How Menstrual Hormones Affect Digestion

How Menstrual Hormones Affect Digestion

From the time a woman reaches sexual maturity at around age 13, she will have her period for three to seven days, every 28 to 35 days, until she is about 50. That is approximately 3,000 days of menstruation. Throughout her lifetime, a woman’s cycle will change as she ages. Factors that contribute to these changes are hormonal changes, whether or not she has children, and whether or not she develops a chronic illness.

Menses is a complicated process involving the female reproductive system, hormones, and the brain. Although the menstrual period represents a portion of the full cycle, it is the continual process of hormone fluctuation that affects how a woman feels both physically and emotionally. It may be surprising to find that the hormones that regulate the menstrual cycle influence the balance of bacteria in the gut throughout the month, particularly during a woman’s menstrual period.

The relationship between gut bacteria, or gut microbiome, and estrogen is a bit complex. Estrogen and gut bacteria have a rather collaborative relationship. The microbiome needs to be functioning optimally for estrogen levels to be regulated in a woman’s body. An unhealthy gut microbiome can lead to either too much estrogen or not enough estrogen circulating in the body. A disrupted microbiome with unregulated estrogen levels can lead to medical conditions such as obesity, metabolic syndrome, endometriosis (abnormal growth of uterine cells outside of the uterus), and polycystic ovary syndrome (imbalance of reproductive hormones).

Estrogen is created primarily in the ovaries. It circulates throughout the body until it reaches the liver, where it is inactivated. It is sent to the gut to be metabolized and excreted by the body through the digestive system. In an unhealthy microbiome, unfriendly bacteria make an enzyme, called beta-glucuronidase, which actually re-activates estrogen in the gut. The reactivated estrogen then re-enters the bloodstream and causes excess estrogen to circulate throughout the body. Excess estrogen leads to bloating, anxiety, moodiness, weight gain, insomnia, hair loss, foggy thinking, and very heavy periods. Over time, this cycle of symptoms and discomfort compounds and the pattern worsens.

Progesterone is another hormone that plays a role in digestive issues during a woman’s cycle. Progesterone spikes after ovulation, which is the release of the egg from the ovary. Progesterone helps to build up the uterine lining in preparation for a fertilized egg. But it also relaxes gut movement, or peristalsis. It is believed that this increase in progesterone after ovulation is the primary culprit in causing constipation. When gut movement is slowed, constipation can result. However, some studies have suggested that it is the imbalance of estrogen that is main factor in causing constipation. Regardless of which hormone is the greater problem, gut motility is affected as these hormones rise and fall throughout the entire menstrual cycle.

How can a woman alleviate the discomfort and correct these symptoms? One way is to take a look at eating habits. Be sure to eat plenty of fiber from fresh fruits and vegetables and drink plenty of water. Managing stress through exercise is also important. Exercise will also aid in getting a more restful sleep.

It is always a good idea to discuss symptoms with a doctor, since other more serious complications may be causing symptoms or may result from too much estrogen circulating in the body. The balance of bacteria in the microbiome plays a major role in a woman’s overall health and well-being.

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