Gastrointestinal (GI) disorders including constipation, diarrhea, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) disrupt and interfere with the daily activities and quality of life of many women. Though almost everyone has suffered from digestive disorders at least once in their lifetime, there are some conditions that unqiuely effect women.
In general, the GI tracts of women and men are the same. However, women suffer from disorders unique to hormonal fluctuations, pregnancy and delivery. "One difference between men and women is the colon. Occasionally colonoscopies are more difficult to perform in women, due to a slightly longer bowel and women tend to have more abdominal surgeries (Caesarean sections and hysterectomies) than men that may cause adhesions or scar tissue," states Joanne Linevsky, MD a gastroenterologist at Penn. She recommends women begin screening for colon cancer at age 50 and earlier if there is a family history of the disease or they are experiencing warning signs, such as a change in bowel habits, blood in the stool or stomach discomfort.
Women are also more susceptible to pelvic floor disorders, primarily from pregnancy and childbearing. Pelvic floor dysfunction/prolapse of the uterus is usually caused by pregnancy and childbirth, which may also affect the pelvic muscles and how they perform after childbirth. Hormonal fluctuations may intensify or diminish symptoms of certain GI disorders.
Dr. Linevsky notes that many women suffering from inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) find relief from their symptoms while they are pregnant, while women who have never suffered from IBD may experience initial symptoms during pregnancy. Dr. Linevsky states the two most common GI disorders she sees in women are acid reflux and IBS. Many women taking bisphosphonates (bone-growth supplements to counteract osteoporosis) experience intense reflux symptoms and she has heard complaints from women taking these drugs that the reflux began when they started taking the medication.
Fortunately, there are ways to maintain healthy GI function and alleviate digestive health problems. Not smoking, exercising and eating a nutritious diet that is low in fat and high in vegetables, fiber and calcium are all good ways to keep the digestive tract healthy.
"Most GI disorders are highly treatable and women should be proactive in screening for certain digestive disorders and take control of their digestive health," says Dr. Linevsky. She encourages women to seek medical attention and adopt healthy lifestyles promoting wellness and prevention.