Yep, we get them, too – Here’s what you need to know
TL/DR: If you notice weird changes in your bowel habits before or during your period, you’re not alone. Diarrhea, constipation, frequent pooping, and painful cramping are common both before and during menstruation – and hormone levels have a lot to do with it. Prostaglandins, for one, stimulate contractions in the uterus and bowels; meanwhile, shifting progesterone levels can have a constipating effect around the time of ovulation.
We’ve all been there: It’s day two of your period. You’re going about your Tuesday as usual when, all of a sudden, horrible cramps hit – and not the uterine kind.
You Irish exit your Zoom call faster than that time you ran into your ex at Walgreens while buying Plan B and jog – no, sprint – to the bathroom. You make it just in time to avoid life-altering humiliation and, relieved, wonder to yourself, Is this really the third time I’m pooping today? Is this normal?
It is! Those weirdly urgent, frequent, or difficult bowel movements during your period are likely the result of hormonal shifts that take place before and during the menstrual phase of your monthly cycle.1 So if you have regular run-ins with diarrhea, constipation, or particularly foul-smelling poop during your period – you’re not alone!
We’re here to enlighten you re: #2 and help you make sense of all the super-fun abdominal side effects brought on by PMS and menstruation. Read on for a science-y explanation – and some of our not-so-science-y hacks – to make period poops a little less stressful.
Period poops… Before your period?
Almost every person who menstruates is familiar with PMS (Premenstrual Syndrome), a collection of bodily changes and sensations that crop up several days or even 1-2 weeks before your period.2 Pelvic cramps, headaches, bloat, fatigue, breast tenderness, mood swings, and food cravings are all well-known signs of PMS.3 Yet many individuals don’t realize that PMS can also bring about gastrointestinal discomfort and bowel changes like diarrhea, constipation, abdominal pain, and even nausea and vomiting.1
Turns out, about one‐third of otherwise healthy, menstruating individuals experience annoying gastrointestinal symptoms before or during their periods – and almost 50% of individuals with a diagnosed functional bowel disorder (like Irritable Bowel Syndrome) experience an increase in symptoms during this time.4
Scientists haven’t totally figured out why various GI symptoms tend to ramp up before and during menstruation – the physiological basis is technically unknown (4). One study, however, found a notable relationship between bowel habits, menstruation, and the concentration of natural, hormone-like compounds called prostaglandins.5
Your body releases prostaglandins right before your period begins. These compounds stimulate the smooth muscles of the uterus, causing the contractions (a.k.a. cramps) that help your body shed the uterine lining (a.k.a. period blood). They also stimulate other smooth muscles in the body – namely, your bowels.1 More stimulation leads to more poop and, for some individuals, other annoying effects like headaches, nausea, and vomiting.6
Pooping more than usual? All about period diarrhea
Diarrhea and/or frequent, urgent pooping during your period is most likely the result of those increased prostaglandins mentioned above. Not only do prostaglandins lead to smooth tissue cramping, but they can also impact your intestines’ ability to absorb nutrients and mess with electrolyte secretions 1 – a perfect storm for diarrhea.
If you get the runs with nearly every period – and especially if you’ve been diagnosed with Dysmenorrhea is the technical term for painful periods. There are two types of dysmenorrhea: primary and secondary. Primary dysmenorrhea refers to severe pain caused by uterine cramps, whereas secondary dysmenorrhea is caused by a disorder in the reproductive system. – it’s possible that your body goes a little overboard with prostaglandin production.7 Medically speaking, this is no big deal; it just means you’ll have to cope with a little more cramping and bloating each month.
So, what can you do about it?
Period diarrhea should be treated like any other bout of diarrhea: First, it’s important to drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration. Take frequent sips from your water bottle or grab a sports drink with electrolytes if you need an extra boost.
Skip the coffee or caffeinated beverages – caffeine is a stimulant and you certainly don’t need any extra stimulation in your bowels. It may also be beneficial to avoid spicy, sugary, or processed foods and alcohol (pretty much anything inflammatory to your digestive tract) until your system gets back to normal.8
Most cases of period diarrhea will go away on their own. But if you really can’t be glued to your toilet all day and need a quick fix, you may prefer to pick up a good ol’ box of over the counter anti-diarrheal medication. Stop by your local Walgreens or CVS Pharmacy and look for products containing loperamide or bismuth subsalicylate (and stock up on Flex® while you’re at it).
Still struggling? If you’ve had diarrhea for more than a few days, or if it doesn’t stop for several days after your period ends, call your primary care physician to make sure it’s not due to something more serious.
Feeling a little backed up? The menstrual cycle & constipation
Another “P” word for you: Progesterone. It’s one of the major sex hormones and it spikes during the second half of your cycle, just after ovulation, when the corpus luteum is formed out of the remnants of the ovarian follicle. From the time of ovulation until menstruation, progesterone levels gradually decrease (that is, unless you get pregnant).9
What does progesterone have to do with poop? Research shows that the hormone has a naturally constipating effect 10, especially when levels are high. This is why many women experience constipation around ovulation. Of course, it can happen during your period, as well.
If you experience constipation around or during menstruation, it might have more to do with your food choices than progesterone levels. Food cravings commonly accompany your period, possibly due to hormone fluctuations and an increase in amino acid bonds called endogenous opioid peptides (EOPs).11 We fully support eating whatever you’re craving – but keep in mind, that double bacon cheeseburger might not register so well with your bowels.
Red meat, dairy, and fried foods – some of our favorites – are known to bring on constipation.12 If you were already somewhat predisposed to “backing up,” those indulgences could be making it worse.
To relieve constipation, it’s best to try adjusting your diet or upping exercise before resorting to laxatives. While laxatives provide short-term relief, they can make constipation worse in the long run if you take them too frequently: Your body could start to rely on them, making it almost impossible to go without.13 Instead, reach for a bag of dried plums (prunes), up your fiber intake with lots of fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and make sure you’re drinking TONS of water.
Some studies have shown that probiotics are helpful in preventing constipation.14 Find them in foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, kombucha, and kimchi, or purchase them in capsule or gummy form. And pour yourself that extra cup of coffee or tea – caffeine is a stimulant and may help your body get things moving.
Recap: Periods, poop, & you
Changes in bowel habits during your period are a lot more common than you might have thought. Thankfully, period poops are only temporary, and there are a number of ways to find relief. You’re the expert on your body and symptoms: Try out some of the tips above, but talk to your doctor if diarrhea, constipation, or other GI symptoms become unbearably painful or don’t go away.
With a little patience and perseverance, we bet you can find at least one or two tricks to help relieve your period poop woes. And remember: If cramps are bothering you almost as much as the time you’re spending in the bathroom, Flex Disc™ might help to alleviate them.
Cheers to good health and healthy poop!