Not all differences between men and women are superficial. In fact, they go much deeper. For reasons both anatomical (your physical makeup) and endocrinological (your hormones), women’s digestive systems function quite differently from men’s.
“There are two main differences between the male and female gastrointestinal tracts,” explains Shakti Singh, M.D., a gastroenterologist and hepatologist at Sutter Gould Medical Foundation in Modesto. “One involves the fact that women have a uterus and ovaries and the colon has to go around them, hypothetically making the colon’s route more convoluted. The second difference is that women’s hormones also affect the way the GI tract functions.”
One consequence of these differences is that women are more sensitive to irritants in the esophagus, small intestine, colon (large intestine) and rectum. This can make women experience heartburn more strongly than men. They also are six times more likely than men to have irritable bowel syndrome, a disorder that causes cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea and constipation.
Women may also be more sensitive to medications. “Aspirin and aspirin-like compounds known as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can increase a woman’s risk of developing stomach ulcers, gastritis (inflammation of the stomach) and bleeding from the stomach, so a woman should work with her doctor to create a plan to protect her stomach if she takes NSAIDs,” Dr. Singh says.
Because of differences in enzyme systems in women’s liver and small intestines, certain medications may affect a woman more or less strongly than a man. The American College of Gastroenterology recommends women check with their doctors to see if any medication prescribed has been shown to have that tendency. The doctor may want to adjust dosages accordingly.
Finally, a woman’s digestive organs empty themselves more slowly than a man’s. This can increase the chances of nausea, bloating, gallstones and constipation. As hormones shift during pregnancy or menopause, these conditions become even more common.
Nevertheless, not all differences in women’s digestive process are negative. Women have the advantage of more sensitive bitter and sweet tastebuds. This makes them quicker and more accurate at identifying flavors, a chef’s dream.
Women also have stronger muscles in the esophagus that prevent the backflow of food and stomach acid. Although this can increase the sensation of having a “lump in your throat,” these strong muscles may also increase a woman’s protection against esophageal damage caused by heartburn and acid reflux.