How IBS and Pregnancy Affect Each Other

When you are pregnant, it certainly seems as if every body part is affected one way or the other. Given that, it makes sense to wonder what your IBS might mean for your pregnancy. Unfortunately, research on the subject is quite limited, due to concerns about performing procedures that would put the developing fetus at risk.

Much more is known about the effects of pregnancy on the digestive system in general. The following overview of pregnancy and its effects on the gastrointestinal (GI) tract will help you to know what to expect as you make your way through your pregnancy with IBS.

Pregnant woman with hand on head MODEL RELEASED. Pregnant woman with hand on head touching tummy.

GI Symptoms and Pregnancy

Gastrointestinal symptoms and pregnancy often go hand in hand. It is common knowledge that many pregnant women experience heartburn and nausea during the first trimester. The effects of pregnancy on bowel symptoms are less clear; approximately one third of women experience an increase in stool frequency, with another third experience constipation. Constipation is particularly likely to be troublesome in the third trimester.

Why Does Pregnancy Affect the GI Tract?

During pregnancy, levels of the hormones estrogen and progesterone increase. As receptors for these hormones are found throughout the digestive system, symptoms may be the result of these changes in hormonal levels. It is also possible that pressure from the fetus itself has an effect on the functioning of some of the organs that make up the digestive tract.

Effect of Pregnancy on IBS Symptoms

As stated above, there is very little research focused specifically as to how the hormonal changes of pregnancy impact IBS symptoms. One theory is that the effects of pregnancy hormones could result in changes, positive or negative, on bowel symptoms, and perhaps offer some relief from abdominal pain.

One survey offers some preliminary insight: Of female respondents who had experienced a pregnancy, approximately half of them reported that their IBS improved during pregnancy. A smaller group (less than 20%) reported a worsening of IBS symptoms during pregnancy. Obviously, more research needs to be done before any definitive conclusions can be drawn regarding the effect of pregnancy on IBS.

Effect of IBS on Pregnancy

Some sobering news here—one study found a "moderately increased risk" of both miscarriage and ectopic pregnancy in patients diagnosed with IBS prior to their pregnancy. Luckily, there seemed to be no increased risk for either preeclampsia or stillbirth. Although these are the results of only one study, it may be prudent to discuss your risk of pregnancy complications with your healthcare provider.

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By Barbara Bolen, PhD
Barbara Bolen, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and health coach. She has written multiple books focused on living with irritable bowel syndrome.