Gender Differences in IBS

Surprised man
Even though IBS is often thought of as a women's problem, men can also develop IBS,. Image © Caiaimage/Chris Ryan / OJO+ / Getty Images

In the United States and other western countries, twice as many women as men seek treatment for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). In fact, IBS is largely perceived as a women's health issue even though there are men who have this condition as well. Men do develop IBS, so why are more women than men diagnosed with the condition? Does the answer lie in the physical, chemical, social, or emotional differences between the genders?

Physical Differences

Some research indicates that part of the large discrepancy in the number of men and women diagnosed with IBS may lie in physical differences, such as response to pain. In general, women have been shown to be more sensitive to certain types of pain (such as pain from internal organs) than men. Therefore, IBS pain might be more prominent in women than it is in men, which would prompt a visit to a physician. 

Chemical Differences

Many women report that their IBS symptoms are worse during certain phases of their menstrual cycle (such as pre-menstrual or ovulation periods). This association led researchers to speculate that if female hormones exacerbate IBS, male hormones may be responsible for “protecting” men from IBS. In one study, men with IBS were found to have lower hormone levels than men without IBS. This could mean that higher levels of male hormones in the body somehow prevent IBS symptoms, but researchers are unsure why.

Additionally, another study showed that men who had a lower testosterone level in particular experienced more pronounced IBS symptoms.

Social Differences

Another reason for the low amount of men reporting IBS symptoms is that they may not seek medical treatment as readily as women. Men might not consider seeing a medical professional for the pain experienced from IBS.

Women also may seek treatment for IBS more often because they are already accustomed to seeing a doctor (usually a gynecologist) for a Pap screen or other testing on a yearly basis. Reporting abdominal pain or changes in bowel habits on these visits might lead to a referral for a follow-up with a general practitioner or a gastroenterologist. Younger men and men who are otherwise healthy may not see a physician on a regular basis, and would therefore not have a close relationship with a physician or be in a position to easily report pain or changes in bowel habits.

Emotional Differences

There appears to be a connection between psychological conditions and IBS, though researchers are still unsure about what causes the link. Depression and anxiety are generally more common in women than men which may partly explain the prevalence of IBS in women. Studies have shown that women with IBS are also more likely to have a history of sexual abuse.

A Word From Verywell

It appears that all these factors may play a role in explaining the lower rate of reported IBS in men when compared to women. There could also be other social reasons why men may not seek care or why women are more likely to seek care for digestive conditions.

Studies about the gender differences in IBS have increased in recent years, and researchers conclude that more are needed to understand the gender differences in IBS.

Sources:

Blanchard EB, Keefer L, Galovski TE, Taylor AE, Turner SM. "Gender differences in psychological distress among patients with irritable bowel syndrome." J Psychosom Res 2001;50:271-275. 10 Sept 2013.

Chang L, Heitkemper MM. "Gender differences in irritable bowel syndrome." Gastroenterology 2002;123:1686-1701. 10 Sept 2013.

Fass R, Fullerton S, Naliboff B, Hirsh T, Mayer EA. "Sexual dysfunction in patients with irritable bowel syndrome and non-ulcer dyspepsia." Digestion 1998;59:79-85. 10 Sept 2013.

Houghton LA, Lea R, Jackson N, Whorwell PJ. "The menstrual cycle affects rectal sensitivity in patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome but not healthy volunteers." Gut 2002;50:471-474. 10 Sept 2013.

Houghton LA, Jackson NA, Whorwell PJ, Morris J. "Do male sex hormones protect from irritable bowel syndrome?" Am J Gastroenterol 2000;95:2296-2300. 10 Sept 2013.

Kim BJ, Rhee PL, Park JH, et al. "Male sex hormones may influence the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome in young men." Digestion 2008;78:88-92. doi: 10.1159/000166600. Epub 2008 Oct 31. 10 Sept 2013.

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