Gastrointestinal (GI) Disorders in Women

Gastrointestinal diseases refer to ailments that affect the gastrointestinal (GI) tract including, for instance, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). But what are the unique symptoms of GI disorders and how do these ailments affect women when compared to men? In this article, we’ll help you understand the essential role your GI system plays in your overall health and share tips on how you can identify signs of ailments related to your digestive system.

What are Gastrointestinal Disorders?

Your gastrointestinal (GI) tract is a unique collection of organs that each play a role in your ability to absorb and use nutrients from foods as well as eliminate waste. The tract begins at one’s mouth and ends at the anus. When working efficiently, individuals experience several positive indicators of a healthy digestive system, including the following:

  • Consistent energy 
  • Pain-free and regular bowel movements
  • Healthy reactions to food
  • Healthy reactions to stress
  • Normal bloating and gas

Underlying health issues related to any of the organs in your digestive system, however, can lead to a broad range of symptoms. These symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, heartburn, bloating, or abdominal pain and discomfort. When such symptoms occur over an extended period of time or at an intense severity, this may be a sign of serious GI illness. 

Several considerations can help doctors determine the severity of the illness. Importantly, patients can note how one’s sex or gender can affect how GI ailments develop or how they impact an individual’s quality of life.

Differences in Gastrointestinal Symptoms for Women Versus Men

Overall, research indicates that certain GI ailments are more common in women than men, for instance, irritable bowel syndrome. Also, women may be more likely than men to discuss gastrointestinal issues with their doctor while men may delay such conversations. 

Some of the main ways in which gastrointestinal diseases may affect women and men differently relate to the following:

  1. Menstruation and menopause can exacerbate GI symptoms. GI symptoms can increase during one’s menses as well as during early menopause. Since these time periods signify low or declining ovarian hormones, researchers have suggested that certain symptoms of GI disorders* can be directly or indirectly related to estrogen and progesterone withdrawal.
  2. In many cases, women are more willing to talk about their symptoms or seek treatment for GI ailments. Researchers** found, for instance, that women were more likely to raise concerns about their experience with heartburn and other GI related symptoms when they spoke to their doctors. This occured even though heartburn and other symptoms related to a specific GI disease called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) seemed to occur more often in men. 
  3. Men sometimes disregard GI symptoms for longer than women do, delaying seeking help from a doctor. They may also downplay the severity of their GI symptoms. Since women are typically more likely to seek treatment for symptoms like heartburn sooner, this may prevent the development of more serious complications related to GI diseases. GERD, for instance, often develops after instances of prolonged or recurring acid reflux, which can irritate the lining of the esophagus. 
  4. GI disorders like IBS may also have a greater impact on a woman’s quality of life according to the Canadian Society of Intestinal Research. Researchers believe that this could be due to social taboos and gender expectations***, which dictate that women should be more discreet about their bowel functions leading to a greater sense of embarrassment should such functions go awry. Social isolation or an increased unwillingness to socialize can result. 

Common Gastrointestinal Disorders

Since GI disorders can affect women and men differently, it’s important to know how to spot symptoms and distinguish common GI ailments from more severe disorders. This knowledge can empower those affected by gastrointestinal issues to make lifestyle changes, as needed, or to seek help from a gastroenterologist who specializes in treating diseases affecting the digestive system. Below are a few gastrointestinal issues including constipation, hemorrhoids and irritable bowel syndrome that affect both men and women. 

  • Constipation

This occurs when an individual is unable to pass stools or when bowel movements occur infrequently. Constipation can occur due to the use of certain medications such as narcotics or iron supplements. It can also result due to surgery – such as when a woman undergoes a cesarean section. During these instances, both the use of anesthesia as well as pain medication can slow down the digestive system, leading to constipation. 

In many cases, however, constipation occurs because of a lack of fiber in the stool. An increase in fibrous foods such as green, leafy vegetables and whole grains can reduce an individual’s risk of developing constipation. Eating legumes, nuts, fruits as well as drinking plenty of water can help reduce your risk for constipation. In general, a high fiber diet and active lifestyle can also reduce your risk of developing chronic ailments such as diabetes. For occasional or short-term instances of constipation, a stool softener can help alleviate constipation and prevent the development of other issues such as hemorrhoids. 

  • Hemorrhoids

Hemorrhoids are closely associated with constipation and affect both men and women though women are at an increased risk of developing hemorrhoids during pregnancy. The condition occurs, primarily due to consistent, excess pressure in the rectum or anus. The blood vessels in the anus can then become inflamed or swollen, leading to pain and discomfort. Moreover, the problem can be exacerbated due to obesity.

Both women and men can reduce their risk of developing hemorrhoids by having a more fiber-rich diet. Stool softeners can help alleviate the symptoms in cases where constipation frequently occurs. Surgery may be required only in cases where hemorrhoids become increasingly large and painful. Of note is the fact that this common GI disorder could possibly mask underlying issues such as colon or rectal cancer; hence, it’s essential that both women and men report instances of recurring hemorrhoids or other related GI issues to their primary care provider and seek treatment options as needed. Treatment for hemorrhoids may include ligation or infrared coagulation (IRC), depending on the severity.

  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

IBS is more commonly seen in women than in men and occurs when colon muscle contracts less or more frequently than “normal”. According to the UNC Center for Functional GI and Motility Disorders, IRS affects 14-24% of women when compared to 5-19% of men. Moreover, 2 in 3 individuals with IBS are female while only 1 in 3 individuals with IBS are male. It affects 25-45 million individuals in the United States.

A noticeable aspect of the disease that affects both men and women is the experience of alternating periods of constipation and diarrhea or changes in bowel habits over an extended period of time. In general the symptoms include severe or debilitating abdominal pain, diarrhea, and constipation. 

For both men and women, stress can trigger or worsen IBS symptoms. This can lead to long-term symptoms that negatively affect an individual’s ability to participate in personal and professional activities. 

When to See a Doctor

Many factors can result in common problems associated with the GI tract but when symptoms are recurring or severe, it’s important to report them to your doctor. Physicians at the Gastroenterology Division of Premier Medical Group are experts at detecting abnormalities in the digestive tract and can support you in addressing these problems. 

Our diverse team of GI physicians which includes five female GI physicians – the most available at any provider in the area at the time of writing this article – is well equipped to meet our patients’ multifaceted needs. In addition to recommending changes to your diet and lifestyle, gastroenterologists provide treatment plans for individuals with GI disorders. Capsule endoscopy allows doctors to visualize the insides of your small intestines while infrared coagulation (IRC) and ligation, for instance, provide treatment for hemorrhoids. 

Are you concerned about the health of your digestive system? If you’ve experienced symptoms similar to those discussed in this article and would like to consult with a gastroenterologist, contact us and schedule an appointment at one of our convenient locations in New Windsor, Fishkill or Poughkeepsie.