No one knows the exact reason for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a digestive disorder that affects 2 in 10 people in the UK. It causes belly pain, cramps, and bloating, as well as diarrhoeao and constipation.
The one thing that experts are certain about: Your gender plays a role. Women are about twice as likely to have IBS as men. A growing body of research shows that sex hormones, like oestrogen and progesterone, may be the reason. They can trigger IBS symptoms, which may explain why you have more flare-ups at different points of your menstrual cycle.
Sex Hormones and IBS
Oestrogen and progesterone affect IBS symptoms in a few ways, from how your intestines work to how much pain you feel. Cells in your gut have things called receptors that let these hormones latch on to them.
This suggests that your digestive system is designed to sense and react to them. Here are the main ways they affect IBS:
They control the smooth muscle in your intestines, which dictates how quickly food travels through your system. In one study, animals took longer to empty their intestines when they received a low dose of the hormones than when they got a higher one.
This may explain why low levels of sex hormones can lead to constipation.
These hormones affect how much cramps bother you. A dip lowers your pain threshold, in part because oestrogen boosts the production of serotonin, a feel-good chemical in your brain.
Sex hormones can raise levels of inflammation throughout your body. That makes your IBS symptoms worse.
Your sex hormone levels also drop with “the change.” But it’s unclear how this affects IBS.
In some women IBS improves after menopause, when these hormonal changes stop. On the other hand, more than a third of menopausal women in one recent study reported IBS-type symptoms, like gas and heartburn.
Symptoms of IBS
If you have IBS, your symptoms may just be an occasional nuisance. So you may not feel you need to see a doctor about your IBS again once you’ve been diagnosed.
But if your symptoms make it difficult for you to go about your daily activities, you should speak to your doctor. Outlined below are some of the symptoms of IBS.
– Pain or discomfort in your tummy (abdomen). You may feel this in your lower tummy on your left-hand side. The discomfort may vary from a sudden sharp pain to a constant dull ache.
You may also get cramps. This pain may ease if you go to the toilet and may get worse after eating.
– Changes in bowel habits. Your stool may vary in consistency and can alternate between constipation and diarrhoea. You may also pass small amounts of mucus.
Sometimes you may need to go to the toilet urgently, and at other times you may have problems going. After going to the toilet, your bowels may feel like they haven’t been completely emptied.
Your abdomen may look and feel bloated.
IBS symptoms can come and go – you may not have any symptoms for months and may then have a sudden flare-up. It can cause other symptoms too. These include:
– feeling very tired
– feeling sick
– trouble sleeping
– regular headaches
– Bladder problems such as needing to pass urine more often
– painful sex
IBS can often be eased with lifestyle changes and over-the-counter medicines from your pharmacy. But if your symptoms are new or have changed, it’s important to speak to your GP to see if IBS is causing them.