IBS, constipation, and bloating—oh my.
Okay ladies, we need to talk. Have you noticed how your male friends almost never complain about being bloated? What’s that about? You might even know a man who asked, “What’s that mean?” when you bemoaned your bloating (and that’s a true story).
It’s not just bloating. According to the American College of Gastroenterology (ACG), women are more likely to experience chronic constipation than men. While they are less likely to have heartburn than men, they are more likely to experience heartburn more strongly than men. And most notably, women experience irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) at two to six times the rate that men do, and women with IBS tend to have more trigger foods and worse symptoms than men with IBS.
What’s with the gender bias?!
The gender discrepancy with digestive problems stems from a few different factors, according to the American College of Gastroenterology. For starters, there are some biological differences that play a role, such as:
Hormones. It’s normal for women to have diarrhea during their periods, as well as uncomfortable bloating and even nausea. A 2009 study in Gender Medicine noted that these gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms commonly flare up during menses and early menopause, which are times when ovarian hormones drop.
Slow stomach emptying. Food in the stomach tends to empty into the intestines more slowly in women than in men, according to the ACG. This sluggish digestion can make women feel nausea or bloating.
Slow colon emptying. The large intestine is also guilty when it comes to slower digestion. After food passes through the stomach, it moves on to the large intestine, or colon. The function of the large intestine is to form stool and pass it along to the rectum using powerful, wave-like motions. When this is slow, it can cause constipation.
The mind-gut connection. Nerves in the intestine talk constantly with the brain (a process known as neurotransmission). When the brain believes something is wrong, your stomach may feel it. That’s why you feel butterflies when you’re nervous—or nausea if you’re really panicked.
Chronic stress and anxiety can lead to chronic gastro issues, and globally, women experience higher rates of both depression and anxiety, according to the World Health Organization. Perhaps not surprisingly, many people with IBS also have a mental illness.
Chronic digestive problems might not seem like a big deal, but they can interfere with healthy eating habits and worsen quality of life, so talking to a doctor is worth clearing your schedule for. They might be able to provide you with helpful treatment tips, such as trying the low FODMAP diet to identify trigger foods and following habits to prevent constipation.
Common GI problems in women. Bethesda, MD: American College of Gastroenterology. (Accessed on March 5, 2019 at http://patients.gi.org/topics/common-gi-problems-in-women/.)
Definition & facts for irritable bowel syndrome. Bethesda, MD: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. (Accessed on March 5, 2019 at https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/irritable-bowel-syndrome/definition-facts.)
Gender and women’s mental health. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization. (Accessed on March 5, 2019 at https://www.who.int/mental_health/prevention/genderwomen/en/.)
Gynecological aspects of irritable bowel syndrome. Milwaukee, WI: International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders. (Accessed on March 5, 2019 at https://www.aboutibs.org/gynecological-aspects-of-irritable-bowel-syndrome.html.)
Heitkemper MM, Chang L. Gend Med. 2009;6(Suppl 2):152-67.
How does the intestine work? Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care. (Accessed on March 5, 2019 at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279303/.)