Yes, it is quite possible that your IBS symptoms are affected by your menstrual cycle.
The two main hormones associated with menstruation are estrogen and progesterone. Interestingly enough, there are receptor cells for these hormones throughout the gastrointestinal tract, which appears to explain why many women -- even those without IBS -- experience digestive symptoms related to their menstrual cycle.
Researchers have found that in the the month following ovulation, all women are more likely to experience bloating and constipation. In the days just prior to menstruation (pre-menstrual) and for the first day or two when bleeding starts, women are more likely to experience abdominal pain, diarrhea, and nausea.
For many women with IBS, their across-the-board IBS symptoms worsen when they have their periods. For some, their systems are more reactive to food in the days surrounding menstruation, particularly gassy foods. (However, one survey found that a small number of women actually experience an improvement in IBS symptoms during menstruation.)
In addition to being at higher risk for dysmenorrhea (painful cramping), having IBS appears to put a woman at risk for a variety of other symptoms associated with menstruation. These include backache, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, insomnia, and water retention. However, women with IBS are not at higher risk to experience the mood-related changes commonly associated with PMS and the rest of the menstrual cycle.
What accounts for these differences? Currently, there are no good answers to that question. Studies have not found any difference in the hormone levels of women with and without IBS. And, in spite of the fact that the sex hormones appear to play a role in GI symptoms, birth control pills and hormone replacement therapy have not been found to be of help. Luckily, they also apparently do no harm in terms of affecting IBS.
Essential Reading from Dr. Bolen, Your IBS Guide:
Palsson, O. & Whitehead, W. "Hormones and IBS" The UNC Center for Functional GI & Motility Disorders. Accessed February 5, 2010
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.
Heltkemper, M. & Jarrett, M. "Gynecological Aspects of Irritable Bowel Syndrome" International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorder Fact Sheet. Accessed February 5,2010.
"Women and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)." 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.