May is Women’s Health Month! It is a great time to enlighten ourselves on various topics unique to women’s health. A subject that would benefit from increased awareness is that of gut health. Even though the anatomy of the digestive tract is similar in men and women, there are differences in what can affect the gastrointestinal (GI) tract of women and as result, conditions and associated symptoms may develop.
Our team at Digestive Health Specialists understands the differences in gut health in women and men and why we need to share this knowledge with our readers. In this blog, we will discuss some common topics in a Q&A format. It will help women understand the relationship between their gastrointestinal (GI) tract and overall health and wellbeing.
What are some GI issues that tend to be more common in females?
Some common issues that tend to be more common in females include:
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and often associated with either constipation or diarrhea or both
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
- Pelvic floor dysfunction
Why do these GI issues tend to affect more women than men?
In females, there are more organs in the lower part of the abdomen (the uterus and ovaries) that are very close to the colon and small intestine. Menstrual cycles, changes in hormones, pregnancy, childbirth, or even chronic pelvic conditions all tend to have an impact over time on the functioning of the GI tract in women.
GI issues also tend to occur because of certain surgeries such as hysterectomies, cesarean sections, ovarian surgeries, which some women may have a prior history. Pregnancy and vaginal deliveries are also common reasons why women may develop pelvic floor dysfunction over time. They often exhibit symptoms, such as lower abdomen pain, constipation, lack of bowel control, prolapse, or issues related to defecation (elimination of stool).
How do menstrual cycles or menopause affect my GI issues?
Women may have variations of symptoms depending on where they are in their menstrual cycle. For example, research has shown that there tends to be an increased visceral (organ) sensitivity around the time of menstruation. Furthermore, there is a secretion of a compound called prostaglandin during a period. These prostaglandins cause the uterus to contract. These same prostaglandins can cause a similar contraction in nearby organs, like the colon and small intestine, causing “squeezing” symptoms such as cramping and diarrhea. During the other phases of the cycle, there is an increased effect of the hormone progesterone, which causes muscles to relax or “slowing” the system, which can cause bloating and constipation.
I have had sensitive stomach issues as far back as I can remember, starting in my childhood. Is it too late to see a GI provider?
It is never too late to see a GI provider. Even if symptoms are mild, ignoring digestive health issues can sometimes lead to chronic conditions and impact your ability to absorb vital nutrients. In addition to diagnosing and treating underlying GI conditions with appropriate medical therapy, a GI provider will offer dietary and lifestyle recommendations that play a vital role in symptom improvement.
I have no issues related to my bowel; do I still need to have a colonoscopy?
Yes, it is important to have a screening colonoscopy starting at the age of 50 or sooner if you have symptoms that warrant a colonoscopy as part of your workup. Colon cancer is the third most common type of cancer in women and often does not cause any symptoms. Therefore, screening plays a very important role in the detection and prevention of colon cancer. Please ask your provider how you can be proactive in preventing your risk of colon cancer!
What are some things that I should keep in mind to keep my gut healthy?
We have come up with a great and (fun) way in which you can quickly remember these tips and share them with family and friends!
And that is: GET FLOW
Each letter stands for an aspect of promoting and maintaining a healthy gut.
Gas-producing foods – certain foods can cause more gas production than others, which can then either cause symptoms or worsen any preexisting GI conditions you may already have, such as IBS. It is a new and upcoming topic in the medical world, so there is increased awareness. Not all food is processed the same, and certain foods can trigger excess gas production. See the full list below.
Eating habits – The way you eat is just as important as what you eat. Digestion begins in the mouth, and, therefore, you need to start the process right. Literally, take it one bite at a time. Chewing your food thoroughly assists your stomach in digesting easier. Chewing slower also helps prevent swallowing too much air, which often is the cause of excess gas and bloating.
Triggers – Identify and know the triggers of your recurring GI symptoms. Everyone is different in how they respond to certain foods. Common types of food triggers include dairy, gluten, and spicy/greasy foods. Sometimes symptoms may occur as a side effect of certain medications you take. Pay attention to recurrent symptoms; especially, if they occur within minutes or hours of certain foods or medications. Writing down these triggers in a diary will not only helps you identify them easier but bringing this with you to your appointment will also help your GI provider.
Fiber it up – A high fiber diet not only helps keep your bowels regular, but also improves your cholesterol, decreases the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. The recommended amount is 25 grams of fiber for the average woman, but the average American only consumes 15 grams, so there is room for improvement. Common sources include vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. Be careful, sometimes a rapid increase in fiber intake can lead to bloating. Therefore, taking a slower, more gradual approach, often accompanied by increased water intake, will help.
Limit the following – Smoking, alcohol intake, highly processed foods, artificial sweeteners. These can lead to a negative effect and increase the risk of causing inflammation.
Optimize mental health – there is increasing evidence that the brain and gut are more connected than previously thought. It is important to be aware that sometimes GI symptoms may be exacerbated by underlying factors, such as anxiety and depression. It is highly recommended that you speak to your primary provider and be evaluated, and treated accordingly.
Water – And last, but not the least, water! Water plays a crucial role in digestion, absorbing nutrients, neutralizing excess stomach acid, and promoting good bacteria. It also keeps stool in the colon moving, preventing a “clogged” colon, which is often the case in constipation – leading to bloating and abdominal discomfort. Often we curb our thirst with liquids such as juices, carbonated beverages, tea/coffee, that we leave no room for water. The recommended daily intake is 8 glasses of 8 ounces per day, but this may differ for everyone, so ask your provider what the right amount is for you.
If you are experiencing GI symptoms, or even if you wish to improve your overall gut health, no matter your gender – be sure to reach out to your provider. Like always, we are just a question away!
Any questions for our provider?
By: Dr. Tina Pakala
Learn more about her here: https://digestivehealth.ws/provider/tina-pakala-md/
Digestive Health Specialists, PA is here to help if you, or someone you know, would like more information, or if you are experiencing any digestive health symptoms and would like further evaluation. Feel free to give us a call at 336-768-6211 or fill the form below.