gut stuff: hormones, digestion, and why you really shouldn’t stress over it
Among its many other tasks, estrogen also helps regulate cortisol — the “fight or flight” hormone triggered by stress. So when estrogen starts declining around menopause, suddenly stress becomes a lot more … stressful.
Not only do our reactions to stress become a bit more extreme, our ramped-up cortisol has the add-on effect of slowing down digestion of food. That can lead to a host of digestive disorders like gas, constipation, and bloating. (Oh my.)
But like so much of menopause, you don’t have to simply endure the symptoms. Where once there was estrogen, now there are lifestyle changes.
- Regain your balance with phytoestrogens. Because part of the problem here is a decrease in estrogen, eating phytoestrogens that mimic what’s lost can help relieve the problem. Where to get them: Think soy (tofu, tempeh, miso), veggies (beans, potatoes), fruits (dates, apples), seeds (flax, sesame), grains (oats, barley), mint, ginseng, fennel, and anise, among other sources.
- Get more magnesium. Magnesium does a lot of good stuff for menopause symptoms, not least of which is helping to relieve digestive issues like flatulence and constipation. (It can also help minimize mood swings, keep bones strong, support your immune system, and regulate heart beat, so… you know… go get you some.) Where to get it: Don’t go too crazy, since too much magnesium can cause diarrhea, but you can find it in leafy veggies like spinach and beet greens, whole grains, sweet potatoes, peanuts, oat bran, cornmeal, some fish (mackerel), tomatoes, figs, avocados, bananas, peanuts, pumpkin seeds, and (woot!) dark chocolate.
- Boost your happy bacteria. Estrogen and progesterone fuel bacteria in your gut, so a decline in these hormones can disrupt and reduce healthy gut flora. Lots of good gut stuff crowd out the bad stuff, so when you lose the good guys, the bad bacteria can move in and really mess stuff up. Feeding your beneficial flora helps you keep a better gut balance. Where to get it. To support good gut guys, bump up fermented foods (miso, kombucha, sauerkraut) and consider a probiotic supplement.
- Fiber up. It seems like I type “eat more fiber” a lot, but those of us who live in the West tend not to get enough and it’s really good for us. Fiber tidies up your digestive bits, keeping things moving along and not letting semi-digested matter bog down in your system where it gets bored and starts causing trouble. Where to get it. According to Greatist, the best high-fiber foods are split peas, lentils, black and lima beans, artichokes, peas, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, raspberries, and blackberries. Whole grains are also good (popcorn, oatmeal, brown breads and pastas).
- Go natural. Ginger tea and peppermint tea are good, long-standing, natural remedies.
- Hydrate, sleep, exercise, quit smoking. Is there any menopause symptom that can’t be made better by drinking more water, sleeping more, moving more, and quitting smoking? Maybe, but many symptoms are improved and doing these won’t generally make matters worse!
- Chew, but not gum. Yeah, this seems silly, but when you’re eating on the go, or in front of your computer, or while distracted by a device, you’re not paying attention. How you eat may be nearly as important as what you eat. Chewing slowly, taking your time, being thoughtful and in-the-moment can reduce stress, keep you from ingesting a lot of air, and help your digestive system by breaking food down right from the start. Re: chewing gum, you might want to cut back on that. Sorbitol (the artificial sweetener in many sugarless gums) and the extra air you swallow can make digestive problems worse.
When gut problems may be more than menopause
Ovarian cancer symptoms can mimic some of the digestive issues perimenopausal and menopausal women contend with, including bloating, fullness, and abdominal pain. If you have these symptoms frequently (12 or more times a month), if they persist, and if you also have to urinate urgently and often, or experience unexplained weight loss, you need to talk with your doctor.
Digestive troubles can be annoying, and if bad enough, humiliating and isolating. But a few lifestyle changes and informed diet choices can provide considerable relief. As ever, we’d love to hear what has worked for you (or hasn’t), so please share in the comments or on Facebook or Twitter.