Oh the joys of being female. Not only do we have to cope with the obvious not-so-fun effects of being reminded monthly that we’re capable of reproducing – period pain, tiredness, cravings, moodiness, bloating and headaches – but many of us also have to put up with less talked about digestive discomfort and a range of annoying bowel issues… Exciting we know.
Many women find that their healthy gut goes haywire during the menstrual period with bloating, gas, constipation and diarrhea being common complaints – but the psychological and physiological changes that women experience in different phases of their cycle is an area that often gets overlooked.
Hormonal changes and hormone-like chemicals released during different stages of your cycle can affect your healthy gut and the way your digestive system functions, thanks to the interrelationship between your levels of reproductive hormones and the intestinal tract. There isn’t much you can do about the usual hormonal changes, but small diet and lifestyle ones just might help alleviate the symptoms of period pain.
What happens to your body during your period?
In the 'luteal' phase (directly after ovulation), progesterone rises, and this can be associated with monthly digestive issues. Progesterone is a muscle relaxant, and can inhibit normal 'peristalsis' – the way our bodies contract and relax the muscles which line the bowel in a rippling, wave-like motion to shift things through the intestines and get rid of waste. More progesterone can make it harder for your bowels to contract, leading to constipation and that annoying bloated feeling (1).
Right before your period, progesterone levels drop quite dramatically and estrogen increases. As progesterone plummets, many women find that they suffer with the opposite problem for the first few days of their period – overactive, uncomfortable bowels.
Unfortunately, this stage is a double-whammy as your body also releases more prostaglandins at this same time. These are hormone-like chemicals that have a range of effects, including acting on smooth muscle like the uterus and the bowel. Their effects cause contractions which lead to cramping, diarrhea, and that gurgling feeling in your stomach. All women are different, but most people find that symptoms resolve after the first three days of their period (2). Sounds about right! Here are the best everyday top 10 tips to help with period pain and its associated symptoms.
How to reduce stomach pain during periods instantly
1. Know your fibre to relieve constipation
Wholegrains and leafy vegetables are great sources of insoluble fibre which bulks out stools and helps to get things moving again. Flaxseeds, chia, oats, chickpeas, sweet potatoes, carrots, avocado, apples, and chickpeas are good sources of the soluble kind of fibre which forms a gel-like substance and softens stools, helping to guard against constipation.
2. Increase your water intake to get rid of bloating and gas
Hydration is an obvious tip when it comes to moving things along, but so often people forget to drink up throughout the day. This is even more important when increasing fibre intake, as otherwise, you may find the problem worsening. Herbal teas count towards overall liquid consumed, and peppermint, ginger and fennel are especially helpful to counteract bloating and gas. You can even steep two tea bags in a cup in the morning, and dilute this in a 500ml – 750ml water bottle to sip cold throughout the day.
3. Load up on magnesium-rich foods to ease mood swings and cramps
This amazing mineral is helpful for constipation as well as cramps, period pains and PMS. A good quality supplement can help as well as magnesium-rich foods such as dark chocolate, almonds, brazil nuts, brown rice and dark green vegetables.
4. Get moving
Regular exercise can help alleviate constipation and get your bowel movements back on schedule by increasing blood flow to your digestive system and encouraging the contraction of your intestinal muscles.
5. Focus on 'binding' foods to support your gut
Again, if running to the bathroom is interrupting your daily routine, focus on the soluble fibre foods listed above for the first few days of your period to help keep a healthy gut. These can help support your digestive system by absorbing excess fluid in the bowel like a sponge and get rid of cramps and period pains. Good quality baked/grilled/roasted meats and lower fibre foods such as mushrooms, green beans and asparagus, hard-boiled eggs and natural yoghurt may also help to bind stools and reduce symptoms.
6. Increase probiotic-rich foods to support your gut
There is some evidence to suggest that fluctuations in reproductive hormones and digestive patterns may also affect your balance of gut bacteria. Eating plenty of probiotic-rich foods like unsweetened natural yogurt, kefir, kombucha and miso can help support the growth of beneficial microflora.
7. Control the cravings and ditch the junk to control pain
It’s common to crave salt, sugar and starchy carbohydrates when you are pre-menstrual. But this is the time to load up on nutrient-dense wholefoods which have anti-inflammatory properties and help to regulate pain and limit the impact of prostaglandins. Helpful heroes here are herbal teas, turmeric, (mix into a latte with nut milk and honey), antioxidants (think blueberries and red grapes), and omega-3 fatty acids in salmon, mackerel and sardines.
8. Avoid caffeine and alcohol too
It’s normal to reach for a coffee as a pick-me-up, or a glass of wine for a quick mood boost when you’re feeling tired and cranky or have had a tough day. However, these are known gut-irritants, so reducing your intake, or avoiding them completely, can help to support healthier gut function.
9. Avoid spicy and fatty foods to ease diarrhea
For some people, the chemical compounds found in chili and peppers irritate the stomach and worsen loose stool. Fried foods can also exacerbate diarrhea, so steer clear when you’re suffering from period pain and cramps.
10. Reduce stress and anxiety
Stressing about needing to find a toilet quickly will make the problem worse as your gastrointestinal tract is intricately connected to your nervous system. Use relaxation techniques such as meditation and breathing exercises to curb your anxiety, or go for a walk with some good music – whatever works for you!
Don’t forget to monitor your symptoms and take time to assess what is 'normal' for you. Some women find it helpful to keep a diary of GI symptoms prior to and during their period, to help identify patterns in their diet and behaviour and identify how they can minimize symptoms.
If you typically suffer from digestive issues that get worse during menstruation, it could point to another problem, like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (where you might have alternating symptoms of constipation and diarrhea even when you don’t have your period). Studies have shown that women with intestinal conditions often find that their symptoms flare up more with hormonal changes around their menstrual cycle and those with IBS seem to be more sensitive to these fluctuations.
Remember that if you are experiencing significant pain or bloody stools, always speak to your doctor, as these could indicate a more serious cause or a gynecological condition such as endometriosis which needs medical attention.