Traveling With Gut Issues - What Helps?
By: Joanna Foley
Traveling can be fun and exciting, but for many people, it can also lead to gastrointestinal upset. If you’re someone who already has gut issues, the idea of traveling may bring about a mixture of anxiety and joy. There are a few reasons why travel can upset your digestive system, but the good news is there are many things you can do to help treat or prevent gut issues from getting in the way of an enjoyable trip.
Why does travel cause digestive upset?
Whether you’re traveling for work or pleasure, by car, train, boat, or plane; traveling causes changes to how your body’s digestive system works. This can trigger the symptoms of gut issues including nausea, bloating, cramping, gas, reflux, indigestion, diarrhea and/or constipation.
Some reasons why traveling can cause gut issues include:
- It’s a form of stress on your body. This is true even if it’s for leisure purposes like a vacation. Stress can cause the digestive system to slow down or be temporarily disrupted which often causing negative digestive symptoms. If you’re someone who tends to become anxious or fearful about traveling, the stress may be increased, potentially making things worse.
- Different routines. Travel often leads to changes in your eating and sleeping patterns, either due to a change in time zones or busy schedules. These changes also affect digestion.
- Eating & drinking different things. You probably don’t eat the same diet while traveling as you do at home. You may be eating less fiber from plant foods and are also more likely to become dehydrated. Both can impact your bowel function and other aspects of digestion. Eating food your body is not used to may also cause an upset stomach or other symptoms of gut issues.
Tips for keeping your gut on track while traveling
- Be prepared - If you’re someone who experiences gut issues even when not traveling, you should continue practicing whatever regimen you do at home. Being prepared also means anticipating potential struggles and staying (relatively) healthy, drink a lot of water, bring high fiber snacks, and any necessary medicines like antacids, antidiarrheals probiotics and/or stool softeners to use as needed.
- Stay active - Exercise can help alleviate digestive upsets like bloating and constipation by keeping your digestive system moving. Try to prioritize standing, walking, and stretching breaks and take advantage of both indoor and outdoor activities that are available wherever you are. Remember to always listen to your body and do not exercise if experiencing diarrhea, nausea, or other ailments that may interfere with your ability to do so.
- Watch your diet - If there are specific foods you know you are sensitive to, do your best to continue to avoid them while traveling. If constipation is an issue for you while traveling, try increasing your fiber intake by incorporating plenty of plant foods like fresh produce, whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds into your diet to help keep bowel movements regular. Increasing fiber should only be done while also drinking plenty of water, otherwise constipation may become worse. However, if you’re experiencing diarrhea, you may need to temporarily limit fiber intake.
In addition, it’s best to avoid raw or undercooked foods or those that may have been exposed to harmful bacteria (such as those from street vendors), since these have a greater potential of causing stomach troubles. Bottled and filtered water are also much safer to consume than tap water, especially when traveling abroad.
- Increase your fluid intake - Staying hydrated supports proper digestion and helps prevent constipation. Your fluid intake should primarily come from filtered water and other unsweetened beverages. Sugary beverages, alcohol, and caffeine should be limited while traveling as they can all stimulate and irritate the GI tract.
- Consider herbal remedies - Ginger and peppermint are soothing to the GI tract and can help ease stomach troubles including nausea and symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. You can reap the benefits of these remedies in the form of teas, lozenges, or cooking recipes; just be sure to choose 100% natural sources.
- Focus on probiotics - Probiotics are live beneficial bacteria that help balance out the bacteria in your gut to keep your digestive tract functioning properly. They can be found in foods like yogurt and kefir with live and active cultures, kombucha, and fermented vegetables like miso, sauerkraut and kimchi, as well as in supplement form. While eating foods rich in probiotics can help, supplements might be better since they provide a larger quantity of probiotics in a concentrated amount, and therefore provide greater therapeutic effects for digestive troubles. When choosing probiotic supplements, look for high quality brands that offer variety of bacteria strains to get the most benefit.
- Relax* - Any sort of trip can have its stressors, and as mentioned, stress can irritate your gut. There is a strong connection between the gut and brain, known as the gut-brain axis. Mental and emotional stress can change the way your body digests food and fluids which can contribute to gut issues. Therefore, prioritize stress management activities like mindfulness, sleep, setting boundaries, and doing things you enjoy to help keep yourself at ease.
- Avoid overeating - Indulgences are expected and it’s okay to enjoy them on vacations and other trips, but you’ll want to avoid overdoing it. Eating too much can cause digestive upset, even for people who don’t have gut issues. Try paying extra close attention to your hunger and fullness cues and indulge mindfully.
- Don’t avoid the restroom - Ignoring the urge to go can make matters worse. Plan for bathroom breaks and try to give yourself time to relax; make yourself as comfortable as possible.
Just because travel may make you more likely to experience gut issues doesn’t mean that you’re doomed to experience them. No matter what method you will be traveling by, it’s important to give extra care and attention to your gut to help ease any unwanted symptoms.
Understand what may be causing your unique triggers for GI upset and take action to help prevent and/or manage them so you can enjoy your travels worry-free.
Joanna Foley, RD, is a registered dietitian, freelance writer and author, and owner of joannafoleynutrition.com. She enjoys teaching others about how food impacts their bodies and helping them learn how to use food for what it is meant to be: something to enjoy, nourish and heal us.