To mark International Women’s Day we’re keen to talk about a gut disorder which, according to the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders, is “a major women’s health issue” globally.
Irritable bowel syndrome – or IBS – is the most common functional gastrointestinal disorder in the world.
The definition of a “functional disorder” is a condition where no obvious structural or biochemical abnormalities are identified that could explain the symptoms.
65% of sufferers are women
IBS is believed to affect around 10 to 15% of the world’s population. Between 60 and 65% of sufferers are women, indicating that gender makes a difference.
Many people with IBS symptoms do not seek medical care, which has led to it being described as a “hidden condition”. As gastrointestinal doctors, it is one of the most common disorders we see.
So, how does it affect people and particularly women?
Common IBS symptoms include:
- Abdominal pain or cramps
- Diarrhoea or constipation, or alternating constipation and diarrhoea
- Gas and bloated or swollen stomach
- Changes in bowel movements
- Feeling like you haven’t finished a poo
- Mucus in your poo
- Problems eating certain foods, particularly carbohydrates, fats, coffee, spices and alcohol
- Tiredness and problems sleeping
How women are affected
Women may experience their IBS symptoms becoming worse during their period. Doctors have observed that certain gynaecological disorders, such as endometriosis and fibromyalgia, also appear to exacerbate symptoms. Conversely, women who suffer from IBS are more likely to be diagnosed with endometriosis, which affects the lining of the uterus and other organs, causing pain and sometimes leading to infertility.
Women with IBS can experience difficulties during sex, although it does not appear to affect sex drive. IBS also increases the risk of urinary urgency in women and pelvic organ prolapse. Hysterectomy is more common in women with IBS.
Doctors are unclear as to what causes IBS but certain factors seem to increase the likelihood of developing the condition. For example, women who have experienced severe physical or sexual abuse are significantly more likely to suffer from IBS.
In pregnancy, many women experience an improvement in their IBS symptoms. Similarly, symptoms often decrease after menopause.
As well as a range of unpleasant physical symptoms, it is recognised that IBS can have a significant impact on quality of life for both men and women.
Discomfort and embarrassment can lead to anxiety and depression. Such feelings in themselves can be a trigger for IBS symptoms, leading to a vicious circle that is made worse by disruption to sleep which can be caused by pain, needing to visit the toilet in the night and anxiety.
Recent research may shed some light on why women are more prone to IBS. A study published in Gastroenterology looked at data from more than 330,000 UK women using the UK Biobank. A further 2,000 patients around the world were also analysed. The results showed that a DNA variant relating to chromosome 9, which influences the age at which women have their first period, appears to be linked to an increased risk of IBS.
The study’s co-author, Mauro D’Amato PhD, visiting professor at the Karolinska Institutet’s Department of Medicine, said the results back up existing data which suggests that sex hormones play a role in the development of IBS. He called for further research to determine why IBS may be more common in women.
What to do
If you are suffering from IBS symptoms it is important to see a doctor to rule out a more serious cause, such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease or bowel cancer.
There is no need to suffer in silence. If an IBS diagnosis is confirmed your doctor will be able to advise you on ways to manage the condition, including taking medication.