IBS, Digestive Symptoms and Women’s Health
Digestive symptoms are a taboo topic, leaving many people experiencing these symptoms isolated. Despite the taboo nature, an estimated 40% of the population experience digestive symptoms at any given time.
What are digestive symptoms?
Most people assume digestive symptoms only refer to bloating, stomach pain, gas or changes in bowel movements, such as diarrhoea or constipation. However, other digestive symptoms include urgency, incomplete evacuation (feeling like you haven’t finished a bowel movement), mucus, nausea and backache.
What is IBS?
Some people may only experience digestive symptoms in isolation. However, others may experience multiple symptoms at one time. These latter people may suffer from a condition known as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). IBS is a chronic functional gastrointestinal (gut) disorder. There isn’t a clear cause behind IBS, which can make the diagnosis process lengthy. Additionally, the collection of symptoms experienced by each IBS sufferer can differ.
Did you know…
Approximately 10-20% of the UK population suffer with IBS, with the condition twice as common in women than it is in men.
Is there a link between menopause and IBS?
Anecdotally, at perimenopause and menopause, digestive symptoms can either appear for the first time in a woman’s life, or previously controlled digestive symptoms can worsen. This can be seen in both clinical settings, such as the Hormone Health clinic, and in other menopause communities too, such as the Harley St at Home: Menopause community.
Digestive symptoms at this stage of life can appear for many reasons – there is no one cause. However, research exists that suggests menopause may influence the gut microbiome.
The gut microbiome describes all the microbes living within the gut, which are predominantly bacteria. The gut microbiome is very delicate, and the balance and diversity of bacteria within it is important. If the gut microbiome enters a state of dysbiosis (i.e. the balance and diversity of the gut microbiome isn’t optimal), digestive symptoms may develop. Stress, diet quality, bacterial infections and antibiotics can all disrupt the delicate balance. It’s also thought that the hormone oestrogen may play a role in the gut microbiome.
Within the gut microbiome, there’s a collection of gut bacteria known as the estrobolome, which are suggested to help regulate oestrogen levels. Not only this, but oestrogen also helps protect the balance and diversity of the gut microbiome.
At menopause, oestrogen levels decline. This may disrupt the two-way relationship between the estrobolome and oestrogen. With less oestrogen, the gut microbiome may be at greater risk of dysbiosis, potentially increasing the likelihood of developing symptoms.
Are there any links between any health conditions and IBS?
It’s possible to experience a variety of health conditions alongside IBS.
There’s been much discussion around a potential link between polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) and IBS. Research regarding this link is unclear. Whilst some evidence suggests women with PCOS are more likely to experience IBS, other evidence doesn’t suggest this.
Stress can also be a cause of many digestive symptoms and IBS. The diagnosis of certain health conditions may be an anxious time for some women, which may trigger the onset of digestive symptoms.
Is there a cure for IBS?
Currently, there is no cure for IBS. Instead, the focus is on managing specific symptoms in order to alleviate them and improve quality of life.
There are various management tools for digestive symptoms. These can range from simple, yet effective, dietary and lifestyle changes, using probiotic supplements and managing stress, to more extreme short-term dietary investigations, such as the low FODMAP diet.
It’s not uncommon to hear that women experiencing digestive symptoms or IBS have tried at least one or more elimination diets, in an attempt to improve their symptoms. It’s advised that you don’t eliminate or restrict any food or food groups without support from a registered nutrition professional. Eliminating any food from your diet poses the risk of missing out on key nutrients, especially vitamins and minerals. A registered nutrition professional will ensure you can eliminate food safely, whilst meeting your nutritional needs.
Digestive symptoms and IBS are more common than many people realise, with 10-20% of the population experiencing IBS. Women are more prone to digestive symptoms than men. In particular, during the stages of perimenopause and menopause, women may find digestive symptoms have an impact on their quality of life. Whilst there isn’t a cure for IBS, management of specific digestive symptoms can be effective, with some management tools requiring support from a registered nutrition professional.
This blog was written by Registered Associate Nutritionist Lucy Jones, who works alongside Hormone Health Associate Registered Dietitian Nigel Denby and Harley St at Home: Menopause nutritionist.