If you are a menstruating human, you are no stranger to the period poops. They are unpredictable, always unwelcome, and seem to come as a surprise almost every month, even though you’re kind of expecting them. 

It turns out, that if you get a hint that your period’s on its way based on how many times you’re running to the bathroom, it’s not just a coincidence. And for all you IBS girlies out there, you really know what we’re talking about. There are hormonal reasons behind this: Your bowel habits fluctuate along with your hormones throughout your menstrual cycle. 

Here’s what you should know about some theories behind period poops and how to deal with them when they come around each month. 

woman having menstrual cramps and period poops

So, why do you poop so much on your period? 

By now you might be super familiar with the physical feelings of the hormonal ups and downs that happen right before your period starts. But this is what’s going on internally: During that last phase of the cycle before menstruation, called the luteal phase, the hormone progesterone spikes. Because progesterone is known for slowing down digestion, it can lead to constipation and bloating that you might experience right at the beginning of PMS. 

Immediately before your period arrives on the scene, both estrogen and progesterone levels drop because there’s no pregnancy. Estrogen is also known to affect gut motility, so that’s why things may feel out of whack with your digestive system during those couple of days. More research still needs to be done to establish estrogen and progesterone’s role in GI changes during the menstrual cycle, explains Asma Khapra, MD, gastroenterologist at Gastro Health in Fairfax, Virginia. 

What’s the connection with period cramps? 

The minute you feel that first cramp, that’s a sign that prostaglandins have entered the chat. 

What are they, and why do we even need them? Technically prostaglandins are lipids, but they act like hormones in the body to help regulate things like blood flow, the healing of cuts, the start of labor, and your period (common theme: blood). They spur uterine contractions to help the uterus shed its lining each month. 

You’d think prostaglandins would be busy enough causing cramps from all the uterine contractions, but they also might be affecting your intestines, since they’re neighbors with the uterus in the body. “It is proposed that increased uterine prostaglandins that occur at the onset of menstruation may stimulate the gut, causing more bowel movements or diarrhea,” says Dr. Khapra.  

If you’re taking hormonal contraception, this process might be a little less severe. Because you’re not actually ovulating and shedding as much of the uterine lining when you take birth control pills, the prostaglandins don’t have to work as hard and may not cause as much cramping or bowel fluctuations

woman having ibs flare up during menstruation

The link between IBS and your period

If you have IBS, buckle up. The prime time for IBS flare-ups is right before and during menstruation, Dr. Khapra says. 

“There is definitely a cyclic nature to these bowel alterations,” according to Dr. Khapra. “Studies have shown that during menstrual cycles, there is increased rectal sensitivity in women with IBS as well as increased sensitivity of their gut, causing them to feel more abdominal pain.”

Along with that, one 2021 study of menstruating people with IBS found that the participants experienced significant constipation and bloating during the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle. Diarrhea during the menstrual phase was also common among 15 percent of the people.  

Newer research is also suggesting a link between PMS, period pain, and IBS; some symptoms might include anxiety, depression, more stress, severe cramps, and daytime sleepiness right before your period. If you’re someone with IBS and painful PMS each month, it may be worth looking into a drug-free, clinically proven treatment like Mahana IBS, an FDA-cleared, prescription program, that uses gut-directed Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT to give you new techniques and tools to help you identify, manage and reduce your IBS symptoms. The program is delivered via an app and also helps you to identify and reframe negative thoughts around them, as well as coach you on stress management that may help tame your IBS.

Period poops: How to stop them (or at least slow them down)

1. Try to keep your diet and exercise the same

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The body’s all about routines: Your diet, exercise, and sleep routines affect your gut health and how frequently you go to the bathroom. Even small changes in that routine (let’s say you’re traveling during your period) could lead to bowel changes. “Getting enough sleep and maintaining a steady exercise routine, especially during your period, will also help alleviate any gut symptoms that tend to flare during this time,” Dr. Khapra says. 

2. Don’t eat the foods that trigger you right now

This one’s easier said than done, but Dr. Khapra recommends cutting back on foods that trigger worse GI symptoms around your cycle. For example, if you have IBS, some foods that might aggravate your symptoms include foods that are high in a group of sugars called FODMAPs. So dishes with a lot of garlic, beans, apples, onion, cream, or soft cheeses may bother your stomach closer to your period and may be the ones to avoid or pull back on (even though those might be exactly what you’re craving during that time). 

woman doing a daily walk

3. Lay off the coffee

We know you need the extra cup when you are exhausted during your period, but try to get your energy from other places. You may be in better shape to consume your regular amount of caffeine if you don’t have severe period poops, Dr. Khapra says. “If you tend to have diarrhea around your cycle, avoid excess caffeine, which can have a laxative effect,” adds Dr. Khapra. 

4. Keep your stress at a manageable level when possible

“Mood always affects the gut,” says Dr. Khapra. This can be especially true if you have IBS. “Any techniques that may reduce stress or improve your mood will also be beneficial,” says Dr. Khapra. You can’t control a hectic week at work or kids home from school sick, but starting your day off with gentle movement and breathing exercises might help your stress (and your bowels) clear.

Mara Santilli is a journalist reporting on health and wellness and how social and political systems influence the well-being of certain groups, including but not limited to Black and brown communities, women, and the LGBTQ+ community. Her editorial work has appeared in publications such as Shape, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, Women’s Health, InStyle, Glamour, and more. Outside of reading and writing, she enjoys traveling (especially to Italy), singing, dancing, musical theatre, and playing guitar and piano.