Certain health issues that affect women may be a clue to IBS

Sometimes it almost seems like the cards are stacked against women. 

On one hand, women have better memories and are more intuitive (they have larger hippocampus than men). Yet, on the other hand, women are saddled with health issues that would never affect men. Case in point, menstrual periods, endometriosis, and now, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

A recent study published by researchers at the Boston Center for Endometriosis found that women who suffer from endometriosis are more likely to also have IBS. According to the study authors, it seems there’s a connection between the two conditions.

Endometriosis is a painful condition that involves the ovaries, fallopian tubes, and the tissue lining of the pelvis. The tissue that normally lines the uterus grows outside of the organ, leading to swelling, scar tissues and adhesions, where the tissue binds the pelvic organs together.

In the study, the authors looked at 224 adolescent women diagnosed with endometriosis and 99 young women without the condition (by the way, this is considered the largest study of its kind). Those with endometriosis had a 5.26-fold higher risk for IBS. Women with severe acyclic (ie, not related to monthly periods) pelvic pain are 35.7-fold higher risk of having IBS.

In other studies, there seems to be a link between painful periods or premenstrual distress with IBS. According to the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders, menstrual periods can actually make IBS symptoms worse. The problem for most women is that sometimes it’s hard to distinguish if the pain they’re experiencing is IBS or related to premenstrual cramps. Abdominal pain, bloating, constipation or diarrhea can also be symptoms of a woman’s period. 

The challenge for many physicians is to determine which is which. For gynecologists, there needs to be greater awareness of the link between endometriosis, premenstrual syndrome and IBS. For GI physicians, they will need to be versed in understanding how menstrual cycles can make IBS symptoms worse.

Since IBS can complicate things,  women with IBS need to be an advocate for themselves. They need to make sure that their gastroenterologist and gynecologist are communicating with each other to provide them with the best care possible for all of their symptoms. 

Here are some tips on how to be a self-advocate: 

  • Make a list of concerns beforehand

  • Share any information they have found or read with physicians  

  • Bring a friend to encourage you and help you feel comfortable

  • Ask questions and take notes while speaking with the doctor 

  • Keep a diary and track of both when IBS symptoms surfaces and when the menstrual cycle begins and ends

The combination of IBS symptoms and the gynecological issues can make it seem harder for women with IBS to live a normal life and maintain relationships. However, by becoming one’s own health advocate and following the above suggestions, women can turn the cards around, knowing that this, too, will pass.