Certain gastrointestinal conditions occur more frequently in women than in men and some medications may be processed differently by the female body. Although the female and male digestive tracts carry out the same basic functions, women can experience specific gastrointestinal issues and symptoms, for example, in relation to hormonal changes and pregnancy. Consultant Gastroenterologist Dr Rishi Goel, explains these conditions, including symptoms to look out for and the various treatments available to you.
Common GI Symptoms and Conditions in Women
You may experience any one of these symptoms amongst the most common gastrointestinal conditions, but fortunately there are available treatments:
- Acid reflux occurs when acid or stomach contents rise up into your oesophagus, causing irritation and inflammation. Reflux is more common in women, though they are less likely to develop serious disease. Investigation is with a gastroscopy. Treatments include acid suppression medications and less commonly, surgery.
- IBS occurs in over 20% of women in the UK. Although IBS does not cause serious health issues, it can have a great impact on your quality of life. It is characterized by abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea and constipation. The precise cause of IBS is unknown but it is thought to be due to effects on the gut and brain pathway, between which there are strong links . Treatments include dietary advice, lifestyle changes and certain medications.
- Chronic constipation affects up to 20% of women. You might experience infrequent bowel movements and/or have difficulty passing dry small stools. This can be due to slow transit through the gut but can also be related to sex hormones, or pelvic floor problems which can occur after pregnancy. Chronic constipation can be treated with dietary advice and laxatives.
- Gallstone disease is another common condition in middle-aged women. Gallstones are small stones that form in your gallbladder. These can cause abdominal pain (biliary colic) and can create a blockage which may require urgent treatment. Lifestyle changes and dietary modifications can reduce your risk of gallstones. They are frequently diagnosed with ultrasound scans and surgery is often needed.
- Iron deficiency anaemia is common in approximately 20% of premenopausal women. It is defined as a low Haemoglobin blood cell count. You might experience symptoms such as fatigue, weakness, poor concentration, pallor and in extreme cases, chest pains and shortness of breath. It can be caused by menstrual losses however, persistent or severe iron deficiency anaemia, when in conjunction with GI symptoms such as diarrhoea, pain and weight loss, often indicates an underlying GI cause. Treatment involves dietary advice and supplementation with iron tablets or an intravenous iron injection.
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) affects around 1 in 150 people in the UK . It comprises of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis which are characterised by rectal bleeding, diarrhoea, weight loss and fatigue. There are many available treatments for Crohn’s disease which can reduce the risk of surgery. Ulcerative colitis is characterized by bloody diarrhoea and is usually mild to moderate, but some cases involve severe inflammation. Treatments may include medical therapy which is used to modulate the immune system.
- Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer for women in the UK. Symptoms include rectal bleeding, weight loss and anaemia. It is advisable to follow current guidelines to be screened after the age of 50. Investigation is usually carried out with a colonoscopy.
- An anal fissure is a small tear in the lining of the anus (bottom hole). On occasion, the fissure can cause pain and bleed. If you present with rectal bleeding, a lower gastrointestinal endoscopy is usually required to check for a serious bowel disease, such as cancer. Treatment options are usually simple and include laxatives, and topical creams.
Pregnancy is also a risk factor for some gastrointestinal diseases, such as hemorrhoids and constipation.
How are digestive conditions diagnosed?
Depending on your symptoms, there are different examinations and tests that your Gastroenterologist can use to investigate your case:
- Blood tests
- Stool tests
- Radiological scans:
- Endoscopic investigations
- Video capsule endoscopy
An endoscopy refers to a procedure undertaken to examine the inside of your body using an endoscope. The endoscope is thin tube attached to a light source and camera which is inserted into your body, mouth, or back passage. Images of the inside of your body will then be relayed to a television screen. Therapies include balloon dilatation of strictures, stretching of narrowed areas, removal of pre-cancerous polyps and administered therapy for bleeding.
A Gastroscopy is an endoscopy test to examine your oesophagus, the food pipe, stomach and the upper part of the small bowel. This will be performed in about 5 minutes, using a local anaesthetic or mild sedation. A gastroscopy might be recommended if you have any of the following symptoms:
- Anaemia (low blood levels)
- Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)
- Abdominal pain
- Persistent diarrhoea
- Blood in your stools
A Colonoscopy is an endoscopy test to examine the lining of your large bowel. A colonoscopy can be advised if you experience any of the following symptoms:
- Anaemia (low blood levels)
- Rectal bleeding
- Abdominal pain
- Change in bowel habit
It can also be carried out to diagnose causes of diarrhea, hemorrhoids, diverticular disease, polyps and colorectal cancer.
Video Capsule Endoscopy
A Video Capsule Endoscopy is a procedure in which the lining of your gastrointestinal tract is examined This procedure is used to investigate persistent anaemia and to detect obscure gastrointestinal bleeding as well as to diagnose Crohn’s disease. It can also be used if you experience prolonged cases of diarrhoea.
During a Video Capsule Endoscopy, or colonoscopy, you will be asked to swallow a pill sized camera (with it’s own light source and battery) which will naturally travel through your gastrointestinal tract, recording images along the way. Your procedure will last approximately 8 hours but you can perform your usual daily activities during the test and you will not need to remain in hospital.
Useful tips for women experiencing bowel and digestive conditions
To help prevent thesecommon gastrointestinal conditions, here are some usefulp tips:
- Drink plenty of fluids. Fluids help to break down foods, aiding in your digestion.
- Eat a balanced diet involving plenty of soluble fibre.
- Undertake regular exercise. This will stimulate your gut and increase your intestinal activity and helps prevent digestive problems.
- Manage your stress level. The gut has close links with the nervous system so your level of stress will have an impact on your gastrointestinal system.
If you are worried about any specific bowel symptoms disease,or would like to speak to a specialist Consultant, you can book a consultation with our Consultant Gastroenterologists by calling us on 020 8949 9020 or by filling in our online form.