Menopause and Digestion:
Overcoming Bloating, Indigestion and Intestinal Gas!
~ by Jo Jordan
A note from the writer ~ "As a woman in my forties, fast approaching menopause, researching and writing this article was alarming and calming all at the same time! I remember feeling overwhelmed when I wrote it...I was concerned about all the changes
(bloating, gas and hot flashes!)
that were going to begin happening to my body one day soon. How would I be able to cope if all of these troubling peri- and menopausal symptoms were to happen to me? And then I felt relieved because it seemed as though there were so many SOLUTIONS! Suddenly it didn't sound as scary as it had at first. So as you read this article, don't be alarmed...read it through completely, and you'll find the answers you might not have even been aware that you were looking for." ~
If you thought being a teenager was fraught with hormonal problems, hold on tight! The years leading up to menopause – described by some women as a hormonal roller coaster ride from your mid-forties on – may make a teenager’s life seem like an endless summer of blissfully starry nights, and sing-a-longs ‘round the campfire.
From digestive problems like bloating, gas and flatulence to mood swings and uncontrollable emotional outbursts, to weight gain and food cravings menopause – and the years leading up to it (peri-menopause) – can be a challenging time in any woman’s life.
While there may be various health issues to cope with during this time, digestive problems like excessive bloating and gas are sometimes particularly trying. Not only can they result in embarrassment and severe discomfort, if digestive disorders are not attended to, they can lead to other more serious problems.
What’s Up With The Excessive Bloating and Gas?
The Connection Between Menopause and Digestive Maladies
A lot of women say that all their problems with digestion began during their peri-menopausal years. While the effects of this transitional time can begin as early as thirty-five, many women are unaware of them until their mid to late forties, years after their bodies have officially moved into peri-menopause.
One of the primary causes of excessive bloating, gas and overall digestive problems in women forty-five to fifty-five years of age is hormonal imbalance.1 In fact women are twice as likely to have digestive disorders – also known as dysbiosis or gastrointestinal (GI) problems – as men.2 Menopausal indigestion, bloating, gas and constipation are often brought on by the natural slow down of the gastrointestinal tract’s processes as a woman ages, combined with heavy demands on the liver.
Cortisol: Hormonal Disruption and Digestive Disorder
A key hormone secreted by the adrenal glands (located just above the kidneys), cortisol affects the way other hormones behave: insulin and thyroid hormones, for example. Cortisol helps balance blood sugar, and is involved in the synthesis of protein and the response of the immune system. It also plays a role in REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, bone turnover rate and thyroid functioning.
Adrenal glands govern the body’s ability to cope with stress, so their functioning is important to women’s health. These glands can be seriously affected by the daily stress caused by constant fatigue and other stressors menopausal women experience as a result of hormone level changes. These hormonal fluctuations can disrupt cortisol levels; abnormal cortisol levels affect menopausal symptoms. Depression, fatigue, insomnia, salt and sugar cravings, and weight gain are symptoms of cortisol level disruption.
Estrogen helps to keep cortisol levels in check. When estrogen levels drop during peri-menopause and menopause, cortisol levels may rise, increasing blood sugar and blood pressure. The release of stomach acid and the emptying of the stomach into the small intestine are slowed down, creating digestive problem symptoms such as bloating, constipation, and gas.
Because they regulate a vast array of bodily functions, when hormone levels begin to fluctuate during both peri-menopause and menopause, women – not surprisingly – may experience many menopausal symptoms such as disinterest in sex, fatigue, forgetfulness, headaches, hot flashes, insomnia, joint pain, mood swings, night sweats, weight gain, and digestive problems.
Understanding the Digestive Process
To understand how digestive enzymes can help ease the digestive disorder that sometimes accompanies peri-menopause and menopause, it’s necessary to get a sense of the various factors necessary for healthy digestion.
Digestion begins in your saliva, breaking down the carbohydrates and fats in your food; the action of chewing starts the production of digestive enzymes in the stomach.
Digestive enzymes play a major role in breaking down food into nutrients that can be absorbed by your body. Once food has entered the stomach, various enzymes work to continue digestion. Proteins, fats and carbohydrates are broken down in preparation for absorption.
The food is then moved into your small intestine where most of the absorption process takes place. Additional enzymes are produced by the intestinal lining in order to break down fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. In addition, the liver produces bile to help with the absorption of fats.
The result of this entire process is that food is reduced to sugars, fatty acids, and amino acids…the fuel that your body runs on. Finally, once absorption has taken place, the remainder waits in the large intestine (the colon) to be expelled in the form of stool.
Hydrochloric acid (HCl)
But enzymes aren’t the only substance a body needs to process food. The stomach requires a mixture of hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes to format food into nutrients. Pepsin – an enzyme produced by the body – needs an extremely acidic environment in order to do its work. As we age, a variety of factors – over-use of medications and poor diet, for example – can catch up with us, and result in low stomach acid (low levels of HCl).
Without an adequate amount of HCL, the digestion of protein, carbohydrates, and fat cannot be properly completed. The stomach needs HCl for protection against bacterial and fungal overgrowth (bacteria and fungus cannot thrive in an acidic environment). HCL also helps the body to properly absorb essential vitamins and minerals.
Click to read more about low levels of HCI.
Also referred to as gut flora, microflora, bacteria, and probiotics, intestinal flora plays a vital role in the fermentation and digestion of carbohydrates, and aids in the digestion of fats and proteins.
Bacteria populations that live in the gut are a combination of both good and bad bacteria; a balance between the two is necessary for an optimal state of health. They help with digestion, detoxification, metabolism, and ensuring balanced immunological responses to potential allergens.
Bad bacteria include those that cause disease such as Salmonella, Clostridium, and others. They only become problematic, however, when their numbers grow large and uncontrollable in proportion to that of good bacteria. Even yeasts such as Candida are healthy in small amounts.
Good bacteria include Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus bulgaricus, Bifidobacterium bifidum, and others. They help us digest food, maintain a healthy gut, provide us with nutrients and vitamins, and fight off bad bacteria. Good bacteria can be taken as a probiotic supplement.
Good gut flora helps prevent bloating, gas, and yeast overgrowth because they maintain intestinal acidity at a healthy pH level. They manufacture certain vitamins, help prevent disease by depriving unwanted bacteria of nutrients, and secrete acids that bad bacteria have difficulty coping with.
But, most importantly – for the peri-menopausal and menopausal woman – good microflora metabolize and recycle hormones such as estrogen, phytoestrogens, and thyroid, which fosters hormonal balance, and helps to minimize menopausal symptoms.
Click to read more about probiotics and the symptoms of intestinal flora imbalance.
Symptoms of Digestive Disruption
When the digestive process is disrupted, or there is a lack of digestive enzymes, a variety of symptoms can result:
- A false urge to have a bowel movement
- Acid reflux
- Bad bacteria
- Bloating and flatulence
- Crohn’s disease
- Energy decrease
- Food allergies
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Lowered immune response
Getting Your Digestive Processes Back on Track
Lifestyle and dietary changes, supplementing your diet with probiotics, herbal remedies, and digestive enzymes are all potentially effective strategies for optimizing digestion during peri-menopause and menopause.
Daily Digestive Enzymes to Ease Menopause-related Dysbiosis
Complex proteins produced by the body’s cells, enzymes stimulate specific biochemical reactions in our bodies. Digestive enzymes, for example, stimulate digestion…the breaking down of food into energy.
Bodies need a variety of different enzymes to facilitate complete digestion. There are three main categories of digestive enzymes: carbohydrases (amylase, maltases, and sucrases); proteases and peptidases; and lipases.
Found in saliva and pancreatic and intestinal juices, carbohydrases breaks down carbohydrates. Present in stomach juices and pancreatic and intestinal juices, proteases and peptidases split protein into amino acids. Lipase splits fat into fatty acids, and is found in the stomach and pancreatic juices.
As we age our bodies’ enzyme production slows down. In addition, the enzymes themselves become less active. So it’s no coincidence that as women reach menopause, their enzymes – like their reproductive systems – are not as fleet-footed as they once were.
To give the body a helping hand with digestion, and ease the effects of enzyme insufficiency during menopause, digestive enzymes can be taken as a supplement. Look for digestive enzymes that include,
Click here http://www.puristat.com/products/digestiveenzymes.aspx for more details on these enzymes and their specific functions.
Digestive enzymes ought to be taken during or after each meal. On an empty stomach, they would simply be absorbed into the bloodstream, and have little effect. Since enzymes are secreted naturally when we eat, it makes good sense to take them with food in order to emulate the natural digestion process.
More Menopause-related Digestive Disorder Solutions
You’ve already read (above) about intestinal flora and the importance of probiotics. Many health care specialists recommend probiotic supplementation as a part of any daily health regimen, especially for women in their peri-menopausal and menopause years.
Lactobacillus acidophilus (an acid-loving milk-bacterium) is a component of probiotics. It relieves chronic constipation, and digestive and gas pain, as well as restores beneficial bacteria in the digestive tract to healthy levels. Lactobacillus acidophilus can also be found in certain yoghurts and probiotic supplements.
Keeping the digestive tract cleansed is another strategy for dealing with digestive problems throughout menopause. A body that is slow to eliminate waste from the colon can result in sluggishness, fatigue, and a host of other health ailments.
Further complications can develop in relation to the type and number of toxins that our bodies harbor. For example, widespread environmental estrogens – chemicals that have the ability to mimic our natural estrogens – can confuse the body's estrogen receptors, and disrupt hormonal balance.
Known as endocrine or hormone disruptors, estrogen mimics are found in ordinary, everyday items such as personal care products and toiletries, pesticides, and as a breakdown product of the plastics used in some water jugs and baby bottles.
Environmental and dietary toxins tax the limits of our bodies’ immune systems. With half-a-million chemicals in the environment alone, our bodies must constantly battle to rid themselves of damaging and deadly toxins. If a body’s reserves are constantly taxed by toxins, then it will be less effective in dealing with menopausal stress.
Colon and liver cleansings improve elimination, make it easier for your body to remove impurities and absorb nutrients, and enable your immune system to get back to the important business of providing immunity. A regularly cleansed body is healthier and more functional, and better able to cope with the challenges of menopause.
Psyllium seed husks provide another healthy way to maintain and cleanse the colon. The husks are covered with mucilage that swells when it absorbs intestinal fluids, lubricating the gut wall. The additional bulk stimulates the intestinal wall, encouraging bowel movements.
Herbal Remedies for Digestive Ailments
Though they tend to work slowly, over time herbal remedies can strengthen the digestive system. Herbs known to aid in digestion are fennel seed, fenugreek seed, gentian, lobelia, and meadowsweet.
Berberine – effective against bacterial/viral infections, Candida albicans, fungal infections, parasites, and yeast – is an alkaloid found in the herb barberry as well as in goldenseal, Oregon grape root, and Chinese goldthread.
Ginger is also known to aid digestion and prevent gas. It can be taken as a tea or in capsule form. Dandelion can be taken for stomach upset, and inflammation and congestion of the liver and gall bladder.
Blessed thistle,myrrh, Peruvian bark, and various other herbal tonics are also recommended by health care providers for digestive disorders.3
Herbal relief for low estrogen
There are various herbal supplements believed to help alleviate low estrogen and, as a result, reduce the symptoms of menopause:
Other supplements for relieving menopausal symptoms include omega 3 (for hormone balance), magnesium and calcium, vitamin B, and vitamin E. Taking a multi-vitamin can simplify the process of ensuring adequate daily intake of all these vital health constituents.
Lifestyle and Dietary Changes
Various simple lifestyle changes have been shown to alleviate menopausal digestive disorder:
Phytoestrogens, also known as dietary estrogens, occur naturally in certain foods, and have the ability to act like estrogen, produce an effect similar to estrogen on the body. There are two main phytoestrogen types — isoflavones and lignans.
- Avoid eating when stressed
- Avoid junk and processed food
- Avoid overeating
- Chew food well
- Drink plenty of water
- Exercise for thirty minutes each day
- Implement a high fiber diet
- Increase omega 3 fatty acid intake by eating oily fish such as salmon or sardines
- Lower wheat and bread to minimize bloating and weight gain
- Minimize alcohol intake (it disrupts cortisol levels)
- Minimize caffeine intake (it disrupts cortisol levels)
- Reduce intake of hydrogenated fats, refined carbohydrates, and sugar (they disrupt cortisol levels)
Isoflavones are found in soybeans and soybean products, fava (broad) beans, chickpeas, and other legumes (alfalfa, beans, carob, clover, lentils, lupins, mesquite, peanuts, peas, and soy sauce). Most processed foods manufactured from legumes (tofu, for example) retain their isoflavone content.
Lignans are found in beans, broccoli, some berries, nuts, oilseeds (i.e. flax, sesame), pumpkin seeds, soybeans, whole grain cereals (barley, oat, rye, and wheat), and some legumes, fruits, and vegetables.
Other foods known to contain phytoestrogens are apples, anise, carrots, dried beans, fennel, ginseng, linseed (flax), mung beans, pomegranates, rice, rice bran, soy beverages, tempeh, wheat germ, and yams.
Menopause and peri-menopause can be an extremely challenging time in a woman’s life, complete with unpleasant side effects such as digestive disruption. All is not lost, however, as there are a wide variety of natural, easy methods to help minimize and alleviate digestive problems and, by extension, lessen – and even completely eradicate – many of the many menopausal symptoms.
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1. 34-Menopause-Symptoms.com, “Digestive Problems,” http://www.34-menopause-symptoms.com/digestive-problems.htm (accessed October 30, 2009).
3. Association of Women for the Advancement of Research and Education, “Remedies for Menopausal Symptoms,” http://www.project-aware.org/Managing/Alt/digestive.shtml (accessed October 30, 2009).