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Does Pregnancy Affect IBS?

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Updated April 16, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Does Pregnancy Affect IBS?
Photo: McMillan Digital Art/Getty Images

When you are pregnant, it certainly seems as if every body part is affected one way or the other. Given that, it makes sense to wonder what pregnancy might mean for your IBS. Unfortunately, research on the subject is quite limited, due to concerns about performing procedures that would put the developing fetus at risk.

Much more is known about the effects of pregnancy on the digestive system in general. The following overview of pregnancy and its effects on the gastrointestinal (GI) tract will help you to know what to expect as you make your way through your pregnancy with IBS.

GI Symptoms and Pregnancy

Gastrointestinal symptoms and pregnancy often go hand in hand. It is common knowledge that many pregnant women experience heartburn and nausea during the first trimester. The effects of pregnancy on bowel symptoms are less clear; approximately one third of women experience an increase in stool frequency, with another third experience constipation. Constipation is particularly likely to be troublesome in the third trimester.

Why Does Pregnancy Affect the GI Tract?

During pregnancy, levels of the hormones estrogen and progesterone increase. As receptors for these hormones are found throughout the digestive system, symptoms may be the result of these changes in hormonal levels. It is also possible that pressure from the fetus itself has an effect on the functioning of some of the organs that make up the digestive tract.

Effect of Pregnancy on IBS Symptoms

As stated above, there is very little research focused specifically as to how the hormonal changes of pregnancy impact IBS symptoms. One theory is that the effects of pregnancy hormones could result in changes, positive or negative, on bowel symptoms, and perhaps offer some relief from abdominal pain.

One survey offers some preliminary insight: Of female respondents who had experienced a pregnancy, approximately half of them reported that their IBS improved during pregnancy. A smaller group (less than 20%) reported a worsening of IBS symptoms during pregnancy. Obviously, more research needs to be done before any definitive conclusions can be drawn regarding the effect of pregnancy on IBS.

Effect of IBS on Pregnancy

Some sobering news here - one study found a "moderately increased risk" of both miscarriage and ectopic pregnancy in patients diagnosed with IBS prior to their pregnancy. Luckily, there seemed to be no increased risk for either preeclampsia or stillbirth. Although these are the results of only one study, it may be prudent to discuss your risk of pregnancy complications with your doctor.

Essential Reading:

Sources:

Hasler, W. "The irritable bowel syndrome during pregnancy" Gastroenterology Clinics of North America 2003 32:385-406.

Heitkemper, M. "Pregnancy and Irritable Bowel Syndrome". International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorder Fact Sheet. Accessed February 6, 2010.

Khashan, A., et.al. "Increased Risk of Miscarriage and Ectopic Pregnancy Among Women With Irritable Bowel Syndrome" Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology Published online February 27, 2012.

Palsson, O., Whitehead, W., Turner, M., van Tilburg, M. & Kanazawa, M. "Results of a National Survey on the Effects of Changes in Female Sex Hormones on Irritable Bowel Syndrome" The UNC Center for Functional GI & Motility Disorders. Accessed February 5, 2010.

DISCLAIMER: The information contained on this site is for educational purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for diagnosis or treatment rendered by a licensed physician. It is essential that you discuss with your doctor any symptoms or medical problems that you may be experiencing.

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