Remember PooPourri’s 2013 ad poking fun at the idea that girls don’t poop?
Like so many outdated stereotypes, what women do in the bathroom is shrouded in shame and secrecy. Apparently, chatting about the inner workings of our bowels is a gendered frontier we’re yet to cross.
The reality is that going to the bathroom is something we all do. And for women? Bowel movements during our period can be particularly gnarly.
Just because we don’t talk about it, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. Period poop is very much a thing that most of us experience, often on a monthly basis. If you experience changes in the consistency, frequency, and even the smell of your bowel movements during your period, you’re not alone.
So, why do we find ourselves rushing to the bathroom all the time during our period? What’s the deal with cramping, bloating, and constipation? And why are we constantly losing our tampons to the toilet bowl? Let’s demystify everything there is to know about period poop.
In fact, very little is known about the scale and scope of gastrointestinal (GI) complaints by women during menstruation. It’s not a surprise really. Let’s face it, no one likes talking about what happens on the toilet.
But researchers are beginning to dig into the issue.
A 2014 study of 156 healthy, premenopausal women attempted to resolve this lack of research by investigating the GI symptoms women experience before and during that time of the month. The study found a whopping 73% of respondents experienced at least one of the primary GI symptoms (abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation, nausea, or vomiting) both before and/or during their period. Abdominal pain was the most common (58% pre and 55% during) followed by diarrhoea (24% pre and 28% during).
There are also certain chronic conditions, like endometriosis, that are well known for causing painful bowel motions. These symptoms can occur at any point of your cycle – particularly just before and right after. For a great read on how endometriosis causes pain in the pelvis and bowel, check out Endometriosis Australia's guide here.
There’s still a lot more to be done when it comes to researching bowel movements during menstruation. But, some helpful insights do explain why we experience bloating, diarrhoea and constipation during that time of the month.
You can thank the chemical compound prostaglandins for this.
When we’re about to begin our period, the cells contained in the lining of our uterus begin to produce the chemical prostaglandins. This helps our uterus to shed its lining (a.k.a. kick-start our period bleed) by stimulating the muscles in our uterus.
But if our body produces too many prostaglandins, these chemicals can enter our bloodstream and have the same effect on other parts of the body (such as our bowels). The results? You’ll be running to the bathroom a whole lot faster (and more often).
And for the caffeine addicts among us, our morning cuppa can be making things a whole lot worse. When we’re feeling fatigued (the way many of us feel when we’re coming up to our period), we tend to up our coffee dose. But since coffee has a laxative effect on the body, it’s likely to intensify everything.
To help curb the rush to the bathroom, you can switch out your morning grind for decaffeinated coffee, or cut down your coffee quantities altogether. But if you can’t ditch your morning brew? Make sure you’re drinking lots of H2O to beat dehydration.
But that’s not where the story ends for prostaglandins. These chemicals can also heighten our experiences of pain, with raised levels of prostaglandins found to cause more intense cramps and contractions of the uterus. Plus prostaglandins are shown to cause inflammation which can also cause women to experience uncomfortable bloating of the uterus too.
Again, this one comes back to prostaglandins as well as our hormones. When we experience low levels of prostaglandins combined with high quantities of the hormone progesterone, our digestive system goes haywire. In most cases, this leads to slower digestion and the dreaded pains of constipation.
As we reach ovulation, the levels of progesterone in the body are at an all-time high. Although these hormones are helpful in growing and thickening the uterine walls, a build-up of these hormones can also lead to our poop going MIA. This is why you might experience constipation during and a couple of days after ovulation.
The good news? Once our hormone levels re-stabilise after ovulation, these symptoms typically pass and our bowel movements return to normal. However, if you experience constipation for more than 2 weeks, make sure to chat with your GP to assess what is causing the problem and to ensure nothing more serious is going on.
Cramps, constipation, bloating and diarrhoea are incredibly painful in their own right. But when you're on your period, going to the bathroom can be a whole lot more uncomfortable. So what causes this pain during that time of the month?
When we’re constipated, our bowel movements become harder and often more painful to pass. Throw in a bout of menstrual cramps and pre-period diarrhoea and you’ve got a gnarly recipe for a painful trip to the bathroom.
Often, it can be hard to distinguish between painful cramps and needing to go to the bathroom. In fact, the contractions that our uterus and bowel experience are caused by the same chemical: prostaglandins. In most cases, a low level of pain and discomfort is normal.
However, it’s important to chat with your GP if you experience intense pain (even once you’ve had a bowel movement), severe diarrhoea for more than two days as well as prolonged diarrhoea accompanied by a high fever, chills, vomiting or fainting.
Losing your tampon during a bowel movement is very common. This is because the pelvic muscles used to keep your tampon in place are also used during a visit to the bathroom. If we encounter constipation, straining can also cause our tampon to dislodge.
We can’t change the way our bodies work, but we can take a few practical steps to alleviate the likelihood of losing our tampons to the toilet bowl. These include:
● Adding fibre-rich foods to our diets such as whole-grain bread and pasta, fruits and veggies
● Drinking extra water to help digestion and prevent dehydration
● Switching tampons for menstrual cups that are less likely to dislodge
As common as period poop might be, it’s important to recognise when things aren’t normal. In some cases, severe symptoms can be an indication of an underlying gastrointestinal or even gynaecological issue that should be addressed by a medical professional.
Some of the symptoms to watch out for include:
● Severe cramps or abdominal pain
● Heavy periods
● Rectal bleeding
● Mucus in your stool
If you experience these symptoms and they persist or even become more severe, make sure to book in to speak with your GP. Your doctor will be able to advise on the best course of action and treatment to help alleviate these uncomfortable symptoms.
Period poop is more common than you’d think. Although cramping, constipation, diarrhoea, and bloating are incredibly uncomfortable, most of these symptoms will ease during the course of your cycle.
However, if your symptoms are prolonged and severe, make sure to speak with your GP to ensure there isn’t an underlying issue causing your discomfort and pain.