Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and menopause can both affect a person’s gut health. While doctors do not fully understand the link between IBS and menopause, evidence suggests one exists.

Throughout a female’s lifetime, gastrointestinal symptoms can vary based on their menstrual cycle.

Female-specific hormones can impact digestive system function and health. Hormone fluctuations affect how quickly food moves through the intestines.

When food passes through more rapidly, it can lead to diarrhea, nausea, and abdominal pain. Conversely, digestion may slow at other times, leading to constipation and bloating.

When someone enters menopause, sex hormone levels decrease drastically, and gastrointestinal symptoms may appear.

This article looks at IBS and menopause and potential treatment options. It also covers other conditions that may resemble IBS.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms, “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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No, menopause cannot cause IBS. IBS is a disorder that affects gut-brain interactions. It differs from the general and temporary digestive conditions that can happen because of hormone fluctuations.

However, a person may develop IBS while they are going through menopause, and menopause may make the symptoms of IBS worse for some people.

A small number of people develop IBS after having an infection of the stomach and intestines. This is known as postinfectious IBS.

The infections that typically cause postinfectious IBS are often bacterial. People can develop these bacterial infections by consuming contaminated water or food, or coming into contact with people or animals with certain infections.

Menopause causes a decrease in the sex hormones estrogen and progesterone. These hormones are typically responsible for controlling the release of eggs into the ovaries.

This can cause common menopause symptoms, such as mood swings, hot flashes, or fatigue. It can also affect the gut.

Estrogen and progesterone ensure that the muscles work smoothly and consistently to move food through the digestive tract. Constipation and diarrhea can occur when these hormone levels decrease.

Estrogen and progesterone also contribute to the body’s ability to produce the stomach acid and bile essential for breaking down food.

When hormone levels decrease, the body cannot make as much of these substances, which may contribute to diarrhea, constipation, and other conditions, such as acid reflux and bloating.

Bile is also essential for helping the body digest fat correctly. If the liver does not produce enough, the body has difficulty absorbing essential fat-soluble vitamins.

Treatment for IBS may involve a combination of routine adjustments and medication.

Dietary changes

Adding fiber to the diet may help soften stool in those with constipation. The digestive system finds it easier to move soft stool through the gut.

For people who are having difficulty digesting fatty foods, decreasing these may help.

Doctors may recommend a low-FODMAP diet for those with IBS. This diet cuts out foods that may exacerbate IBS symptoms before reintroducing them after a set period of time. However, it is fairly complex. Speak with a dietitian about the best IBS diet options.

Learn more about diets for IBS.

Medications

Certain medications can help treat persistent diarrhea or constipation, including:

  • laxatives to speed up bowel function
  • secretagogues and prosecretory agents that increase digestive fluids and movement
  • bulking agents to ease the passage of stool
  • antispasmodics that may relieve abdominal pain or discomfort
  • antidiarrheal agents to slow gut transit

Many other conditions can cause IBS-like symptoms. Below are just two of the conditions a doctor may check for. Be sure to ask them for tests to identify the root cause.

Fibroids

Uterine fibroids are the most common pelvic growth that affects females. These masses typically form on the muscle tissues of the uterus, but can also affect surrounding organs.

If fibroids affect the gastrointestinal system, a person may experience symptoms similar to IBS.

If a fibroid is large enough, it can push down on the rectum, making bowel movements difficult and painful and causing constipation.

Cancer

Colon cancer affects the same area of the body as IBS, so it has many similar symptoms, including:

  • abdominal cramping or pain
  • diarrhea
  • constipation
  • excess gas
  • changes in bowel habits that last more than a few days
  • a feeling of incomplete bowel movements

However, some symptoms specific to colon cancer include:

  • fatigue
  • blood in stool or dark stool
  • narrowing of stool
  • general weakness
  • rectal bleeding
  • unexplained weight loss

Despite their similar symptoms, IBS does not increase the risk of colon cancer.

The symptoms of IBS may mask other conditions, so a person should talk with their doctor if they develop any new digestive symptoms, or their existing symptoms worsen.

In addition, people should seek medical attention if they develop rectal bleeding, narrowed stool, weight loss, or other symptoms specific to colon cancer.

While menopause cannot cause IBS, it can cause digestive symptoms. It can also worsen symptoms for those already living with IBS.

The likely reason is that the drop in estrogen and progesterone decreases stomach acid and bile production. It also affects the digestive muscles and how food passes along the gastrointestinal tract.

Treatment for IBS often consists of lifestyle changes and medications. However, there is no definitive cure for IBS. Treatment focuses on reducing symptom severity.

Additional conditions that may resemble IBS include fibroids, infections, and cancer. A person should contact a doctor if they develop any new or unexplained symptoms.