Mood swings, cramps and food cravings are just a few surefire symptoms you can expect during your menstrual cycle. But that time of the month often also comes with unpleasant GI side effects — like period poops.
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Indeed, a January 2014 study in BMC Women's Health found that nearly three-quarters of people with uteruses experienced at least one tummy-related issue during their period, with abdominal pain and diarrhea being most frequent.
We spoke to experts to learn how your period can mess with your poop habits, plus ways you can get your bowels back on track.
1. Diarrhea Is Common
Loose poops may predominate when you have your period.
"Diarrhea has been associated with periods due to the increase in prostaglandins [hormone-like compounds] during the uterine shedding," Shweta Desai, MD, a urogynecologist and chief wellness advisor at Love Wellness, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
"While the prostaglandins cause your uterus to contract [and to shed its lining], they also cause the intestines to contract as well, thus leading to increased cramping and diarrhea in some cases," Dr. Desai explains.
2. But You Could Be Constipated
Conversely, your period may back up your bowel movements. Period-related hormones can cause constipation, but the exact mechanism is still unknown, Dr. Desai says.
"There are far more studies in pre-clinical models (i.e. mice, rats) than in humans, but studies have shown that estrogen can decrease gastrointestinal motility," says Lea Ann Chen, MD, a gastroenterologist and assistant professor at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson School of Medicine.
Here's the thing: High estrogen levels appear to reduce colon transit time — i.e., they slow down your poop's travel through your GI tract — which can lead to being clogged up, Dr. Desai explains.
"Other studies have suggested that [the hormone] progesterone may play a bigger role in causing constipation," Dr. Desai says. "Regardless of which hormone is the culprit, constipation has been related to the menstrual cycle due to fluctuations in hormonal levels."
3. Food Cravings Don’t Help
If you're jonesing for junk food during your period, shifts in your hormones are likely to blame. For example, the neurotransmitter serotonin fluctuates throughout your cycle, and when levels are low, you might experience food cravings, according to the Mayo Clinic.
The problem is, eating lots of sugary and fatty foods may affect your bowel movements.
"If you're experiencing period-related bowel changes, it's important to avoid foods that trigger diarrhea and continue to eat a high-fiber diet in order to avoid constipation," Dr. Desai says.
4. Certain Health Conditions Can Make Things Worse
Certain health conditions can exacerbate period-related bowel changes, Dr. Desai says.
Case in point: uterine fibroids, which are benign pelvic tumors that arise from the smooth muscle cells of the uterus.
"If the fibroid is located close to the rectum, there is a possibility that it can place pressure on the rectum, leading to constipation," Dr. Desai says.
"Also, if you have irritable bowel disease or irritable bowel syndrome, symptoms can fluctuate during your cycle," she adds.
5. Stress and Anxiety Play a Role
The same BMC Women's Health study also found a link between period-related emotional symptoms and stomach complaints. People who had feelings of anxiety or depression during menstruation were more likely to report two or more GI issues. The researchers thought this had something to do with the gut-brain link.
Dr. Desai agrees that emotional factors like stress can affect bowel habits.
"Stress can cause the bowels to slow down, thus leading to increased time for the stool to pass through the digestive tract, which can lead to constipation," she explains.
How to Combat Period Poops
While you might not be able to fully prevent period poops, Dr. Desai offers strategies to help mitigate tummy problems during your menstrual cycle:
1. Clean Up Your Diet
The best way to manage period-related bowel issues is to maintain a healthy diet (think: fruits, veggies and whole grains).
Avoid triggers for diarrhea, such as:
- Fatty and fried foods
- Spicy foods
- Sugar-free sweeteners
2. Add Certain Supplements
Follow a bowel-friendly regimen of probiotics and fiber supplementation to help keep you regular and your stool a good consistency.
If you're not sure where to start with these supplements, ask your doctor or pharmacist to point you in the right direction.
3. Tame Your Stress
Reducing stress and staying active are also great ways to keep your bowels moving and healthy. Combine the two with stress-reducing exercises like yoga and stretching.