IBD and Period Flow - Caroline Donoghue
Spotlight on Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) and the connection with your period
Written By Caroline Donoghue - Registered Nutritionist, Women’s Health Specialist and Founder of The Nutri Therapist (www.thenutritherapist.com)
In my twenties, I didn’t care much about my food choices. Of course, I knew that too much sugar and processed foods weren’t good for me but I didn’t realise just how badly it could affect me. In my late twenties, when I got diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis, I asked my doctor: does food have an impact on my condition? A quick “no” was the response I had. So, I carried on eating unbalanced meals, not knowing what was right for me. Drug after drug and flare after flare, nothing seemed to be working for me. After a few trips to the hospital, I decided to change the way I was eating to see if this would impact me. After all, the food we eat goes through our digestive system so surely there must be a link?
Almost 10 years later, I now run my nutrition clinic and help clients with gut health disorders.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that nutrition cures IBD, far from it. Unfortunately there is no cure (yet!) but nutrition and lifestyle medicine can greatly improve the life of people suffering from it. It definitely did for me. IBD is a long-term chronic autoimmune condition (your body begins attacking itself) and each story is different so what works for me won’t necessarily work for someone else, therefore personalised nutrition is key.
Today in the UK, 500,000 people are suffering from IBD including Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn’s disease (1) . It is a chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract and a long-term autoimmune condition with periods of flare and remission (2). With Ulcerative Colitis, the inflammation is located in the colon (large intestine) while with Crohn’s Disease it can happen anywhere on the whole digestive tract from the mouth to the anus. (2)
Recurring diarrhoea and/or constipation with mucus, blood or pus, bloating, nausea, vomiting, gas, abdominal pain...(3) this is not the most glamourous disease and it can be hard to talk about.
Back in 2012, I used to have diarrhea up to 15 times a day and I was so worried about having accidents when going out that I had to restrict my social life. Wearing period underwear can really help to feel more confident and more comfortable! I wish I had some back then.
The symptoms also go beyond digestive health and there can also be extreme fatigue, weight loss, muscles and joint pain, skin issues, anaemia, anxiety and/or depression to name a few (3).
You may have read about our gut microbiota (aka gut flora) but have you heard of the estrobolome?
We have over 100 trillion gut bugs that support different functions in our body. There’s a set of gut bacteria called the estrobolome that regulate hormone metabolism (4). The estrobolome impacts how much oestrogen is circulating in our body, which in turn affects weight, mood, menstrual health etc. (4).
It’s all connected!
So if you experience more painful and heavier flow during your period and you have IBD or other gut health disorders, you may need to nourish your estrobolome further. Ditch the western diet and reduce your sugar intake and processed foods. Make an effort to have a colourful plate with a variety of vegetables, add some probiotic- and prebiotic-rich foods and choose healthy fats and high quality protein.
Scientists still don’t know the exact cause but they believe it is a combination of genetic and environmental factors. An imbalance of gut bacteria, over usage of antibiotics, oral contraception, smoking or a previous stomach bug could all have an impact on developing IBD (3).
As you may have heard this phrase before, ‘genes load the gun and our environment pulls the trigger’. Definitely something to reflect on...
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1. Crohn’s and Colitis UK .2021. About us [online] Available at: <https://www.crohnsandcolitis.org.uk/about-us>
2. nhs.uk. 2021. Inflammatory bowel disease - NHS. [online] Available at: <https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/inflammatory-bowel-disease/#:~:text=Ulcerative%20c olitis%20only%20affects%20the,age%20of%2015%20and%2040>
3. Lipski, E. 2020. Digestive Wellness, 5th Edition, McGraw Hill
4.Baker, J., Al-Nakkash, L. and Herbst-Kralovetz, M., 2017. Estrogen–gut microbiome axis: Physiological and clinical implications. Maturitas, [online] 103, pp.45-53. Available at: <https://doi.org/10.1016/j.maturitas.2017.06.025>