Nothing is quite as embarrassing and uncomfortable as passing gas and bloating in public. But as bad as it is for men, Irritable Bowel Syndrome symptoms in women are even worse.
Why are IBS Symptoms in Women Worse than in Men?
In actuality, the symptoms in men and women differ little in severity, except when a woman is menstruating. Since men do not have menses, they do not suffer the problems of menstrual cramps piled on top of IBS pain. Bloating is also common during episodes of IBS and the time of a woman’s period.
Reports on IBS symptoms in women show an overall higher incidence of symptoms, regardless of whether or not they are menstruating. They also indicate dysfunction from painful sexual intercourse to decreased sexual drive. At least, a third of women with IBS report some problems with sexual dysfunction and with relationships.
Women with IBS reportedly also tend to have symptoms that are more severe than their counterparts without IBS, such as fatigue, back pain, insomnia and a greater intolerance for certain, gas-producing foods around their menstrual periods.
Another Reason Why IBS Symptoms in Women Can Be Worse
Women and men tend to deal with stress differently, says Carl Prickhardt, PhD, a psychologist and spokesman for the American Psychological Association. Women tend to respond to the needs of others rather than taking care of their own needs, he asserts. “Self sacrifice in relationships is how many women enter stress,” says Prickhardt.
Since stress is one of the triggers of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, the way a woman handles tension is important. When a person is under stress, three hormones are released into the bloodstream: oxytocin, cortisol, and epinephrine. In women, the oxytocin combines with female reproductive hormones to produce in them the desire to “tend and befriend” to relieve their stress. Unfortunately, since this is the very thing that caused the stress in the first place, it can actually work in reverse to increase instead of decrease tension. Men are more likely to have the “fright or flight” response to stress in their lives, which means they either deal directly with the cause of the stress or remove themselves from the situation.
All in Her Head?
Irritable Bowel Syndrome, also called Functional Bowel Disease, is an overall diagnosis for symptoms that do not seem to have a pathology. As opposed to Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), there are no visible changes in the bowel that cause the symptoms of IBS. Since 75% of the cases in the United States occur in women, many doctors have written it off as a psychological disorder or one stemming from depression. They may see depression as the cause of the symptoms instead of as a symptom itself.
Because the syndrome is not well understood by doctors, many women feel like little is being done for their distress. There is definitely a mind-body component of irritable bowel syndrome (the enteric nervous system), but it is certainly not “all in her head,” either. There seems to be some connection between the brain and the gut that causes the pain receptors in the brain to be overstimulated. 95% of the neurotransmitter, serotonin is manufactured in the gut, where it stimulates movement and contractions of the intestines, as well as helping deal with mucus secretion. We recognize serotonin as a mood and brain functioning chemical. If other pieces of the IBS puzzle are already in place, women may discover that eating certain foods that cause a spike in serotonin may trigger an IBS episode. At the same time, there are a good many remedies that can be employed to help make life easier for women suffering from IBS.
IBS can be divided into subgroups based on symptoms. IBS-D is characterized by diarrheal stools, IBS-C by constipation, IBS-A by alternating diarrhea and constipation, and IBS-PI by symptoms occurring after an infection. Sometimes, stools are accompanied by mucus, sometimes not.
What Are the Symptoms of IBS?
IBS causes pain or discomfort in the abdominal area along with a change in bowel habits for three months or longer. The symptoms of IBS attack more frequently, occur in women, in people under 50 years of age, and in people with a family member who has IBS, possibly indicating a genetic component. In a nutshell, the following list includes the most common symptoms:
● Cramps and pain in the abdominal (or stomach) region
● Diarrhea (frequent loose stools)
● Constipation (hard, dry, infrequent stools)
● Alternate diarrhea and constipation
● The feeling that you can’t empty your bowel
● Mucus in the stools
● Swollen or bloated stomach
● After eating a normal sized meal, discomfort in the upper stomach or a feeling of nausea or overfullness
● Symptoms of IBS in women may worsen during their menstrual periods
There is no definitive test to tell if you have IBS, so it is largely a diagnosis of elimination. Your doctor may order tests such as a colonoscopy or a test for celiac disease if the following “red flag” symptoms appear, or if you are over 50 and having IBS symptoms even without the red flags:
● Weight loss
● Rectal bleeding
● Night time symptoms that awaken you, like diarrhea
● A family history of inflammatory bowel disease, colorectal cancer, or celiac disease
What to Do for IBS
There is no cure for IBS, but you can make some changes that will help IBS symptoms. Changing your diet is a good place to start, along with medication if your doctor prescribes it, and possible counseling for stress relief.
Although foods do not cause IBS, they may produce an episode. Certain kinds of food that produce gas should be avoided, like the cabbage family of vegetables (including broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts, as well as cabbage itself or anything made from cabbage like sauerkraut). Dairy products can also have an adverse effect, so you should eliminate those as well. Caffeine and carbonated beverages, as well as chocolate and artificial sweeteners or high fructose corn syrup, and some other vegetables and fruits should also be avoided. To know which ones trigger the onset of symptoms in you, it’s a good idea to keep a daily diary that chronicles the relationships between what you eat and when you have IBS episodes, and what helps IBS in you. Write down your stress level, too, and anything that will help you identify stress triggers.
Other ways to help IBS symptoms in women are by eating a balanced diet, getting plenty of exercise to relieve stress, eating more fiber (shoot for 20 grams a day), drinking plenty of water and eating smaller meals. Be careful with fiber, though, and don’t overdo it, as too much fiber can actually worsen gas and bloating. Water does not help directly with IBS pain, but will help keep you hydrated, especially important if you have diarrhea. Try eating 5 or 6 smaller meals a day, or simply cut back on the amount you eat at your three regular meals.
If your doctor warrants, he or she may prescribe medications that may help. Fiber supplements such as psyllium, antidiarrheals, antidepressants if pain or depression is present, or antispasmodic agents such as peppermint may soothe discomfort. There is also a medication approved by the FDA especially for IBS in women called Lubiprostone you may want to ask your doctor about.
Stress seems to be a major contributing factor to IBS, especially in women, as we have already discussed. Sometimes, counseling is necessary to help you learn to cope with stress. Research has shown that psychological counseling may help ease the distress of IBS symptoms.
The best way to deal with IBS seems to be the diet route. A healthy diet is paramount to keeping your gut healthy and avoiding the exasperation and pain of this syndrome. In addition, it may be helpful to add a probiotic to your diet. There are several types of probiotics available, so if your first choice doesn’t seem to be working, try another. You can also find probiotics in foods like yogurt, kefir, and miso.
Take a good multivitamin. Our digestive health depends on your intestines working properly to extract micronutrients from the food you eat. If your digestive tract is compromised, you will not be getting the micronutrients you need for your body to function properly. A quality multivitamin goes a long way to making sure you get the appropriate recommended daily value of the micronutrients you need.
Try experimenting with an elimination diet or food allergy testing. If you can find the trigger foods and eliminate them, 95% of your problem will be eliminated, too. Because we live in such a toxic environment, it may not be possible to identify every trigger. Visit a holistic allergist or try eliminating gluten (wheat, barley and rye), lactose (dairy), sugar, coffee and tea, corn, chocolate and citrus fruits and then add them back in one at a time. Allow two weeks between each newly added nutrient to give your body a chance to adapt to the added food.
Finally, get a stool analysis. Ask your doctor about an analysis with comprehensive parasitology. Problems such as malabsorption, pH imbalances, yeast overgrowth, or parasites may be causing IBS symptoms. Knowing these things about your body can help you deal positively with Irritable Bowel Syndrome.