As your estrogen levels plummet, your periods become irregular, and hot flashes take a starring role in your life, you expect a certain amount of irritability. What woman wouldn’t be fed up? But it turns out your mood isn’t the only thing that can get touchy during perimenopause and menopause. Your stomach can, too.
Women compose about two-thirds of cases of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), according to the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders, and its symptoms—such as diarrhea, constipation, and bloating—are most likely to make an appearance as women segue into menopause.
The reason: Sex hormones affect gastrointestinal motility and function, according to The Weill Medical College of Cornell University. During perimenopause, estrogen levels fluctuate greatly, estradiol can be increased because of ovarian follicular response to elevated FSH levels, and the body can become deficient in progesterone because of a lack of ovulation or luteal phase deficiencies as ovarian follicle quality diminishes. As a result, nitric oxide synthase can be released by the body, relaxing the smooth muscle of the gut and causing bloating, according to Cornell University.
If your gut is feeling irritable, know you’re not the only woman out there with less-than-lovely bathroom habits. But luckily, you can get your gut in check with these simple strategies:
Befriend fiber. With caution, though. Although the big F (that’s fiber, FYI) curbs constipation, it can worsen gas and cramping, according to Mayo Clinic. To reap fiber’s benefits without bloating up, gradually increase the amount of fiber from foods such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables in your diet over a period of weeks. Eat these foods to fight menopausal symptoms.
Doublethink dairy. Lactose intolerance, the inability to properly digest a sugar called lactose that’s found in milk products, is most common in older adults, according to the National Institutes of Health’s National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. Mayo Clinic recommends consuming milk products in small doses or taking an enzyme product to help your body digest any dairy. If you and your doctor decide to delete dairy from your diet completely, first talk to a dietician to ensure your eating plan factors in all the nutrition (calcium included) you need. Learn about calcium’s role in preventing osteoporosis during menopause.
Drink up. Fluids (especially good old H2O) help keep everything moving like it should, preventing backups that can result in constipation, gas, and bloating. So make sure to get your sip on throughout the day. Avoid alcohol and caffeinated beverages whenever possible; they can stimulate your intestines and worsen diarrhea, while carbonation can put excess air (aka gas) in your digestive tract, according to Mayo Clinic.
Slash stress. Because the nervous system partly controls the colon, stress, menopausal mood swings, and depression can all lead to one rumbly tummy, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, which notes that the immune system and its response to stress can also play a role in stress-related IBS symptoms. So strong is stress’s role, that, of those people who seek treatment for IBS, up to 90 percent of them suffer from a disorder such as anxiety or depression, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Check out these strategies to fight menopausal stress.
Break a sweat. Besides improving your mood—a recent review in The Cochrane Library shows that exercise decreases depression—it stimulates normal contractions of the intestines that can help stop the swing between constipation and diarrhea, according to Mayo Clinic.
Take meds with caution. The goal is to eliminate (not rely on) the use of meds. Why? Over the long term, these medications can cause digestive issues, according to Mayo Clinic. If you try over-the-counter anti-diarrheal medications or (on the flip side) laxatives, use the lowest dose that helps.
Ladies, it’s time to stop pretending the only thing we do in the bathroom is powder our noses and reapply lipstick. It’s time to be honest with yourself about what’s going on in your gut—and do something about it! It can keep you happier, healthier, and feeling a whole lot lighter!
Remember: Reaching out is IN! Suffering in Silence is OUT!