IBS & Period Poos – Let’s Talk About It…
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and tricky bowel movements are thick as thieves and equally unwelcome. Unfortunately, they have managed to break their way into some of our lives and just when you think you’ve finally got a handle on managing your IBS symptoms, your period comes along, bringing with it Period Poo.
Yup, period poo. It’s not just you, we all get it. But it’s understandable to think you’re the only one, because it’s not a common topic of conversation.
Although we all suffer from irritable bowel movements in the run-up to and during our periods, if you suffer from IBS, your symptoms can be exacerbated further. We’ve put together some points to help you understand the relationship between your menstrual cycle and IBS symptoms.
Although the exact relationship is not well understood, your gut – as well as your uterus – also has receptors for sex hormones like progesterone and oestrogen. This means your gut is also sensitive to the changes in hormones that come about at the time of your period and that your gut sensitivity and irritability can be affected by the menstrual cycle.
Flare-ups in IBS symptoms related to periods seem to coincide with the drop in oestrogen and progesterone that occurs just before your period starts. This is why many researchers believe the two are related (1,2).
Prostaglandins are chemical messengers. The uterus produces them around your period and they act on the uterine smooth muscles to help them to contract and shed their lining each month. Sometimes excess prostaglandins can act on smooth muscles elsewhere in the body, including the bowels, leading to loose stools or diarrhoea.
Too little prostaglandins can have the opposite effect, causing things to slow down in the gastrointestinal tract. This is one theory why some people experience constipation at the time of their period (3).
Sensitivity to pain
Although people both with and without IBS experience changes in bowel movements around the time of their period, researchers have found that people with IBS experience an increase in pain sensitivity that comes with menses that isn’t seen in people without IBS (2,4). The underlying mechanisms of this increased sensitivity are not well known, but the result means a worsening of abdominal pain and bloating compared with most other phases of the menstrual cycle. Bowel habits also became more frequent and people with IBS tended to have a lower general well being at this time in their cycle.
Is there anything I can do about it?
There are some steps you can take to manage any gastrointestinal symptoms you notice around your menstrual cycle to help make that time a little less crappy (get it!?).
Loose stools and diarrhoea
If this sounds like your usual experience be sure to limit caffeinated drinks like coffee and fizzy drinks and these stimulate the gut causing things to move along quicker than you’d like them too. Coffee in particular (even decaf) can stimulate the gut, so best to skip the morning coffee at your time of the month and opt for another way to energise yourself, like a morning walk or some yoga. If you do experience diarrhoea, be sure to increase your water intake to prevent dehydration.
If constipation is your unwanted companion, then drinking plenty of water and upping your fibre intake will help get things moving. Exercise is also a great way to get things in motion. If all else fails, speak to the pharmacist about taking a laxative or stool softener.
Sometimes things tend to get a bit extra smelly around your period. This is most likely due to changes in progesterone leading to unusual food cravings and changes in diet. Keeping a clean, healthy diet in the run up to your period can prevent bad smells.
Pain and cramps
It’s not unusual to mistake period cramps for bowel urges and vice versa during your period. Pain and cramps associated with either diarrhoea or constipation can be alleviated using the relevant tips above. Pain associated with menstrual cramps can be eased with exercise, heat pads, or might need the help of some painkillers.
Some gynaecological problems like endometriosis and ovarian cysts can be misdiagnosed as IBS. If you find you’ve followed all the IBS management guidelines but still can’t find relief from symptoms, or if your pain seems almost unbearable when you get your period, speak to your GP. Alternatively, try one of our at-home hormone health and fertility testing kits to check your overall reproductive health and to get answers.
Many people who suffer from IBS experience symptom flare-ups during their period. If you experience this, stick to your prescribed symptom management plan and if you think you need more relief, speak to your doctor about alternative ways to manage your IBS during your period.