Eating Well Helps Settle Women’s Digestive Issues
By Lauren Weber, DO
Common Women's Digestive Problems
The way to a man's heart is through his stomach, some say. But why isn't that true for a woman?
Maybe it's because men's and women's digestive systems aren't the same.
For one, women's stomachs tend to process food more slowly than men's. That may explain why women experience nausea and bloating more frequently. And women are more likely to have the following common digestive problems:
- Gallstones. Women are twice as likely as men to have gallstones, most likely due to hormones. Progesterone, a hormone secreted during the second half of the menstrual cycle and during pregnancy, may slow gallbladder emptying. This slowing, along with the increased amount of cholesterol in women's gallbladders, increases the likelihood of gallstones. If you take birth control pills or menopausal hormone therapy or are pregnant, your chance of developing gallstones is even higher.
- Reflux. Pregnant women also have a higher incidence of reflux. It's partly due to higher levels of progesterone. Progesterone can cause the lower esophageal sphincter to relax, allowing stomach acid to rise into the esophagus. Carrying extra weight also can cause reflux. Extra weight puts extra pressure on the stomach and diaphragm, making acid reflux more likely.
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). About twice as many women than men have IBD, which mainly consists of Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis. Intestinal damage can occur. Abdominal pain, cramping, diarrhea and blood in the stool are some common symptoms.
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Seventy to 80 percent of those with IBS, a condition causing abdominal pain, cramping and bowel irregularity, are women. Unlike IBD, IBS isn't a full-blown disease because it doesn't damage the bowel. But IBS still can cause great discomfort and inconvenience.
Don't Ignore Digestive Problems: See a Doctor
Even if you've never had one of the above conditions, chances are you've experienced digestive distress at one time or another. From constipation to diarrhea, women's digestive issues are getting more attention these days.
And that's a good thing. Because ignoring digestive problems, even if they're just mildly annoying, can sometimes have long-term effects. If your digestive system isn't working properly, your body may not be absorbing all the nutrients it needs to stay healthy. That can increase your risk of chronic disease.
If you have recurring issues, see a doctor. But you can also take steps to keep your digestive system running smoother, one bite at a time — especially if you have one of the conditions mentioned above.
5 Tips for Preventing Women's Digestive Issues
- Know your triggers. While no foods or nutritional supplements can prevent IBD or IBS, knowing and avoiding your dietary triggers is the first step to avoiding flare-ups. That goes for everyone. Even bouts of acid reflux can be avoided by staying away from fried foods, greasy or fatty foods, caffeine, carbonated beverages, citrus and chocolate.
- Limit gas-producing foods. Beans, onions, broccoli and cabbage are notorious gas-producers, so enjoy them in moderation to avoid bloating and discomfort. The same goes for carbonated beverages. For some people, the sugar substitute sorbitol can cause excess gas, bloating, cramping and diarrhea. Limit how much sorbitol you eat.
- Fiber up. A high-fiber diet helps keep you regular, improves your heart health and reduces your risk of type 2 diabetes and certain cancers. Women should consume 25 grams of fiber per day, but most don't eat nearly that much. (Average American adults only get 15 grams.) To up your fiber intake, eat generous servings of vegetables and fruit. Instead of white bread, rice and pasta, opt for whole wheat bread and other whole grains, such as brown rice and quinoa. Go slow, though. Fiber may aggravate bloating, especially if you increase your intake too fast. Drink more water as you eat more fiber to avoid constipation.
- Eat slower. Eating at a more relaxed, steadier pace is good for your gut. (And you probably won't eat as much.) Chewing your food well can help your stomach digest easier. And eating slowly can help you avoid swallowing too much air, which can produce gas.
- Consider probiotics. Probiotics are friendly bacteria or yeast that are thought to improve digestion and keep the intestines healthy. They may also help to strengthen the immune system and ward off diarrhea caused by infection, IBS or IBD. You can consume probiotics as supplements or in foods such as yogurt, dairy drinks and some cheeses. While not monitored by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, probiotics are generally safe. But check with your doctor before you start — they aren't for everyone.
3 Tips for Digestive Wellness and Overall Health
Of course, guidelines for overall health apply to digestive wellness too:
- Don't smoke
- Eat a balanced diet that is low in fat and high in vegetables, fiber and calcium.
The way to a woman's heart may not be through her stomach. But women often go with their gut — keep yours functioning well.
Lauren Weber, DO
Women's Health Specialist and Family Practice
Center for Women's Health, A NorthBay Affiliate