Periods come with all kinds of interesting side effects. Most menstruating humans know to expect cramps, pimples, fatigue, and maybe even some mood swings. But a good portion of us also get bloating and some pretty stinky period farts.
A 2014 study published in BMC Women's Health surveyed 156 menstruators discovered that 73 percent experience at least one GI symptom during their periods. Although there doesn’t seem to be much research specifically about period gas, it’s pretty clear that our menstrual cycles can take a toll on digestion.
Why does period gas happen
According to Nicole Bullock, DO, a gynecologist in Abilene, TX, it has to do with chemical messengers called prostaglandins. “Prostaglandins are kind of like hormones and they cause inflammation, especially in the uterus,” she says.
Prostaglandins can be found in almost every tissue in both humans and animals, and they have many different functions throughout our bodies. These chemicals are a normal part of menstruation—everyone has them. Their role is to make the uterus contract so it sheds its lining, leading to the “blood” you see (which is actually a mix of blood, vaginal fluid, and tissue). You can blame prostaglandins for your cramps.
Some people can also blame them for gas and bloating. “If you’re prone to having period cramps, you tend to also have GI issues. And so you probably have more prostaglandins and more inflammation than someone who does not,” Dr. Bullock says. If you have an excess of prostaglandins in and around your uterus while you’re on your period, the extra lipids can make their way to the surrounding tissues, too. This explains the infamous “period poops.” If prostaglandins reach your digestive tract, your colon can contract just like your uterus, moving waste through your bowels too quickly.
But prostaglandins can do two other things that might cause gas: relax smooth tissue and increase electrolyte secretion. So your bowels are relaxed and now you have a flood of electrolytes in your system. Both of those things can lead to period farts, Dr. Bullock says. “If you’ve had the fluid Pedialyte or drank a lot of Gatorade—or magnesium is really popular right now—if you take too much, it can certainly give you some GI upset,” she says. Even though those medications are often used to treat an upset stomach, an excess of otherwise-healing electrolytes can lead to bloating, gas, and diarrhea.
There are several things you can do to ease period farts
The first line of defense is good, old-fashioned birth control. Hormonal birth control down-regulates those prostaglandins, Dr. Bullock says. And fewer prostaglandins means fewer period farts. If you’re not interested in hormonal birth control, you can use another period standby: Motrin.
The uterus has COX receptors, where prostaglandins are created. NSAIDs that contain ibuprofen, like Motrin and Advil, inhibit those COX receptors, blocking prostaglandins before they’re made. So Dr. Bullock tells patients who have period cramps or GI symptoms to use Motrin, not Tylenol (Acetaminophen). It’ll reduce inflammation and make you less gassy.
Then, of course, there are lifestyle changes you can make, either short-term or long-term, to keep the gas at bay. The first: avoid eating things you know make you gassy. “Most people have at least a few foods that cause stomach discomfort,” says Sarah Toler, DNP, CNM, the science content lead for period-tracking app Clue. It seems obvious, but you might want to lay off the beans, cauliflower, cabbage, or whatever it is that triggers your gas. Then there are foods to add to your diet. Specifically, salty foods like broths and sports drinks (just don’t overdo it), Toler says. “This may help reduce bloating by pulling some of the water out of your body,” she says. Note: Toler is suggesting broth and sports drinks, not equally salty pizza or chips. Processed foods can cause gas and diarrhea, so tread carefully.
There are other things you can do all month long to decrease your overall inflammation like adopting an exercise routine, taking probiotics, and eating an anti-inflammatory diet that’s low in sugar and processed foods.
When are period farts and bloating a medical concern
In general, period farts are annoying (and probably smelly), but not too concerning. “A lot of this can definitely just fall under very normal PMS symptoms,” Dr. Bullock says. With that said, she suggests talking to your gynecologist about birth control to minimize gas and bloating and checking in with your doctor at your yearly check-up to track PMS symptoms. “Your doctor should be asking you about your periods,” she says.
So, for the most part, period farts shouldn’t make you worry. But if you’re experiencing unexpected GI changes or have a lot of pain with gas and bloating, it’s a good idea to visit a doctor, just to make sure nothing more serious is to blame—like underlying irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or endometriosis.
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