Period pain and your gut
We all know that there is some connection between periods and your gut. In the days leading up to your period, you are much more likely to be constipated, and during your period, things might move a bit brisker. Well, for many people it is frequently somewhere between a good fast walk and a full on sprint. And not only does your period affect your gut, but many people have found that improving your gut health by changing their diet, can lower period pain. And for those of us with a chronic inflammatory condition like endometriosis, we are more likely to have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) than someone without endometriosis.
How this all fits together is related to your immune system, and the inflammatory signals called prostaglandins. Prostaglandins are some of the really important molecules that your body uses to signal inflammation, and they help trigger cramping during menstruation.
But the connection between constipation or some extra exhilarating bathroom runs and your menstrual cycle don’t just stop there – period pain is actually really strongly linked IBS. So if you have worse cramps and more pelvic pain during your period, you are much more likely to have IBS. And although this connection isn’t fully understood, we do know it partly results from cross-talk between your organs. If you think about how all your organs are squished together surrounding your pelvis, it makes sense that your intestines and uterus will affect each other.
When your body is about to enter menstruation, your uterus starts releasing a lot of extra inflammatory signals (here's an in-depth read), but those molecules don’t just stay right there in your uterine lining. A bit like pouring cream into iced coffee, all those inflammatory molecules start to float around … and then they bump into your intestinal cells which are sitting right nearby. So all of a sudden your intestines start getting a bit jumpy, and that is why your period poops can get a little more exciting.
And, the whole process can operate in reverse.
Only now, imagine it is your intestines that start off inflamed. Maybe it’s because our modern lifestyle seems geared to increase our chronic inflammation levels, or maybe because you have a specific food based allergy that you weren’t aware of. Whatever the reason, if you have an inflamed intestine, it is going to be producing a lot more inflammatory signals than a happy intestine. These inflammatory signals from your intestines don’t just stay in one spot though – they can diffuse around and affect your uterus. And so this means your pelvis is going to be more inflamed before your period even starts.
As your body enters menstruation, your inflammation levels rise, but some people’s bodies are a bit more sensitive to this change, and experience a much greater increase in inflammation. This is linked to more period pain (go here for a more in-depth explainer). Starting off with high inflammation levels in your pelvis before your period even starts, it means you are likely to experience more pain.
If your pelvis is already a bit inflamed, then when your body enters menstruation, and more inflammatory molecules are added to the mix, you are more likely to have really bad cramps or migraines.
Because the connection between intestinal issues and period pain can run both ways, helping out your gut by changing your diet may actually help out your period pain.
Some Practical Tips
Get some fibre. Make sure to eat some fruits and vegetables as enter your period. Higher fiber foods help to do a few different things for your body: 1) they provide some structure to things moving through your intestines which can even things out (think of fiber as an adaptogen for your gut), 2) fiber feeds the good bacteria in your gut, so over time it lowers inflammation levels, and 3) fiber helps you get rid of estrogen because after being removed by your liver it is secreted into your intestines, and fiber absorbs it like a sponge and carries it out of your body.
Try to limit alcohol during your period. We know, in this environment it is kind of amazing that we’re not drinking all the time, but alcohol can increase inflammation quite effectively and also increases estrogen levels. Higher levels of alcohol are linked to intestinal inflammation, so dialing back a bit can help your gut heal. People with endometriosis seem to find alcohol an especially potent pain trigger for pain. So, cutting out alcohol, especially at the beginning of your period is a good way to reduce stress on your body and liver at a time they need to be operating at full capacity.
Get some exercise … regularly. There are a lot of studies that show exercise lowers inflammation in your whole body which is likely why exercise has been shown to help with both IBS and period pain. This doesn't mean starting a new workout routine when you are starting your period and hurting. And if you have IBS, it is a good idea to ease into the exercise and build up to give your body time to adjust. It doesn’t really matter what kind of exercise, but doing it several times a week looks to be the best.
If you're interested in some other practical lifestyle tips or science insights, check out our "Science & Lifestyle" articles.