It is not uncommon for women to associate hot flashes, mood swings, or weight gain with perimenopause and menopause. These are well-known issues that many women deal with during this time.
But did you know that menopause can also cause women to experience bloating, irregularity, and other problems with their digestive system?
When women enter perimenopause, their estrogen and progesterone levels decline. The decrease in estrogen can cause cortisol levels to rise. As explained on the Hunterdon Digestive Health website, “Estrogen plays a key role in keeping our cortisol levels low. Cortisol is our primary stress hormone. Its job is to make sure you’re able to respond appropriately to both good and bad stressors. Cortisol increases sugar (or glucose) in your bloodstream so that you have energy available to react to a stressful situation.”
When people get nervous or experience stress, it is not uncommon for these feelings to manifest in physical symptoms such as nausea and diarrhea. Since the stress hormone cortisol is directly related to how we react to stress, an increased cortisol level (due to menopause) can cause digestive issues.
Higher cortisol levels can reduce the amount of stomach acid produced. Stomach acid helps break down the food you eat and allows the body to take in all of the healthy nutrients. When the acid level Is off, it can cause the GI tract to slow down in its ability to process goods. This slowdown can result in women experiencing more constipation, bloating, and flatulence.
Another reason that women may experience menopausal bloating is water retention. Again, you can blame lower estrogen levels for this problem. In addition to the stomach, water retention can cause women to experience swelling in other parts of the body, including hands and feet (gas retention typically occurs in the stomach.)
Menopausal bloating tends to be accompanied by pain and a distended belly that fluctuates throughout the day. In contrast, menopausal weight gain stays put and is due to a metabolic slowdown.
If you are experiencing any new or worsening digestive issues, it is essential to see your physician. Many common digestive symptoms such as bloating, fullness, and abdominal pain can signify more serious medical conditions such as ovarian cancer. An examination and additional testing may be necessary to rule out more concerning reasons for the stomach problems you are experiencing.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a gastrointestinal disorder with symptoms such as gas, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. Although menopause does not cause irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), menopause can cause IBS symptoms to worsen or change.
If perimenopause or menopause are causing havoc on your digestive issues, there are steps you can take to decrease or manage your discomfort.
Aim for eight glasses of water a day to keep well hydrated and give your GI tract the fluids it needs to keep things moving along.
A healthy, balanced diet that primarily includes many whole grains, legumes, green leafy vegetables, and fruits (such as berries) and avoiding processed foods can help with digestive issues.
If you keep your body moving, it can help keep your bowels moving too. Exercise, even just going for a daily walk, can help aid digestion.
Sometimes an over-the-counter laxative or stool softener can help to alleviate constipation issues and assist you with inconsistent bowel movements. Occasional use is acceptable, but if the problem becomes chronic, see your doctor.
“Estrogen and progesterone fuel bacteria in your gut, “explains Shannon Perry in an article for the website Gennev, “So a decline in these hormones can disrupt and reduce healthy gut flora.” Adding probiotics to your diet (such as yogurt or kefir) or taking a daily supplement can help to restore good bacteria and improve your gut health.
Perry says, “Magnesium does a lot of good stuff for menopause symptoms, not the least of which is helping relieve digestives issues like flatulence and constipation.” Don’t go overboard because too much magnesium can lead to diarrhea, but consider adding magnesium-rich foods such as figs, nuts, and sweet potatoes to your diet.
Eating too fast can result in taking in too much air, which can lead to digestive issues and an upset stomach. Smaller meals eaten throughout the day, along with chewing thoroughly, can help a sluggish digestive tract to be able to keep up better.
Peppermint tea and ginger chews can soothe stomach pain and help people experiencing nausea.
For women experiencing bloating, decreasing salt intake (as well as avoiding carbonated beverages and chewing less gum) can offer relief.
As you age, certain foods may not agree with your stomach as well as they did when you were younger. It may be beneficial to try an elimination diet ( with a physician’s guidance) to determine which foods are triggering symptoms.
Finally, since estrogen and cortisol are related, finding ways to eliminate stress or cope with it better may be your best defense against menopause-related stomach issues. If your favorite stress reliever is curling up on the couch with a pint of ice cream, you may be exasperating your digestive problems. Consider meditation, journaling, or taking a long bath as ways to lower your stress levels and hopefully decrease belly pain and other symptoms of menopause.
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