Women and Gut Health

Why a wom­an’s diges­tive sys­tem is more complex

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. 

To sched­ule an appoint­ment with a gas­troen­terol­o­gist to address any diges­tive con­cerns you may be expe­ri­enc­ing, sched­ule online or call 630−717−2600.

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