Periods can really mess up your day (or week). They’re often accompanied by cramps, headaches, or bloating, and of course, bleeding. Having to change your tampon, pad, or cup regularly is annoying. Your appetite and your sex drive may change. And, that's not all: Periods can affect your digestive system too. That's right. They can seriously screw up your poop schedule.
Why your pooping patterns change on your period
You’re not imagining it — period poop is absolutely a thing. And there’s a scientific reason why you’re pooping more (or less) than usual. During your period, your body increases its production of compounds called prostaglandins and decreases its output of the hormone progesterone. Progesterone is needed for pregnancy. Levels of the hormone increase until your period starts, when your body realizes that nope, you’re not pregnant this month, and levels drop back down. At the same time, your prostaglandins increase. That signals to your uterus that it’s time to shed the uterine lining, causing contractions.
Why periods give you diarrhea
You guessed it: both progesterone and prostaglandins can screw up your poop cycle. While prostaglandins target your uterus, they can also affect the digestive organs nearby, making you poop more often. Dips in progesterone can also lead to frequent trips to the commode — and diarrhea.
Why periods make you gassy
Those prostaglandins that make you poop more can also make you gassy — and the food you eat contributes as well. Consider premenstrual syndrome, aka PMS. Right before your period, you may experience increased appetite and food cravings, which doctors believe may be related to higher progesterone levels. This means that in the days before your period, you could be eating more and pooping less, making you feel bloated. When your progesterone drops, your body has more to get out than usual.
Why period poop smells so bad
You can also blame PMS eating habits and that progesterone drop for your smelly period poops. If your eating habits change during the days leading up to your period, you'll see — and smell — the result in the toilet. Menstrual blood has an odor too, and that may also contribute to what you're smelling.
Why periods make you constipated
Progesterone has a slight constipating effect (which is also why constipation is common during pregnancy), so it's normal to have some constipation in the days leading up to your period. And if your food cravings lead you to eat more fatty and less fibrous foods than usual, that plays a factor as well.
What to do about period poop
There are a few things you can do to lessen the havoc your period wreaks on your digestive system. In a recent New York Times column, OB/GYN Dr. Jen Gunter suggested taking a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) such as ibuprofen shortly before your period is about to start. The meds block prostaglandin production; this can reduce both diarrhea and period cramps. Taking birth control containing estrogen can also help reduce both cramps and diarrhea. If you're constipated, eating a high-fiber diet can help. And if you’re experiencing severe pain, check in with your doctor — some health conditions, including endometriosis and irritable bowel system, can flare up during menstruation.
While period poops are annoying, simply understanding that there’s a reason your body’s acting out of the ordinary can help you get through it. Bodies: they’re weird!