Everyone has digestive problems from time to time—an upset stomach, gas, heartburn, constipation, or diarrhoea. Many digestive problems may be uncomfortable or embarrassing, but they are not serious and don’t last long. Other problems can be controlled with simple changes in your diet. But sometimes even common digestive symptoms can be signs of a more serious problem. Knowing when you should talk to your doctor can help you take care of your digestive health.
Some digestive problems, such as irritable bowel syndrome and gallstones, are more common in women than men. Other problems occur equally in both sexes, but affect women in unique ways. For example, women with inflammatory bowel disease may have irregular menstrual periods. Some women with celiac disease experience infertility or miscarriage and heartburn caused by gastro-oesophageal reflux is common in pregnancy.
Common gastrointestinal disorders in women
IRRITABLE BOWEL SYNDROME
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is not a disease but a syndrome, meaning a group of symptoms. People with IBS most often have abdominal pain, bloating, and discomfort. Some people have constipation-infrequent bowel movements with hard, dry, or difficult-to-pass stools. Other people with IBS have diarrhoea-frequent loose, watery stools. Symptoms may subside for a few months but can return and get worse over time. Normally, women are more sensitive to irritants in the digestive tract than men. This may help explain why IBS is more common in women. Irritable bowel syndrome symptoms often become worse just before or at the start of a woman’s period because of certain hormones. Causes of IBS include gastroenteritis infection, food intolerance, general diet, emotional stress, certain medications like painkillers and hormonal changes.
- Abdominal pain or discomfort
Gallstones form when glandular elements in the bile ducts harden into small, pebble-like pieces in the gallbladder.
Most gallstones are made mainly of hardened cholesterol
. If liquid bile contains too much cholesterol, or the gallbladder doesn’t empty completely or often enough, gallstones can form. Women are twice as likely as men to have gallstones. Oestrogen, a female hormone, raises cholesterol levels in the bile and slows gallbladder movement. The effect is even greater in pregnancy as oestrogen levels rise. This helps explain why many women develop gallstones
when pregnant or after having a baby. Likewise, if you take birth control pills or menopausal hormone therapy, you have a greater chance of developing gallstones.
- Pain in right upper abdomen, under right shoulder, or between shoulder blades
- Nausea and vomiting
- Yellowish skin or eyes
- Clay-coloured stool
GASTRO-OESOPHAGEAL REFLUX DISEASE (GERD)
- Sometimes other tests, such as a computed tomography or an endoscopic procedure that uses a long, flexible tube with a camera inserted down the throat, through the stomach, and into the small intestine to detect problems in the nearby gallbladder and bile ducts
If you have ever felt food or fluid rise from your stomach into your throat, then you know what gastro-oesophageal reflux
(GER) feels like. You may know it as acid reflux or acid indigestion. GER occurs when the ring of muscle between the lower part of the oesophagus and the stomach opens at the wrong time. In GER, the sphincter relaxes when it shouldn’t and allows stomach contents to flow back into the oesophagus.
puts extra pressure on the stomach and diaphragm, making acid reflux more likely. So does pregnancy. What’s more, the pregnancy hormone progesterone can contribute to GERD. Progesterone relaxes many of your muscles, including the lower oesophageal sphincter.
- Frequent heartburn (in adults)
- Sometimes dry cough, asthma symptoms, or trouble swallowing
- Review of symptoms
- Diagnostic tests such as x-rays or endoscopic procedure to look for abnormalities if symptoms don’t respond to lifestyle changes or medication
INFLAMMATORY BOWEL DISEASE
- Lifestyle changes
- Medications (over-the-counter and prescription)
- Surgery to strengthen the sphincter or repair a hiatal hernia
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is chronic inflammation of the digestive tract
. The most common forms of IBD are Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Crohn’s disease can affect any part of the digestive tract, causing swelling that extends deep into the lining of the affected organ. It most often affects the lower part of the small intestine Ulcerative colitis affects the colon or rectum, where sores called ulcers form on the top layer of the intestinal lining. Some women with IBD have discomfort or pain during sex
. This may be a result of surgery or the disease itself. Fatigue, poor body image, or fear of passing gas or stool can also interfere with your sex life. Even though it may be embarrassing, be sure to tell your doctor if you are having sexual problems
- Abdominal pain
- Diarrhoea, which may be bloody
- Rectal bleeding
- Weight loss
- Mouth ulcers (in Crohn’s disease)
- Painful or difficult bowel movements (in ulcerative colitis)
People who have celiac disease can’t tolerate gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. Gluten is even in some medicines. When people with celiac disease eat foods or use products that have gluten in them, the immune system responds by damaging the lining of the small intestine. This damage interferes with the body’s ability to absorb nutrients from food. As a result, a person with celiac disease becomes malnourished, no matter how much food she eats.
Celiac disease runs in families. Sometimes the disease is triggered-or becomes active for the first time-after surgery, pregnancy, childbirth, a viral infection
, or severe emotional stress
. Women with celiac disease may face infertility or miscarriage.
- Abdominal bloating and pain
- Diarrhoea or constipation
- Weight loss or weight gain
- Missed menstrual periods
- Itchy skin rash called dermatitis herpetiformis
can range from mild to severe. You can overcome many problems by making simple lifestyle changes - watch what you eat, maintain a healthy weight
, learn to deal with stress
, and if you smoke, quit. Other digestive problems require medication or even surgery.