Digestive Health in Women Q&A with Dr. Victain

An estimated 100 million women nationwide suffer from gastrointestinal (GI) health issues. Michelle Suzanne Victain, DO, a gastroenterologist at the UPMC Digestive Disorders Center at UPMC Passavant, discusses ways women can improve their digestive health and more.

What GI Conditions are More Common in Women Than Men?

GI issues that tend to be more common in women include:

Why do these GI conditions tend to affect women more than men?

Females have more organs in the lower abdomen, which includes the uterus and ovaries. All of these organs lie very close to each other on the intestinal tract. Because the intestinal tract shares space with other pelvic organs, a woman’s GI tract is usually more cramped for space than a man’s GI tract.

Additionally, the presence of a menstrual cycle or being close to the premenopausal, menopausal, or postmenopausal stages affect GI symptoms tremendously in women. Pregnancy, childbirth, and some postpartum challenges also tend to create GI issues for women. Chronic pelvic conditions such as endometriosis and polycystic ovarian syndrome also can cause GI conditions.

How does the menstrual cycle and menopause affect gut health?

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Women may have a variety of GI symptoms depending on where they are in their menstrual cycle or in which stage of menopause. Research has shown that there tends to be increased organ sensitivity and pain around the time of menstruation because there is an increased secretion of a compound called prostaglandin when a woman is actively having her period.

Prostaglandin causes the uterus and nearby organs, including the stomach, colon, and intestines to contract. Because of this, especially during the menstrual cycle, women can experience symptoms of abdominal bloating and cramping, as well as a change in bowel habits. Most commonly in this stage of the menstrual cycle, we see loose bowel movements or diarrheal symptoms.

In other phases of a woman’s hormonal cycle, including the various stages of menopause, there can be an increased effect in secretion of an additional hormone called progesterone. This can cause significant abdominal bloating and constipation.

What can I do in my daily life to improve my digestive health?

Before you seek a GI consultation, there are lifestyle changes that can help make your GI tract feel better, including:

  • Drink more water. Water keeps the gut moving. Limit alcohol and caffeine, as these drinks can be stimulants to the gut and can worsen acid reflux and abdominal bloating. They also can cause cramping and diarrhea.
  • Diet. Prioritize fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, whole grains, beans, and nuts in your diet. Focus on smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day.
  • Manage your stress. When your brain is not feeling well, your gut is not going to feel well. It is crucial to manage your stress levels and sleep cycle.
  • Mind your medications. Many medications can positively and negatively impact your gut. Talk with your doctor and your gastroenterologist about any over-the-counter or prescription medications you take, as well as vitamins, minerals, and herbal supplements to see if they can be causing digestive issues.
  • Exercise. When you are moving, your gut is moving, too. Physical activity helps your colon move, which promotes healthier digestion and regular bowel habits. Exercise also can help you to manage a variety of other GI illnesses, including irritable bowel syndrome.
  • Consider taking a daily probiotic. Probiotics are supplements of good bacteria to help balance the negative and the positive bacteria in our gut, which runs and functions on a healthy balance of both. There are natural probiotics in many foods and beverages, including healthy yogurts, sauerkraut, kimchi, natural cheeses, sourdough bread, buttermilk, and apple cider vinegar. Before you buy a probiotic, discuss this approach with your doctor to ensure the probiotic is right for you.

What can increase my risk of colon and rectal cancer as a woman?

Research shows that women who have right-sided colon or rectal cancer have a higher mortality rate compared to men who have right-sided colon or rectal cancer. Right-sided colon and rectal cancers tend to be more aggressive compared to left-sided colon and rectal cancers.

Factors that can increase a woman’s risk of colon and rectal cancer include:

  • Age.
  • Having diabetes or heart disease.
  • Obesity and physical inactivity.
  • Race.
  • Tobacco and alcohol usage.

What can decrease my risk of colon and rectal cancer?

Factors that can decrease your risk of colon and rectal cancer include:

  • Eating a healthy diet with fresh fruits and vegetables, food with whole grains and healthy fibers, and limiting your intake of red and processed meats and food with nitrates.
  • Discussing with your doctor how to incorporate healthy amounts of calcium, vitamin D, folate, and dairy products in your diet.
  • Physical activity.

When should I seek GI consultation?

You should seek GI consultation if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • A change in your normal bowel routine.
  • Any symptoms of nausea, vomiting, or worsening abdominal bloating.
  • Blood in your stool.
  • Severe abdominal pain.
  • Symptoms of increased gas, flatulence, or belching.
  • Trouble or painful swallowing.
  • Unintentional weight gain or loss.
  • Worsening heartburn or acid reflux symptoms.

To schedule an appointment at the UPMC Digestive Disorders Center, call 1-866-442-787.

About Digestive Disorders

The UPMC Digestive Disorders Center cares for a wide range of gastrointestinal (GI) conditions and diseases, from diagnosis to treatment. Whether your digestive condition is common or complicated, our experts can help. Upon referral from your physician, we coordinate your testing and treatment. If you have a complicated condition, we can refer you to one of UPMC’s digestive health centers of excellence. Find a GI doctor near you.