February 13, 2011
Research indicates that gastrointestinal (GI) distress is more than twice as common in women as in men.
This difference in GI problems between the sexes extends to the function of their gastrointestinal tract, commonly known as the “gut,” along with differences in their hormones and food habits.
“Digestive problems refer to issues that occur with how food is broken down once it is consumed,” explained Gastroenterologist William Kolozsi, M.D. “Because the digestive system is a complex function of the body, issues can arise anywhere along the trip that food takes, from consumption to expulsion.”
Hormonal Causes of Digestive Problems
Although there are many potential causes of digestive problems, there’s a high likelihood that some problems experienced as a woman approaches menopause are linked to the effects of hormonal imbalances.
“The body relies on hormones to regulate its different functions, including digestion,” Dr. Kolozsi advised. “For example, during menopause there is a higher level of the cortisol hormone in a woman’s body. Cortisol is involved in stress responses and is known to create digestive problems, along with other adverse reactions, like anxiety disorders. In addition, the hormone estrogen inhibits cortisol, and when estrogen is too low, cortisol increases and slows down the release of stomach acid and the emptying of the stomach’s contents into the small intestine. This can create digestive symptoms, such as gas, bloating and constipation.
“Women are also twice as likely to develop gallstones because of the effects of the hormones estrogen and progesterone,” Dr. Kolozsi said. “Progesterone can slow down the emptying of the gallbladder. Estrogen and progesterone also affect the handling of cholesterol in the body and cause an increase of cholesterol in the gallbladder. Because of the slowed emptying of the gallbladder, as well as the increase of cholesterol, women have a greater chance for the development of gallstones.”
There are several other possible causes of digestive problems beyond hormones; such as stress, use of medications, poor food choices (processed or junk foods, lack of fiber, etc.), or not chewing food properly. Additional activities or risk factors can also enhance a person’s susceptibility to digestive problems, including smoking, the use of excessive alcohol, inactivity, depression, genetics and age.