increase in progesterone, and then it slowly declines to trigger menstruation. Progesterone causes the muscles in the digestive tract to relax and decreases contractility. This can slow the digestive system down leading to constipation, gas, and bloating. This almost always resolves with the onset of the period.There are many other aspects of your lifestyle that can contribute to constipation, but if you consistently find that your bowels are sluggish right before your period, it is likely your hormones that are causing the slowdown.
IBS and your period
Although all women can experience gas, bloating, diarrhea and constipation before or during their periods, women with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) are much more likely to experience digestive distress during menses. This is also true for those with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) – Ulcerative Colitis or Crohn’s. If your digestive symptoms become intense with your period, this may be something you want to talk to your naturopath or family doctor about.
Can anything help?
First of all, start by tracking your digestive symptoms like you track your periods – keep notes of bloating, gas, discomfort and stool consistency. It can be challenging to remember all of your symptoms from cycle to cycle, so this is important to identify any patterns that may be present. Also take note of stress levels and potential food sensitivities as these can also be contributing factors.
Premenstrual Bloat & Constipation:
- Unfortunately, a lot of the foods that women crave premenstrually can worsen digestive symptoms. Avoid sweets and greasy foods to the best of your ability.
- Avoid foods that can exacerbate bloating like: beans, lentils, onions, garlic, cruciferous vegetables, carbonated drinks, etc
- Try a tea that can settle the stomach. A combination of chamomile, peppermint, ginger, fennel, anise or other carminative herbs usually helps.
- Traditional Medicinals Organic Gas Relief can be quite helpful & easy to find!
- Drink 2-3L of water each day
- Castor Oil tummy rubs nightly can help ease discomfort and get things moving
- Although you may not feel up to it, exercise helps move the bowels, while also easing other PMS symptoms
- Magnesium – instead of reaching for laxatives, which often leads to dependence, magnesium (citrate or oxide form) gently eases constipation
- If you suffer from significant PMS, this may indicate an underlying hormone imbalance contributing to your digestive concerns. It is best to work with a practitioner that can provide more specific treatment strategies for your period health and digestion.
- Try to include plenty of fibrous foods like leafy greens, fruits, and vegetables
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids – fish oil can reduce the overproduction of prostaglandins, decreasing their effect on the bowels.
- If your diarrhea and painful periods are due to an estrogen dominance, balancing out your estrogen levels is crucial. Some things that may help include: chaste tree, DIM, ground flaxseed, cruciferous vegetables, calcium D-glucarate, and probiotics.
- Diarrhea that comes with menstruation doesn’t typically last long, so most women just stick it out. However, if your symptoms are severe, this might be a sign that there is more going on with your period and digestion. If this is the case, speak to your practitioner.