The hormonal changes that accompany menopause typically start well before age 50 and are characterized by a gradual loss of female sex hormones—mainly estrogen. As the primary female sex hormone, estrogen plays a role in breast development and mood and menstrual cycle regulation, as well as other more surprising aspects of well-being like bone, heart, and skin health. As you near menopause, your ovaries produce less estrogen, causing your body’s estrogen levels to decline. According to the study, this change in estrogen levels likely explains the flair in GI symptoms experienced during this time.
As it turns out, there’s a well-known link between estrogen and digestion. For example, a review of 18 studies2 found a clear link between times of declining or low ovarian hormones and an increase in GI symptoms, suggesting that estrogen (and progesterone, the other main female sex hormone) withdrawal may contribute either directly or indirectly to GI distress. If you’ve ever found yourself running to the bathroom before or during your period, you’ve already experienced this connection in action.
There’s still quite a bit of mystery surrounding the ins and outs of the relationship between hormonal health and gut health, but previous research has shown that there’s a lot of interplay between sex hormones and the microbiome. The authors of one study3 explain that sex hormones influence the gut microbiota due to their involvement in microbial metabolism, and in turn, the gut microbiota influence sex hormone levels.
According to the North American Menopause Society, levels of cortisol (often referred to as the main “stress” hormone) also increase during menopause. This can initiate an increase in adrenaline, which can lead to changes in digestive function. As this organization explains it: “For example, gas could build up with bloating. Foods could go through the GI tract without being fully broken down, resulting in constipation.” For many of us, this is pretty relatable. It’s common to end up with a stomach ache, bloat, or heartburn during stressful periods in our lives.