The Scientist: Maged Rizk, M.D., Director of the Chronic Abdominal Pain Clinic at the Cleveland Clinic
The Answer: If you’re frequently plagued by gastrointestinal issues, you’re not alone. Women are about ten times as likely as men to experience symptoms like cramps, bloating, constipation and diarrhea. Why are these ailments so common in women? The simple answer is that we don’t know yet. Theories suggest that it’s due to hormonal variation or different connections between brain and gut, including stress responses—but the jury’s out for now.
If you have crampy or sharp pains and irregular bowel movements—constipation yesterday, diarrhea tomorrow—there’s a good chance you’re one of the 20 or 30 million American women with irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS.
Your IBS might be very different from the way others experience it, but it usually boils down to three main symptoms: bloating, diarrhea and constipation.
Let’s start with bloating, a sensation of gassy fullness that can improve with (no sense putting this delicately) farting or burping. Bloating is usually caused by dietary intolerance or a blockage in your GI tract that makes gas build up in your small intestine.
It is very common for women to have difficulty digesting lactose, fructose and gluten, which often triggers an up-tick in gas production. Take lactose intolerance, for example. A deficiency of lactase, the enzyme that breaks down lactose, creates an accumulation of the sugar in your bowel. This is like a smorgasbord for the bacteria in your gut start, which gorge themselves on the sugar, producing gas. When this happens, it basically fills you up like a balloon, and the only way to effectively relieve the pressure is to pass that gas, one way or the other.
Many of the things that cause bloat are implicated in diarrhea and constipation as well. Indeed, one of the other side effects of all that undigested dairy sugar is diarrhea because you’re body isn’t able to properly absorb the stuff.
Constipation doesn’t just mean you haven’t gone in a while. It’s defined by stool caliber—small, dry pellets—and an inability to fully evacuate your bowels. Before you start running for the Ex-Lax, you should know that there’s a wide rage of what’s considered normal bowel movement frequency: Anywhere from five bowel movements per day to just one per week is usually OK.
Constipation can result from dehydration, a lack of exercise or certain medications. Too much protein and not enough carbs and fiber can also put the brakes on your bathroom breaks. For regularity’s sake, aim for 25-50 grams of fiber per day.
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