If you're someone who menstruates, you’ll know that your menstrual cycle can be a rollercoaster of emotions, cravings, and physical changes. But did you know that your gut health plays a significant role in regulating your menstrual cycle? Some of those symptoms you might tend to experience before, during, and after menstruation – from cramps, to PMS, to bloating – may actually be better managed by first looking after your gut.
Oestrogen and progesterone: the menstruation hormones
First things first, let's talk about the two hormones that regulate your menstrual cycle: oestrogen (or estrogen if you’re in the US) and progesterone. The levels of these two hormones fluctuate throughout your menstrual cycle, which can lead to a range of different changes in the body. Oestrogen is responsible for thickening the lining of your uterus in preparation for a potential pregnancy, while progesterone helps to maintain that lining and prepares your body for the possibility of a fertilised egg. These hormones work in harmony to create the conditions that are necessary for a healthy menstrual cycle.
The way oestrogen and progesterone work to create a number of physical changes in the body is nothing short of amazing. But there are probably times when it’s a little difficult to see the positive side – when you’re dealing with a wave of painful cramps, or IBS-like symptoms, you may feel less than inspired about it all.
Do oestrogen and progesterone make you feel bloated?
While oestrogen and progesterone do some incredible things, they also may be partly to blame for symptoms of IBS. Your intestines are sensitive to changes in these two hormones, which may be the reason why constipation is a fairly common symptom at certain points in your menstrual cycle, as the levels of these hormones dip and increase. Oestrogen can also affect your pain threshold, by influencing how much serotonin (one of the ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitters) is produced by your brain. More oestrogen means more serotonin, and a higher tolerance for pain. When oestrogen levels drop, cramps and bloating can feel more painful.
Menstruation and your gut health: a two-way relationship
Your gut microbiome is a complex community of bacteria, archaea, viruses, and fungi that live in your digestive tract. Much of your gut microbiota helps with digestion, immune function, and even
Not all bacteria are good bacteria; therefore, the composition of your gut microbiome is important. A sudden change in the balance of bacteria in your gut microbiome (for example, a sudden drop in probiotics) may lead to dysbiosis. Dysbiosis, which is an imbalance in the gut microbiome, comes with its own set of harmful side-effects, and has been linked with a number of illnesses.
Many factors can affect the composition and health of your gut microbiome, including your diet, lifestyle, and medications. But your menstrual cycle can also play a major role. The reason for this comes back to those two major hormones again: oestrogen and progesterone.
Your gut and your hormones affect each other in a variety of ways. Food moves more slowly through the intestines when oestrogen levels are high, which may result in uncomfortable bloating and constipation during menstruation.
Your gut microbiome also plays a role in regulating oestrogen levels. So, a healthy gut could mean a healthier menstrual cycle. Dysbiosis – an unhealthy gut – has even been associated with oestrogen-related diseases, such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, endometriosis, PCOS, and osteoporosis. Patients with certain kinds of cancer also often show differences in their gut microbiota in comparison to healthy individuals.
Before menstruation, it is common for many people to experience premenstrual symptoms – mood swings being a common example. Something that has been observed in scientific studies more recently is a significant change in the gut microbiota before menstruation, which could have a range of implications for your health.
The relationship between oestrogen and progesterone levels, and the gut microbiota is a complex one that still isn’t fully understood – but research showing the links between them is continuing to be published. Although we don’t know everything, we know that a healthy microbiota has a range of health benefits, which makes taking care of it very worthwhile.
What can you do to support your gut health during your menstrual cycle
Let's face it, menstruation is rarely sunshine and rainbows. Bloating, constipation, and other digestive issues are common complaints. If you’re sick of feeling slow, bloated, and just a bit meh at certain points in your menstrual cycle, you may find some relief in making lifestyle changes to support your gut, and your menstrual health.
Because your gut microbiome and your hormone levels are related in many ways, taking extra care to support your gut health as you experience natural hormone fluctuations throughout your menstrual cycle can have countless known and unknown benefits.
There are a number of ways you can tackle common menstrual symptoms while also taking care of your gut health. Here are just a few of them:
Eat the right foods
Numerous studies have linked diet to the gut microbiome. Certain foods, in particular, can influence the composition of the gut microbiome, as well as oestrogen levels, which means the food you eat could influence your menstrual cycle, and the symptoms you experience at various stages during it. Eating a balanced diet rich in whole foods, fibre, fermented foods, prebiotics, and probiotics can help nourish your gut microbiome, which comes with a range of health benefits, particularly for your digestive system.
Discover Our Gut Friendly Recipes here.
Take a probiotic supplement
Taking probioticsduring your menstrual cycle may also be beneficial – especially if you can’t always get your hands on foods that are high in prebiotics and probiotics. Taking probiotics supplements has even been shown to have an effect on some oestrogen-driven diseases, such as breast cancer and PCOS.
Even though getting out of bed and going for a run might seem like the worst possible idea when you’re experiencing menstrual cramps, it may actually help you feel better. Exercise releases endorphins, which makes it a great way to beat the menstrual blues. Light exercise can also help with alleviating cramps and menstrual pain. Exercise has also been linked with better gut health – people who exercise have been found to have more beneficial bacteria making up their microbiome.
Discover the importance of exercise on your mental health and microbiome.
Rest when you need it
Pain exists for a reason – mainly as a way for your body to tell you when it needs to stop, rest, and recover. Menstruation can result in painful monthly cramps for many women, and sometimes, the best thing you can do to treat them is to allow yourself time to rest. Rest comes with numerous health benefits, from helping to alleviate stress, to increasing your productivity.Stress can also negatively impact the composition of your gut microbiome – increasing the number of bad bacteria and suppressing the number of good bacteria living in your gut. So, if you can take some time out, pour yourself a cup of tea and relax in bed – you and your gut deserve it!
Our bodies are interconnected in a variety of ways, which means that supporting one aspect of your health – like your gut health – can have countless other benefits for your overall health, too. Your menstrual cycle is an important part of your overall health and well-being – and your gut microbiome influences, and is influenced by, the hormones associated with menstruation.
It's important to talk to your doctor if you experience severe menstrual symptoms, like heavy bleeding, severe cramping, or irregular cycles. These may be signs of underlying health conditions. But if you’re looking for a way to feel great, and support your gut and menstrual health, you can employ a number of lifestyle changes, like eating a healthy diet, staying hydrated, and taking probiotics or other supplements. Happy gut, happy uterus, happy you!
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