Common Digestive Problems in Women

Contributed by: Roberta Hunter, MD

digestiveDo you have bloating? Heartburn? Gas? Stomach pain? Everyone has these digestive problems occasionally, some more frequently than others especially if you’re a woman. These common gastrointestinal conditions and others affect both men and women, but some are more common among just women.

Irritable bowel syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common chronic disorder that affects the large intestine (colon). Even though this condition affects the large intestine, it does not damage either intestine. Instead, it affects the way the digestive tract functions. IBS, as it’s commonly called, causes a group of symptoms including, cramping, stomach pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea and constipation. Menstrual cycles also play a role in IBS for women as symptoms often become worse just before or at the start of a woman’s period.

There are different types of IBS. Patients with IBS are diagnosed with only one but all three commonly cause stomach pain and discomfort but differ with bowel movements.

  • IBS with constipation (IBS-C) causes abnormally delayed or infrequent bowel movements, which are often hard stools when passed.
  • IBS with diarrhea (IBS-D) is the exact opposite of IBS-C. This type of IBS causes urgent need of bowel movements that are abnormally frequent at times. The stool is often loose and watery.
  • IBS with alternating constipation and diarrhea is a combination of both IBS-C and IBS-D. Those with this type of IBS often experience an equal mix of constipation and diarrhea.
  • IBS dyspepsia affects the upper GI tract.

IBS is often labeled a “complex” disorder because the cause is unknown and the symptoms are unpredictable. Symptoms may be constant or go away for a few months and then suddenly reappear worse than before. Symptoms also appear in some IBS patients after eating certain foods or because of stress. IBS symptoms can often be controlled by making lifestyle changes including, nutrition changes, taking medications (over-the-counter or prescription) and talking to your doctor about your symptoms.

Seeing a doctor is important if you think you have IBS as it can mimic other gastrointestinal conditions that can be more significant – such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis or colon cancer. As a specialist of digestive diseases at UC Health Women’s Center I recommend to anyone who suspects they have IBS or has a family history of IBS, be examined.

Living with IBS

Living with any digestive disorder, especially IBS is not easy and often changes the way you live your life. Learning to control your symptoms can help you live a more normal life. Try these steps to manage your IBS.

  • Find a supportive, experienced doctor. You need a doctor who has experience treating IBS so you are properly diagnosed and have well managed digestive care.
  • Know your triggers. Certain foods and drinks such as dairy products, chocolate, caffeinated beverages, alcohol and spicy foods can make symptoms worse.
  • Plan ahead. Don’t eat a big meal or foods you know will trigger the IBS before leaving the house especially if you suffer from IBS-D. It’s also a good idea to locate the closest restrooms.
  • Stay relaxed. Try to reduce stress through regular exercise or relaxation techniques such as yoga or meditation. Our Integrative Medicine specialty offers classes and personalized plans to help with relaxation.

Gallstones

Gallstones are another common digestive problem that women develop more often than men. They are crystal-like pieces, made of hardened cholesterol, that form in the gallbladder. This process occurs if bile (made by the liver) contains too much cholesterol or if the gallbladder doesn’t empty completely or often enough. Ranging in size, from very small to as large of a golf ball, gallstones can cause multiple symptoms including right upper abdominal pain after eating (sometimes severe), nausea or vomiting, fever, yellowish skin or eyes and clay-colored stool. Some people develop gallstones and never know it because they are asymptomatic.

 

Similar to IBS, there is no exact known cause for gallstones and occur more often in women than men due to slower emptying of the gallbladder, just as with IBS and the slower stomach emptying and because of estrogen. Estrogen is a female hormone that raises cholesterol levels in the bile and slows gallbladder movement. This effect is even greater in pregnant women because estrogen levels are even higher and explains why women commonly develop gallstones during pregnancy or post-pregnancy. Women who take birth control pills or menopausal hormone therapies, are also more likely to develop gallstones because of the added estrogen.

 

So what can be done to reduce your risk of developing gallstones? Whether you’re a man or women, I recommend the following:

  • Control your weight.
  • Don’t skip meals.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Exercise regularly.

 

For more information on digestive disorders, including IBS, gastritis, and many more, visit our health library  or make an appointment with the Women’s Center by calling (513) 475-UC4U.

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