Do IBS Symptoms Get Better or Worse with Menopause?

Hormonal changes during this time affect you whole body

Woman having night sweats
Menopause can cause night sweats, along with stomach issues. Peter Dazeley / Getty Images

The natural process of menopause can trigger changes in many parts of your body and affect your  irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms. Whether or not you have been diagnosed with IBS, you may find that as you reach a certain age, you start to have more frequent bowel symptoms. Although studies haven't yielded clear-cut evidence about why menopause affects the way the stomach works, some research has been done in this area.

Let's take a look.

Body Changes During Menopause

Menopause occurs after a woman's final menstrual period, but the body begins to change before then, exhibiting symptoms of the phase called perimenopause. Women who are about a decade away from menopause (typically those in their late 30s and early 40s) experience perimenopause, which may alter how often they menstruate or ovulate. Doctors consider women to be in perimenopause until they have gone a full year without a period. At that point, a woman is considered to be finished with menopause and in the post-menopause phase that lasts the rest of her life. The exact age these phases start and end varies from one woman to the next.

As your body makes its way through all of these natural changes, precipitated by changing levels of your female hormones, you may experience some unwanted symptoms, including:

  • Bleeding changes related to your period
  • Changes as to how often you get your period
  • Hot flashes, including night sweats
  • Moodiness or irritability
  • Vaginal dryness
  • Bladder problems, including incontinence
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Changes in your libido level increased or decreased interest in having sex
  • Headaches
  • Weight gain

Many women, with and without IBS, report the following digestive symptoms during the perimenopausal phase:

  • Changes in the frequency of bowel movements
  • Increased symptoms of abdominal pain and discomfort
  • Increased bloating

IBS Symptoms Worsening With Menopause

Research studies on the relationship between IBS and menopause have yielded mixed results, but there does appear to be some indication that IBS symptoms increase during perimenopause. One report identified a peak in these increased symptoms as occurring from the ages of 40 to 49. This increase in symptoms may be a result of the leveling off of sex hormones (estrogen and progesterone) that occurs at this time, in much the same way that women experience an increase in IBS symptoms during the days before the onset of their periods. The levels of these sex hormones have an effect on IBS symptoms because receptor cells for these hormones are located throughout the digestive tract.

IBS Getting Better Following Menopause

Population studies indicate that the prevalence of IBS symptoms decrease for women after the age of 40 or 45, a decrease not seen in men. So, it's possible that the leveling off of sex hormones in post-menopausal women has a beneficial effect on IBS symptoms.

A Note About Osteoporosis

No discussion about the relationship between menopause and IBS is complete without addressing the risk of osteoporosis, a thinning of bones that increase your risk for experiencing a fracture.

The loss of estrogen that occurs with menopause increases your risk of an osteoporosis diagnosis. But did you also know that having IBS is a risk factor for osteoporosis? Scientists do not know for sure why a person with IBS is at increased risk.

To lower your chances of developing osteoporosis, you should eat a healthful diet, making sure you are taking in adequate levels of calcium and vitamin D. Make exercise a regular part of your life and be sure to speak with your doctor about your risk factors. Make sure overall that you are doing all you can to keep your bones strong and healthy.

Sources:

Bharadwaj, S., et. al. "Symptomatology of irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease during the menstrual cycle" Gastroenterology Report 2015 3:185–193.

Heitkemper, M. & Chang L. "Heitkemper, M. & Chang L. "Do fluctuations in ovarian hormones affect gastrointestinal symptoms in women with irritable bowel syndrome?" Gender Medicine 2009 6:(S2) 152-167.

"Menopause" NIH: National Institute of Aging Website accessed May 27, 2016.

Olafsdottir, L., et. al. "Natural History of Irritable Bowel Syndrome in Women and Dysmenorrhea: A 10-Year Follow-Up Study" Gastroenterology Research and Practice 2012 534204.

Palsson, O. & Whitehead, W. "Hormones and IBS" The UNC Center for Functional GI & Motility Disorders. Accessed May 27, 2016.

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