How hormones and stress affect our digestion
Dr. Cassie Irwin
While women generally have an easier time talking about our health than do our male counterparts, one area in which we lag behind is being open about our digestive issues. A guy may “let one rip” and laugh it off, whereas many gals would find it mortifying to have an errant toot escape in polite society! It’s still considered taboo to talk about bowel function, but we need to talk about it! Many women have chronic digestive issues that come with us to work and impair productivity, while reducing overall quality of life at home. Feeling stigmatization about digestive issues is associated with decreased access to medical care and greater psychological distress.
We actually fare better than men do when it comes to many diseases of the gastrointestinal tract. Women are less likely than men to develop gastrointestinal reflux disease (GERD), peptic ulcers, colitis, and gastric cancer. Research shows that estrogen may have a protective role in the development of these particular conditions.
Women, though, draw the short straw with a higher prevalence of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), celiac disease, and colon cancer than men. Women with IBS tend to experience more abdominal bloating, nausea, constipation, depression, and anxiety than do men with IBS. But some evidence suggests that IBS pain may improve after menopause.
Since there are receptors for estrogen and progesterone in the gastrointestinal tract, these reproductive hormones have a bearing on digestion. When we factor in how frequently hormone levels change throughout our lives, we can see how women may experience frequent disruptions to digestive function.
For premenopausal women, the follicular phase of the menstrual cycle begins with the first day of menstrual flow and ends with ovulation. This phase is marked by high levels of estrogen. Research suggests that motility of the gastrointestinal organs is decreased among women during this time, which could contribute to constipation.
The luteal phase of the menstrual cycle begins with ovulation and ends with the onset of menstrual flow. In this phase, estrogen and progesterone levels are low. It’s common to experience loose stools during this phase. During menstruation, diarrhea is the most commonly reported digestive symptom.
Pregnancy is supported by high progesterone, which tends to slow down gastrointestinal motility. This may contribute to pregnancy-related constipation, reflux, and biliary dysfunction.
Research continues to explore the interplay between stress and digestion via the neuroendocrine network known as the gut-brain axis. Stress has a bearing on IBS onset and flares, and many women without a digestive disorder can attest to how stress can show up in the tummy or toilet.
Mindful eating has been shown to reduce digestive disturbance related to stress. This practice involves taking intentional pauses throughout the day to enjoy your meals at the table—not while responding to work emails or driving your kids to soccer!
Take a few deep breaths to allow your mind to step off the hamster wheel of the day’s worries and to-do list. Look at, smell, and even touch your food. When you eat, focus your attention on how the food tastes, and chew well!
A well-balanced diet rich in plant-based foods provides us with fibre, which helps keep things regular in the bathroom. Some types of fibre, including garlic, bananas, and chicory, are also known as prebiotics. These are fuel for probiotics (good microbes) to grow in the gut. For most people, fibre-rich foods (oats, asparagus, legumes), and probiotic-rich foods (sauerkraut, kimchi, plain yogurt) are helpful for a happy tummy.
But these very foods can sometimes aggravate digestive distress, and this is when it can be helpful to consider small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), FODMAP intolerance (FODMAPs are specific carbohydrate molecules in some foods), and food sensitivities as underlying contributors to your symptoms.
Consulting a natural health practitioner can be helpful for designing a food and supplement plan that addresses the root of the problem and supports digestive health from within.
|Herb / Supplement||How it helps digestion|
|probiotics||can help reduce abdominal pain, bloating, and gas in IBS, and improve heartburn and reflux in GERD|
|fibre||intake promotes regular bowel movements, and is associated with a lower incidence of IBD|
|psyllium||has been shown to improve both constipation and diarrhea|
|turmeric||may be helpful with the management of dyspepsia, IBD, and GERD|
|peppermint||oil is safe and effective in IBS for pain and global symptoms|
|garlic||moderate consumption may enhance mucosal defence against H. pylori and ulcer development|
|ginger||helps relieve nausea of pregnancy and dyspepsia, and its anti-inflammatory components may be helpful in diarrhea-type IBS|
|L-glutamine||supplementation can improve gut barrier function and reduce diarrhea in those with a post-infectious onset of IBS|
|licorice root||extract may be helpful in the management of H. pylori infection, while deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL) may help, in combination preparations, to reduce symptoms of GERD|