The Link Between Hormones and Gastrointestinal Problems

Hormones are chemical messengers created by the endocrine system. Hormones that are released into the bloodstream work to regulate most body systems, including metabolism, emotions, fertility, and heart rate.

Hormonal balance can also play a role in regulating gut health. Hormonal imbalances or fluctuations may increase some gastrointestinal symptoms, such as symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

This article explains how hormonal changes influence gastrointestinal symptoms. It also covers treatment options and when to see a healthcare provider.

Woman bent over with pain

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Hormones and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

Research suggests that hormones can influence both symptom severity and pain sensitivity in irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Fluctuations in sex hormones, in particular the fluctuations of estrogen in women, can contribute to symptom severity in IBS.

The influence of estrogen on gastrointestinal symptoms is thought to play a role in why rates of IBS are two to three times higher among women than among men.

Sex-related differences in IBS are evident from adolescence with the onset of menstruation, and they last until a person's mid-40s. Researchers have observed that women tend to experience improvements in their IBS symptoms during menopause when hormonal fluctuations stop.

Both female and male hormones can influence the level of pain sensitivity and inflammation in the intestine, but fluctuations of female hormones seem to have a bigger impact. Other hormones like cortisol (the stress hormone) and cholecystokinin (a hunger hormone that regulates the gut) may also play a role.

Menstruation

There are two main hormones associated with menstruation—estrogen, and progesterone. These hormones do not just affect the sex organs. There are receptor cells for these hormones throughout your gastrointestinal (GI) tract. This's why many women—even those without IBS—experience digestive symptoms related to their menstrual cycle.

The menstrual cycle can be broken up into two main stages:

  • Before ovulation, called the follicular phase: During this time (days one to 14 from the start of your period), estrogen levels are increasing from the midpoint in this cycle. As estrogen levels rise, GI symptoms tend to be reduced.
  • After ovulation, called the luteal phase: Estrogen levels drop significantly after ovulation. This may be accompanied by an increase in GI symptoms.

Possible GI symptoms that may be more severe during the luteal phase and the first few days of your menstrual period include:

  • Constipation
  • Bloating
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain

Pregnancy

The hormonal changes that occur in pregnancy can impact both digestion and other functions of the GI system. This can cause a variety of symptoms.

These symptoms may also be caused by the growth of the baby. As the baby grows, the space in the abdomen becomes limited and this may impact the function of the stomach or intestines.

Possible symptoms include:

  • Heartburn
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

Vomiting may occur in the first 16 weeks of pregnancy when morning sickness is most likely.

In pregnancy, hormonal changes cause the muscles between the stomach and the esophagus to relax. This can cause heartburn. By the third trimester of pregnancy, half of all expectant mothers will experience heartburn.

Changes in hormones may also impact the lower part of the gastrointestinal tract. This can cause a slowing of bowel movements and can result in constipation.

Perimenopause

The time before menopause, called perimenopause, can trigger hormonal fluctuations that are different than a standard menstrual cycle.

The hormonal fluctuations that can occur during perimenopause differ for everyone, but significant fluctuations in estrogen and progesterone may trigger an increase in IBS symptoms, like constipation and diarrhea.

Menopause

During menopause, the levels of estrogen hormones decrease and the levels of the stress hormone cortisol increase.

Studies on the relationship between IBS and menopause have yielded mixed results. Research indicates that the prevalence of IBS symptoms decreases for women after the age of 40 or 45—a decrease not seen in men.

However, the rise in stress hormones and general age-related slowdowns may lead to changes in the function of the GI system. That in turn leads to an increase in IBS symptoms.

Hormonal Birth Control

Birth control pills use synthetic estrogen and progesterone to reduce the ability to become pregnant. These synthetic hormones can reduce the hormone fluctuations related to the menstrual cycle. However, research on hormonal birth control's effect on IBS symptoms is inconclusive.

Anecdotally, many women have reported that taking birth control pills helped their IBS while others have said that their IBS worsened when they started taking an oral contraceptive.

Managing Symptoms

Coping with IBS symptoms in addition to hormonal symptoms will vary based on individual experience.

For managing stomach pain, treatment options may involve:

  • Medications
  • Staying hydrated
  • Using a hot water bottle
  • Eating bland foods

For constipation, possible management strategies include:

  • Dietary changes
  • Fiber supplements
  • Increased fluid intake
  • Exercise
  • Laxatives

For diarrhea, treatment options include:

  • Medications
  • Rehydration drinks
  • Dietary changes

Nausea may be managed by:

  • Medication
  • Drinks like chamomile tea or ginger ale
  • Eating a bland diet
  • Eating small meals

Improving Gut Hormones

The endocrine system, which creates hormones, has an important role in the function of the body.

There are a number of ways to keep the endocrine system healthy and functioning well. These include:

  • Seeing your healthcare provider regularly for a check-up
  • Checking with your healthcare provider before taking any kind of herbal treatment or supplement
  • Exercising regularly
  • Following a nutritious diet
  • Advising your healthcare provider if you have a family history of problems that affect the endocrine system, including diabetes or thyroid issues

When to See a Healthcare Provider

If you have IBS and are dealing with more pronounced symptoms due to hormonal fluctuations or if you've taken medication for GI symptoms for two weeks and haven't seen any improvement, you should see your healthcare provider.

You should also see your healthcare provider straight away if you have any of the following:

  • Bleeding from the rectum
  • Stomach pain that worsens
  • Indigestion that worsens
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Sudden change to your bowel habits that persists
  • Worsening heartburn
  • Worsening indigestion

Summary

Hormones can affect a variety of things in the body, including the gut. Some hormonal changes can cause an increase in gastrointestinal symptoms, especially if you have IBS. Hormone changes may occur due to menstruation, pregnancy, menopause, and being on birth control.

Managing symptoms can include medication or self-care remedies like staying hydrated and using a hot water bottle. If symptoms worsen or you have other symptoms like bleeding from the rectum or unintended weight loss, you should speak to your healthcare provider.

A Word From Verywell

Hormones keep our body functioning optimally, but sometimes they can also trigger some unpleasant symptoms. If you have IBS or another GI condition, the hormone changes that occur during menstruation or pregnancy (and other life changes) can trigger an uptick in your GI symptoms.

This can be frustrating, painful, and embarrassing, but remember that there's help available. If you're concerned about any symptoms you're experiencing, speak with your healthcare provider. They can help you find an appropriate treatment plan and set you on a path to feeling better.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are the signs of hormonal imbalance?

    Hormones can become out of balance. This can cause health problems, including infertility, diabetes, weakened bones, and weight changes.

    Possible symptoms that may indicate a problem with hormones include:

    • Menstrual irregularity or changes
    • Fatigue
    • Weight changes that have no explanation
    • Hot flashes
  • Which hormones play a large role in digestion?

    There are a number of hormones involved in digestion. These include gut hormones like:

    • Chromogranin A
    • Chromogranin B
    • Glucagon
    • Somatostatin
    • Gastrin
    • Pancreatic polypeptide
    • Vascoactive intestinal polypeptide
  • What are the symptoms of IBS?

    Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can cause a variety of symptoms. These include:

    • Constipation
    • Diarrhea
    • Cramps
    • Bloating
    • Stomach pain
    • Fatigue
    • Mucus in stools
    • Flatulence
    • Nausea
    • Difficulties with urination
    • Back pain
    • Bowel incontinence
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19 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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