Beach + gelato + good friends = a great afternoon right?
Irritable bowel syndrome + a heavy period + cramps = not such a great afternoon.
When you combine IBS and “that time of the month,” it adds up to so much pain, frustration, blood, bloating, constipation, or diarrhea. And it’s hard to pinpoint whether your IBS or your period is to blame for the intensity of your symptoms. You may be asking yourself: Does IBS make your period worse, or is your period exacerbating your IBS?
What’s the connection between IBS and your period?
In case you’re feeling like you might be making up the connection between IBS and a difficult period: you’re not. Some people note that IBS symptoms worsen right when their periods begin, reporting increased aching, cramps, diarrhea and other symptoms as they progress through their cycle. It can sometimes be tough to tell, unfortunately, what gastrointestinal symptoms to ascribe to IBS and which might be due to your period.
While it would be nice to have more clarity about all the connections between IBS and menstruation, science isn’t completely there yet. What researchers do know is that painful menstruation and other gynecological disorders like chronic pelvic pain show up more often among IBS patients than those who don’t have IBS.
Hormones: when it comes to IBS and your period, it’s complicated
Hormones always get a bad rap, don’t they? They do a lot to keep our mood and body functions in line, however, so we should give them some credit. When it comes to your period though, the hormones involved with menstruating could in fact be making your IBS symptoms worse.
Certain hormone levels change a lot during a typical menstrual cycle, and researchers link these fluctuations to differences in how your gut functions. Basically, the hormones produced by your ovaries can cause your gut to feel more sensitive while also affecting your digestion and bowel movements. Scientists think that is partly due to the hormone receptors in your gut that respond to some of the same hormones involved with your period, such as progesterone and estrogen. Your gut and digestive system “feels” your period, in other words. So you may have shifts in digestion, more IBS symptoms, gas, and softer stools or diarrhea more readily at that time of the month. You may also ache more and feel more bloated.
We’re still finding out more about the complex interplay between your hormones, your gastrointestinal system, and your flow, including whether or not IBS can make your flow heavier or longer. We are sure, however, that period-related IBS symptoms are not “in your head,” and that it’s not unusual for people with IBS to experience more period-related pain and discomfort. Big sigh.
If worsening IBS symptoms are hormone-related, you might be wondering, then what about birth control? As far as we know, birth control pills and hormone replacement therapies neither help nor harm IBS symptoms. Menopause can, however, alter IBS symptoms, though not everyone will be affected the same way. When your reproductive hormones stop cycling as much, IBS symptoms can diminish. It’s also possible for them to persist, however, and menopausal women with IBS could end up dealing with more gas and bloating overall.
Gut sensitivities often increase during your period
In one somewhat uncomfortable-sounding study, healthcare researchers inflated small balloons in women’s bottoms to help establish possible links between rectal sensitivity and periods. For women without IBS, rectal sensitivity didn’t seem to be affected by their periods.
When women with a diagnosis of IBS had their periods, however, rectal sensitivity was more pronounced, meaning they reported symptoms like needing to have more bowel movements, having more diarrhea, and experiencing higher levels of pain.
This study helps illustrate the potential relationship between IBS and problems with painful or unusual bowel movements. Separate research also indicates that about half the women who have IBS also have more severe bowel-related symptoms during their periods.
Other IBS symptoms that might be impacted your period
Pain, looser poop, and more sensitive, responsive bowels aren’t the only symptoms that change with your period if you have IBS. You may also notice:
- More trouble sleeping
- Persistent tiredness or fatigue
- More aches and pains, especially in your back and pelvis
- Changes in your sex drive or how comfortable sex feels for you
- More gassiness
- More symptoms of PMS
- Constipation (though sometimes constipation actually eases with your period)
- Nausea, especially right before your period starts
Interestingly, though you may notice mood swings or changes related to your period, these don’t usually correlate with irritable bowel syndrome. That may not be much consolation, however. IBS and your period put together can still be a lot to manage.
Managing combined IBS and period pain
There doesn’t seem to be a clear-cut way to deal with IBS symptoms worsening during your period. Not that we know of yet, anyway. However, there are still several strategies you can try.
For one, get super solid on the basics of IBS management. These basics, such as eating nutritious low FODMAP foods, avoiding your food triggers, exercising, sleeping well, and taking care of stress before it gets out of hand can make it much easier to get through your period. Basically, whatever helps you out in general may be even more important during your period.
A few other tips for less painful periods include:
- Keep a close eye on your calories and carbs right before your period starts. You might be eating more unintentionally or might accidentally be taking in more high FODMAP foods, due to feeling hungrier.
- Stay far away from any gas-related foods, such as garlic or broccoli. You might be particularly sensitive to gas pressure during your period.
- Don’t cheat on your sleep. To help with stress management and many other things that affect your digestion, sleep is important, so try to prioritize it during your period
- Move, even when you don’t feel like it. We understand that heavy flows and cramps can make it hard to get out of bed, much less exercise. If you can, try to stretch, do yoga, take walks, or do other low-impact activities.
- Get more calcium. You may want to take a supplement, especially if diarrea seems to happen a lot during your periods.
- Be particularly kind and understanding toward yourself. Try to accept that you’re facing a unique and frustrating challenge, and that it’s not your fault.
- If you know of anything that helps your IBS and period symptoms, such as warm water baths, warm compresses, mediation, or anything else, take extra time for those things during your periods. Self care matters!
Why Salvo Health makes a great period partner
Salvo Health understands how hard it can be to have IBS, including during your period. Our digital healthcare platform and virtual clinic provides you with continuous text-based support and care for your chronic gut condition. Imagine being able to text a gastro specialist or health coach to avoid flare-ups or manage your pain? Alongside text-based communication, members receive a customized care plan that can take account of how their symptoms can be managed during their period.
Get immediate access to a coordinated Salvo Health care team, including a certified gastro specialist and board-certified health coach when you join Salvo Health today.