Having your period on top of having irritable bowel syndrome seems like a double whammy. The days of bloating, cramps and cravings can overlap with heightened constipation, diarrhea and nausea, as I personally know. And while being overcome with these symptoms may make you feel that you’re alone, the reality is that up to 15 percent of Americans are diagnosed with IBS. Unfortunately, many patients often are left undiagnosed as well. I myself wasn’t diagnosed until I was 19 despite displaying symptoms as a young child.
Women are also twice as likely to have IBS than men. Women can attribute their likelihood of getting IBS to the fact that hormones contribute to flare-ups and estrogen and progesterone both rise and fall during the monthly menstrual cycle. The University of North Carolina Center for Functional GI & Motility Disorders explains these hormone receptors are found in gastrointestinal cells, which illustrates how the GI tract is affected by these hormones.
UNC also reports that IBS occurs mostly during menstruating years compared to any other period of someone’s lifetime. (Of course, it does, right?) It makes sense for me personally, because I didn’t experience the extreme symptoms of constipation, anal mucous, etc., until I was a teenager.
I always have issues passing stool no matter what time of month, but movements become particularly irregular during the time of my period. Often, they increase with diarrhea and as a result, I suffer from more hemorrhoids than usual.
The symptoms aren’t exclusive to bowel movements, though. According to the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders, those who menstruate report back “more frequent and more bothersome symptoms such as fatigue, backache, and insomnia, and may have greater sensitivity to particular foods, such as those that are gas-producing, around the time of menstruation.”
Some trigger foods, for instance, include dairy products, chocolate and caffeinated beverages. I practice a vegan diet, so I generally steer clear of meat, dairy and eggs. My IBS was a huge factor in why I decided to go vegan over two years ago, and overall, the plant-based diet helps elevate (but not eliminate) symptoms. Though my vices will always include savory chocolate sweets, salty snacks and coffee. To balance it all out, I drink lots of water throughout the day and also drink decaffeinated coffee in the afternoon.
What makes it worse is that there isn’t a current cause or cure for IBS. However, there are ways to treat symptoms. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services advises to change your diet, take medication and pursue counseling to manage stress. Another alternative is practicing yoga sequences focused on healthy digestion and IBS. Over the years, I’ve pursued all four methods, but of course, nothing comes close to diminishing symptoms entirely.
No matter what you do, IBS often feels like a never-ending battle, especially when you’re menstruating. However, it does help to understand the biology behind both intersecting conditions to cope with their symptoms.