Did you know that women are six times more likely to experience irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a disorder characterized by symptoms including stomach pain, gas, bloating and diarrhea or constipation, than men? Men and women’s digestive tracts are not only physically different, but female-specific hormones can also have varying effects on the digestive process. The location of a woman’s uterus and ovaries makes the pathway of the colon longer and more complex. This can cause digestive organs to empty more slowly, and lead to symptoms like bloating, constipation, nausea and gallstones.
Female-specific hormones, primarily estrogen and progesterone, can also have an effect on digestion and a woman’s overall gut health. Hormonal fluctuation or imbalance can impact the speed food moves through the intestines. In some cases, a change in hormone levels may cause food to pass through faster than usual, which can lead to diarrhea, nausea or stomach pain. In other instances, food may move slower, causing periods of constipation, gas or bloating. Post-menopausal women commonly experience constipation as their progesterone levels begin to decrease. Women may also notice digestive changes due to their menstrual cycle, most commonly during the second half of their cycle, caused by an increase in progesterone and estrogen levels. The increase in hormones can cause varying degrees of stomach and digestive discomfort.
Women may also have increased sensitivity in the throat and esophagus, leading to heartburn. Other digestive differences common in women include:
- An increased sensitivity to certain medications, including aspirin and anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDS), that can increase a woman’s risk of developing inflammation, ulcers or stomach bleeding
- Sensitive taste buds, especially when it comes to things that are bitter or sweet
- Stronger muscles in the esophagus, which help to prevent the backflow of food and stomach acid into the throat, lessening the likelihood of acid reflux
- Lower production of stomach acid, reducing the risk of developing ulcers
There are many steps you can take, regardless of your sex, to maintain good digestive health. Drinking enough water, eating a balanced diet, including foods high in fiber, maintaining a healthy weight and regular exercise, can all help keep you digestive tract functioning at its best.
It is important to note that not all gastrointestinal symptoms are the result of structural or hormonal differences. Some food allergies, or underlying health conditions, may also trigger gastrointestinal symptoms. If you experience symptoms for a prolonged period of time, or notice significant changes in your bowel movements, especially blood in your stool, you should consult with your primary care provider. Women at an average risk for colon cancer should also receive a colonoscopy beginning at age 50 to check for polyps or other abnormalities.