What's the Deal with Period Poops?

Wait, why are period poops like *that* — and is it normal? Here, an ob-gyn gives the low-down on your menstrual cycle's effect on your bowel movements.

Back in middle school health class, you and your fellow soon-to-be menstruators were likely taught to expect cramps, funky cravings, headaches, and blood dripping out from your vagina with every visit from Aunt Flo. One crucial piece of info that was left out of the conversation? Your poops might be pretty gnarly, too.

Aptly nicknamed "period poops," mid-menses bowel movements often involve uncomfortable, watery deuces, tooting, and other symptoms that you might feel too embarrassed to discuss. The topic may be taboo, but experiencing changes to your number twos during your period is totally normal, says Charis Chambers, M.D., a board-certified ob-gyn known as "the Period Doctor." In fact, you may experience some digestive discomfort and constipation leading up to menstruation, too.

Here, why your period stirs up trouble for your digestive tract, plus ways to ease your symptoms and make your period poops smooth sailing, according to Dr. Chambers.

period poops: an illustration representing the concept of period poops — a poop emoji next to a pad with red drops
Alex Sandoval

How Hormone Changes Can Cause Period Poops

If you're straining to poo in the week leading up to your period or you're dealing with some nasty number twos during it, hormonal changes are partly to blame, says Dr. Chambers. ICYDK, hormones play a key role in regulating your menstrual cycle, which begins the first day of your period. When an egg isn't fertilized, levels of the hormones estrogen (which, in part, helps regulate the menstrual cycle) and progesterone (which, in part, helps prep your uterus to receive, implant, and support a fertilized egg) are at a low point, causing the uterine lining (aka the endometrium) to break down and shedand menstrual bleeding to occur, according to the University of California San Francisco (UCSF).

Throughout your cycle, levels of these hormones ebb and flow. Estrogen levels begin to rise during your period and hit a peak about 14 days into your cycle (right before ovulation). From there, they decrease slightly but remain high, working with progesterone to thicken the uterine lining and prepare it for fertilization, according to UCSF. Progesterone levels, on the other hand, start to increase during ovulation and peak roughly a week later. Both hormones then decline if a fertilized egg doesn't implant in the uterus, causing the cycle to repeat, according to UCSF. (Related: How to Balance Out-of-Whack Hormones)

It may seem like NBD, but all of those hormonal shifts can cause some not-so-pleasant gastrointestinal side effects leading up to your period, and an increase in another hormone-like substance can set off icky BMs during it, too. Ahead of your cycle's start, you might deal with a bit more bloating than usual due to those high levels of estrogen, which can potentially increase water retention, says Dr. Chambers. Likewise, the increased amount of progesterone can lead to constipation, she says. "Progesterone slows gut motility, which means food moves slower through the digestive tract. That's something that's super beneficial in pregnancy when you're trying to have maximal absorption of food to support the growing fetus," she explains. But if you're not pregnant, it could just mean extra time spent pushing on the porcelain throne.

As for the unsavory symptoms you experience during your period, you can thank prostaglandins — inflammatory, hormone-like substances that cause the muscles and blood vessels of the uterus to contract, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). At the start of your period, the uterine lining is producing high levels of these substances, which are the primary cause of the painful cramps you may experience, to help stimulate the uterine lining shedding process. And as the lining is sloughed off, the level of prostaglandins declines, according to the ACOG.

The kicker: The prostaglandins can also cause muscle contractions in the gut, though it's not totally clear whether the uterine prostaglandins are transported to those organs or the gut muscles themselves also produce more prostaglandin during menstruation, according to a 2014 study published in BMC Women's Health. "[This] can trigger more discomfort with bowel movements and cramps, even intestinal-like cramps. Sometimes folks have diarrhea, more loose stools, flatulence, bloating — all of those fun things you know are associated with periods," says Dr. Chambers. What's more, you might find yourself needing to drop a deuce more often than usual thanks to that inflammation, she adds.

However, if you're taking a combined oral contraceptive — which contains estrogen and progestin (a form of progesterone) — your experience with period poops and menstruation-related digestive discomfort might be a little different, says Dr. Chambers. "I like to think of them like a thermostat: Instead of feeling the full extremes of hormone fluctuations, it kind of just keeps things more steady... so that can certainly minimize the GI effects," she notes. Research suggests that the pillmay also reduce the amount of prostaglandin produced by the glands in the uterine lining, which, in turn, may lead to less diarrhea or cause your period poops to happen less frequently.

Regardless of what your period poops look like, know that your symptoms won't last for long. "Very often, these bowel movement changes go back to normal right when the period ends," says Dr. Chambers. "That just shows the beauty of the regulation of your hormones and the beauty of a cycling process — changes occur, and they always go back to baseline," she continues.

What You Can Do to Ease Period Poop Symptoms

To make your trips to the loo leading up to your period and mid-menses more pleasant, steer clear of foods that tend to irritate your stomach or cause gastrointestinal discomfort on the days you aren't menstruating, recommends Dr. Chambers. If you know lactose often makes you gassy or spicy foods typically give you loose stool, for example, make the effort to avoid them during your period. "If something irritates you, hurts your stomach, or causes any type of inflammation outside of your period, it's certainly going to be exacerbated during your period," she says.

Staying hydrated can also make your period poops more pleasant, as it can help prevent constipation, says Dr. Chambers. Certain over-the-counter medications can provide relief as well. "I'm one of those people who's a strong believer in TUMS and Pepto-Bismol, so just keep those on hand," says Dr. Chambers. "Those can actually be a part of your period product regimen. Most people think [of] Midol, Tylenol, and ibuprofen, but some of those other things can be helpful, too," she notes. To soothe an upset stomach with TUMS, take the recommended dose (which depends on the specific variety's strength) when symptoms arise, making sure not to exceed the individual dose or total daily dose recommendation, according to the brand. For Pepto-Bismol, take one dose when you feel symptoms, then continue taking a dose every half hour until you feel better — just make sure not to take more than eight doses in 24 hours, according to the company.

When to See a Doctor About Your Period Poops

If you experience bleeding from the anus (read: you notice blood in your stool that's not coming from your vagina) or you're suffering from such frequent diarrhea that you can't stay hydrated, it's time to book an appointment with your doctor, says Dr. Chambers. "Some people actually have severe nausea during their period because of the inflammation and hormonal changes, so the inability to keep down food, especially if you're losing weight, [would] warrant an evaluation," she adds. (Related: Why Am I So Sweaty Around My Period?)

Regardless of the severity of your period poops and their symptoms, if they're preventing you from participating in daily activities — or if they're just simply bothering you — it's important to chat with your health care provider about it, stresses Dr. Chambers. "Just because something can be explained by physiology or what we know about science doesn't mean that it's not worth evaluating," she says. "As I tell my patients; if it bothers you, it bothers me," she adds.

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