For many women, the thought of menopause can be extremely daunting. Being menopausal means experiencing significant changes as your body reacts and adjusts to fluctuating hormone levels over a period of months or even years.
And while it’s perfectly understandable that you may feel apprehensive, it’s also important to remember that menopause is a perfectly normal and natural part of the female reproductive lifecycle. In fact, it’s estimated that approximately 1.3 million women experience menopause every year in the United States alone.
To better understand what we mean when we talk about menopause, one need look no further than the word itself. The word ‘meno’ relates to the menstrual cycle. And the word ‘pause’—as you’re no doubt already aware—means to stop.
In layman’s terms, menopause quite literally means that your menstrual cycle stops —and if you haven’t experienced a menstrual period for 12 months, then you have officially entered menopause.
While many of us are familiar with the term menopause and some of the symptoms we might experience, it’s also helpful to explore and understand the other stages of the female reproductive lifecycle and how they might affect our bodies during each different phase.
First, let’s take a look at the four different phases of the reproductive lifecycle:
Phase 1 – Premenopause
Premenopause begins during puberty, when we experience our first menstrual period, and it refers to the period in our lives when we are fertile. For most women, premenopause lasts for 30 to 40 years and doesn’t end until we have our last menstrual period.
Phase 2 – Perimenopause
Literally translated as ‘around menopause,’ a woman becomes perimenopausal when her estrogen levels start to fluctuate and her progesterone levels begin to decline. For most women, perimenopause occurs in their 40s. And while some women may experience it as early as their mid-30 or as late as their early 50s, this phase of the reproductive lifecycle can last anywhere between 4 and 11 years. Contrary to popular belief, many women actually report experiencing some of their more severe symptoms during perimenopause.
Phase 3 – Menopause
As we mentioned earlier, a woman becomes menopausal when she hasn’t had a period for 12 months. Although menopause can and does affect women at different ages, the majority experience menopause in their 50s—with the average age being 51 years old. During menopause, the ovaries stop producing eggs, and estrogen levels decline. It’s during this stage of the reproductive lifecycle that many women experience the worst symptoms.
Phase 4 – Postmenopause
Once a woman has gone 12 consecutive months without a menstrual period, she is technically postmenopausal.
It’s important to understand the different stages of the female reproductive lifecycle because many women may start to experience some symptoms before they become menopausal—and bloating could be one such symptom.
Although bloating affects both women and men of all ages and for a number of different reasons, a significant number of women also experience bloating during perimenopause and menopause—or sometimes both.
What is Bloating?
Bloating occurs when your gastrointestinal tract becomes full of gas or air. Your stomach will likely feel hard, swollen or very full—and if you’ve ever experienced bloating, you’ll know that it can be a very unpleasant and often painful feeling.
More often than not, bloating is also accompanied by abdominal gurgling noises, frequent belching, and instances of flatulence that can last for a number of hours—or even days in some cases.
Hormonal Causes of Bloating During Menopause
During perimenopause and menopause especially, your body experiences quite a dramatic fluctuation in hormone levels—particularly estrogen levels.
Estrogen plays a vital role in maintaining the correct amount of bile and water in your body, so when estrogen levels start to fluctuate, it’s perfectly natural for your body to respond by storing and retaining more water. The body’s retention of extra water could be a potential cause of bloating.
Furthermore, if fluctuating estrogen levels impact the amount of bile that your body produces, it could also affect the way in which your body digests fats. When this occurs, your body might also respond by producing greater levels of flatulence in your digestive tract.
Other Causes of Bloating During Menopause
While fluctuating estrogen levels may be a potential cause of bloating during perimenopause and menopause, there are other likely potential causes that you should be aware of, which include:
1. Changes to diet
Many women make a positive effort to improve their diet and maintain a healthy weight during menopause. As your body adjusts and adapts to a new diet, it’s not uncommon to experience higher levels of gas during the period of adjustment.
2. Eating too fast
As a woman in your 40s or 50s, you likely have a pretty busy lifestyle. Juggling the competing demands of a career, family and friends often means you have to eat on the go—and sometimes that means rushing. Eating your food too quickly can result in the build-up of extra gas in your gastrointestinal tract, which may lead to uncomfortable bloating.
3. Imbalance of gut bacteria
Menopause brings about a whole of host of changes to your body, some of which are related to your digestive system. It’s not uncommon for menopause to change or affect your gut flora—or the levels of good bacteria that are present in your body. Such changes can cause issues when it comes to how your body processes food, and as a result, you may experience constipation or higher levels of gas from time to time.
4. Slower digestion
As we age, our digestive systems naturally slow down. This means our bodies have to work harder to digest food, and sometimes that can lead to bloating.
5. Swallowing more air
Have you ever taken in a big gulp of air and had increased gas as a result? In a similar vein, in an attempt to overcome a dry mouth during menopause, many women will chew gum more regularly or increase their intake of carbonated drinks. Chewing gum and drinking carbonated beverages both result in you swallowing more air—and may increase the amount of gas in your body as a result.
What can I do to reduce bloating during menopause?
Although bloating can be an uncomfortable and sometimes painful symptom of menopause, there are a few things you can do to help prevent or minimize bloating:
1. Cut down on alcohol and tobacco
Both alcohol and tobacco can cause bloating. If possible, try to limit the amount you have.
2. Get plenty of exercise
Exercise is fantastic for the mind and body. It’s a great way to help maintain a healthy digestive system and prevent bloating.
3. Take your time eating
If possible, give yourself that little bit of extra time to eat—and be sure to chew your food thoroughly. When you chew, your stomach starts producing enzymes that aid in the digestion of food—so the more you chew, the more effective the process is.
4. Keep yourself well-hydrated
Water is crucial to a healthy digestive system, but it also helps you to limit the amount you eat. By drinking more water, you’ll reduce your chances of feeling bloated. And if you’re looking for a little treat, why not make yourself a cup of peppermint tea? It’s great for the digestive system and can really help to reduce that bloated feeling.
5. Be mindful of what you eat
When it comes to bloating, there are a few foods you might want to consider reducing or perhaps avoiding altogether. Processed food, or foods that are high in fat, dairy, salt, or sugar can trigger bloating so should be kept to a minimum if possible. And while ingredients such as broccoli, whole-wheat bread, and many varieties of beans can form part of a well-balanced diet, they can also result in a build-up of gas, which may lead to bloating. If possible, keep these foods to a minimum as part of a healthy diet.
Although many women experience some bloating during perimenopause or menopause, it’s important to remember that it’s perfectly natural. If you’re able to put into practice some of the tips we’ve provided above, then you may be able to significantly reduce any bloating you do experience. As your hormone levels begin to even out postmenopause, any bloating you’ve experienced should start to diminish. If you do have any concerns about bloating during menopause, it’s always a good idea to speak with your GP or a healthcare professional.