Double Whammy: Your Period and IBS

If you are a woman with IBS and you think that your symptoms are affected by your menstrual cycle, you are not crazy. Though scientists aren’t certain of the exact reason, it appears that, for many women, menstruation worsens IBS symptoms. Conversely, having IBS may make menstrual symptoms more pronounced.

Either way, it is certain that every woman’s digestive system and monthly cycle are connected. Scientists are beginning to understand that this is largely due to the presence of the sex hormones estrogen and progesterone. These hormones bind to receptor cells in the reproductive system, signaling for the uterus to either build a lining or contract and bleed. Unfortunately, the uterus sits in very close proximity to the small and large intestines, and those same hormone receptor cells that are found in the uterus are also found throughout the gastrointestinal tract. This means that even women without IBS may experience increased digestive issues, including diarrhea, constipation or both, during a menstrual cycle.

Estrogen and progesterone are also closely related to perceived pain levels. This may be due to the fact that estrogen increases serotonin production, and serotonin has been shown to have an analgesic effect on pain sensitivity. You won’t be surprised to know that estrogen levels, and therefore pain tolerance, is lowest at the beginning of your period.

All of this is bad enough, but if you have IBS, it’s even worse. Women with IBS are far more likely to report a worsening of digestive problems, such as abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea and bloating, during their periods according to Dr. Olafur S. Palsson, Psy.D. and Dr. William E. Whitehead, PhD of the UNC Center for Functional GI and Motility Disorders. Scientists have also found that women with IBS seem to experience increased menstrual symptoms, such as painful cramping, backache, fatigue, insomnia, water retention and difficulty concentrating.

If you have IBS, all of this science is probably just validating what you already knew; your periods are bad and they make your IBS worse. Is there anything that you can do about it? Here are a few suggestions that have worked for me.

  1. Birth Control Pills - Some women have found that a low-dose birth control pill helps ease menstrual symptoms. Though scientific research is undecided, my IBS symptoms seem less severe during my period while on birth control.
  2. Plan Ahead - If you keep track of your menstrual cycle, using a calendar or a phone app, you are far less likely to have a bout of IBS in an inconvenient place. You will also be able to “tweak your diet” in the days leading up to your period, so that you can stay far away from your IBS trigger foods.
  3. Take IBS/W - This is an over-the-counter supplement designed to help relieve the pain and discomfort of IBS symptoms that are specific to women.
  4. Take a Calcium Supplement - Calcium supplements have been shown to reduce “menstruation-related” symptoms. In addition, calcium supplements may reduce incidents of diarrhea in people with IBS-D.
  5. Get a Heating Pad - While you wait for science to come up with a cure for this period/IBS double whammy, curling up with a warm heating pad can provide a lot of comfort.