Updated: May 18, 2021
Many women notice that their gut function changes through the month as our hormones fluctuate. During times of major hormonal changes such as pregnancy and menopause, we will also experience changes in our gut function.
For a long time, there was barely any research into why and how this happens and because there is so much variability between women, there isn’t any really good evidence to give general advice on how to manage these changes. That said, we have learnt some useful information about the mechanisms that cause them and if we track our symptoms, we can work to manage them.
We know that the hormonal changes associated with the menstrual cycle impact gut function on multiple levels including how the bowel contracts, how fast food moves through the bowel, the amount of digestive enzymes that are secreted as well as how much pain we experience when the bowel stretches due to gas or poo.
This means that many women with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) often experience a worsening of their symptoms around the time of their period and in the middle of their cycle.
Studies in women with IBS have shown that symptoms tend to be worse during the luteal phase which is just after ovulation or around 2 weeks before your period. We know that the bowel contains receptors for the hormones oestrogen and progesterone telling us that the bowel is designed to sense and react to them and the luteal phase is when they’re at their peak. Women with IBS and women without IBS may well notice a change in their bowel habit at this point in their cycle. It may be that this is the time to try and be more cautious with any foods that might be triggers for you and to focus on managing your stress levels and alcohol intake to reduce other factors that can trigger symptoms.
During our period, the uterus produces prostaglandins which are involved in pain, inflammation, muscle contraction and blood flow. These are the hormones that induce contractions in labour and promote the blood flow during your period. Even though the prostaglandins are produced in the uterus, because the uterus sits alongside your bowel, they can also affect gut function causing symptoms like diarrhoea, cramps and bloating. At this point in your cycle, you may also want to reduce trigger foods, lower your fibre intake and focus on your lifestyle measures.
With the use of period tracking apps and the right support and advice, it is now easier for women to predict these changes in their gut function and adapt to ease the symptoms if they are causing problems. Remember though that we’re all different and what works for your friend, may not work for you.
For dietary advice on women’s health or bowel conditions, please book an appointment with Sophie.