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women + IBS

Prevalence data shows that IBS is more prevalent in women. This week we look to the science in this area to see why that is the case.

What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

 

Irritable bowel syndrome, also known as IBS is a chronic digestive disorder which is estimated to affect 10-15% of the Western population with the proportion mostly affecting women compared to men (1). Symptoms often include abdominal pain, discomfort, cramping, bloating and altered bowel habits and diagnosis can often overlap with other GI disorders such as coeliac disease, lactose intolerance and indigestion.

Why are women more prone to IBS?

 

The occurrence of IBS seems to be related to sex and age. Looking at the data, the prevalence of IBS in women declines after the age of 40 whereas it stays relatively stable for men aged 20-69 years. Studies suggest that this may be due to female sex hormones, mainly estrogen and progesterone, as these play a pivotol role in triggering symptoms, especially during reproductive years.

 

As with all research the data may also be influenced by the fact that more women go to see their GP, than men, to get an IBS diagnosis (1).

How might hormones affect IBS?

 

Sex hormone receptors along the gastrointestinal tract affect gut microbiota and motility during menstruation and and may increase the severity of symptoms across certains phases of the menstrual cycle (2,3)


Fluctuation in female sex hormones may also influence our emotional response such as stress, anxiety and depression through the gut brain axis. This can significantly worsen quality of life, levels of fatigue and general mood in women with IBS (1,4,5).

A link between IBS and endometriosis

 

There is also evidence of a link between endometriosis and IBS. Women with endometriosis are 2-3 times more likely to have IBS compared to women without the condition (6). It is thought that having endometriosis may increase inflmammtion in the abdominal area and hypervisceral sensitivity in the gut (increasing the feeling of pain).

A higher risk of IBS post gastroenteritis

 

In general, women have been shown to have higher risk for post-infection IBS. Research has found that women, particularly those with severe enteritis, are at increased risk of 2.2 times of developing IBS (3).

What do you do if you’ve been diagnosed with IBS?

 

Although more research is needed to guide treatment strategies to meet the unique needs of women, there are many tools available in order to manage your IBS such as:

 

  • Keeping a symptom diary
  • Make simple changes to your diet such as eating at regular times in the day.
  • The Low FODMAP diet (please see a dietitin before trying this diet)
  • Gentle exercise such as yoga or walking
  • Heating pad or hot water bottle
  • Meditation or yoga for stress relief

If you’re experiencing any IBS symptoms, it is always best to follow up with your GP for a diagnosis, especially if you have a higher risk of developing IBS.

Sasha Watkins

Registered dietitian and co-founder of Field Doctor

IG: @sashadietitian

This post was written in collaboration with Nikki Manduca (field doctor nutrition intern)

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