Despite the fact that the human body has the same bodily systems, gender plays a role in what their functionality would be like. For example, if you’re a woman, science suggests that you’re more likely to suffer with digestive system problems such as GERD or Gastroesophageal reflux disease, IBS or irritable bowel syndrome, bloating, gas, nausea etc.
But how does gender affect your gut health? In the next few sections, we will decode the answer to this question.
What’s a healthy digestive system in an adult?
A healthy digestive system in an adult has the following body parts involved- mouth, oesophagus, stomach, gallbladder, small intestine, large intestine, liver, and anus.
Once you consume a food, your digestive system becomes active and starts breaking it down in order to digest it. This means that from your mouth to your colon, your food is broken down, mixed in digestive juices, and ultimately releases nutrients for your body to absorb.
Every body has a different turnaround bowel time when it comes to digestion. It is basically the time that your digestive system takes to convert food into healthy bowels. This turnaround time differs from person to person, and changes even with gender. For example, when you eat food, how long does it take to convert it to healthy bowels, depends on the health of your digestive system. For some people, this cycle can take 5-6 hours, for some as long as a day and for others 48-72 hours.
How are digestive problems different based on gender?
Physiologically, women suffer from digestive issues more than men because:
- They have a longer colon, because of which food takes time to move out of the body
- Women tend to produce less stomach acid than men. Due to this, movement of food is slower than men
- Hormones (such as oestrogen and progesterone) before, during and after a menstrual cycle tend to affect gut health. This can often end up in IBS symptoms such as diarrhoea and bloating
- Studies show that women tend to commonly consume anti-inflammatory drugs to soothe abdominal cramps during menstrual cycles. Regular use of which can thin the stomach lining and result in ulcers and other digestive issues.
Men, on the other hand:
- Have a shorter colon that is about 8 cm shorter than a woman.
- Have hormones that might protect them from IBS (studies are still finding out the cause behind this)
- Produce more stomach acid than women. Which does make food movement faster in their bodies, but makes them prone to acid reflux, heartburn and storing fat in their middle region
Surprising myths & facts related to gender-specific digestive health
Myth: Since women eat less than men, they do not suffer from digestive problems such as gas, bloating etc.
Fact: Despite the fact that most women eat less than men, food moves much slower in their body. This is because of two factors, the first one being lesser stomach acid and the second one being a longer colon.
Myth: Men can eat any type of food with ease and as much they want because their body demands it.
Fact: Even if men can eat larger and heavier proportions than women, they still need to be careful. Since their body produces more stomach acid, they are more prone to getting ulcers over women.
Signs and symptoms of digestive problems in men and women
Some of the common signs and symptoms of digestive problems in both genders include:
- Abnormal stools (watery, hard, loose)
- Abdominal cramps
- Constant feeling of not completely emptying the stomach
Unhealthy digestive system and complications
- IBS or irritable bowel syndrome- this occurs when there is inflammation in the gut region due to a bacteria or virus invasion. IBS can also be a result of reactions from a medication or an abnormality in the digestive system. During the menstrual cycle the level of hormones fluctuates leading to worsening of IBS symptoms such as abdominal pain, diarrhoea, nausea, and bloating. However, in men, IBS does not arise during any specific time and can happen as a result of medication, condition etc.
- GERD or Gastroesophageal reflux disease- this occurs when a part of the digestive system does not function properly resulting in food or digestive juices being pushed back to the mouth through the oesophagus.
- Gastritis: This occurs when there is inflammation in the stomach lining. Gastritis can lead to nausea, vomiting and stomach pain. GERD is more common in women than men. The chances of women getting GERD as they grow old are also higher over men.
Role of diet in maintaining a healthy gut
Your diet plays a huge role in maintaining a healthy gut. Your digestive tract contains gut flora which contains healthy bacteria. Typically, a person has 300 to 550 different species of bacteria living in their digestive tract.
When this gut flora is imbalanced due to foreign bacteria or viruses because of an infection, it often disrupts its functioning resulting in bloating, gas, constipation, diarrhoea, nausea etc.
Therefore, in order to maintain a balance in the gut microbiome of your gastrointestinal tract, your diet needs to have an adequate amount of nutrients coming in especially from prebiotics, probiotics and fibre. If your gut does not get these essentials, its immunity weakens over time making it prone to problems such as IBS.
Similarly, a healthy diet with carbohydrates, proteins, fibre and vitamins and minerals are a prerequisite to a healthy gut. Eliminating any food group from your diet can lead to an imbalance in the gut microbiota further affecting one’s ability to perform body functions normally.
In women, hormones play a huge role in how all their body systems work. Therefore, they need to make sure optimal nutrition is consumed and a healthy lifestyle is practiced at all times.
Role of Probiotics to improve gut health
Probiotics are live bacteria/yeast often found in different food groups and supplements. When your gut microbiota is affected due to infections, virus or unhealthy bacteria invasion, it severely affects your general wellbeing (like your immunity system). Probiotics can help balance the gut flora of your digestive system with the help of healthy bacteria.
Probiotics are usually found in two forms- either in natural foods such as yoghurt, fruits or oatmeal or in medicinal supplements known to maintain the healthy gut bacteria. Probiotic supplements contain good bacteria and yeast that maintain good gut balance.
If you’re unable to complete your probiotic needs through natural foods due to allergies/ intolerances, doctor-verified supplements can be useful for you. These supplements are available in the market in tablets, capsules or sachet form.
Is self-medication a solution for women?
Self-medication is common among patients with gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms. Women should ideally not opt for self-medication as a solution to their digestive problems as it could lead to major problems related to self-medication. It could increase the resistance of pathogens causing serious health hazards such as adverse reactions and prolonged suffering. Although few medications that are available over-the-counter for digestive health can be taken–probiotic supplements being one. However, it is always advised to take these under a doctor’s guidance to avoid any further complications.
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