Does IBS Get Better or Worse with Menopause?

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. The way that your stomach works and feels is one of them. Whether or not you have been diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), you may find that as you reach a certain age, you start to have more frequent bowel symptoms. Although research doesn't yet have clear-cut insight to share with us why this might be happening, there is some work that has been done in this area.

Let's take a look.

Body Changes in Menopause

Menopause is officially declared at the time of your last menstrual period. However, changes associated with menopause begin before that, a phase called perimenopause. Doctors consider that you are still in the perimenopause phase until it has been a full year without a period. At that point, you are considered to be "through" menopause and thus enter into the postmenopause phase which lasts through the rest of your life. What age all of these phases start and end is very variable 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 Getting Worse with Menopause

Research studies on the relationship between IBS and menopause have yielded mixed results. From the limited work that has been done in this area, there does appear to be some indication that IBS symptoms may increase during perimenopause. One report identified a peak in these increased symptoms as occurring between the ages of 40 to 49. It has been theorized that this increase in symptoms is a result of the lessening of the levels of sex hormones (estrogen and progesterone) that occurs at this time, in much the same way that women experience an increase in IBS symptoms in the days surrounding the onset of their period. 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

In contrast to the increase in IBS symptoms that is experienced by many women when in the perimenopause, larger population studies indicated that the prevalence of IBS in general decreases for women after the age of 40 or 45 - a decrease that is not seen for men.

It is thus possible that the ceasing of the changing levels of sex hormones in woman when they are through menopause has a beneficial effect on IBS symptoms.

A Note About Osteoporosis

No discussion of the relationship between menopause and IBS is complete without addressing the risk of osteoporosis, a thining of bones that increases 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 now considered a risk factor for osteoporosis? Sientists do not know for sure why a person with IBS is at increased risk.

To lower your risk of developing osteoporosis, you should eat a healthy diet, making sure you are taking in adequate levels of calcium and vitamin D. Make exercise a regular part of your life. Make sure to have a discussion with your doctor to assess your risk factors and make sure that you are doing all that you can be doing 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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