How to Prevent and Treat Travel Constipation, According to Gut Experts
These simple steps can help you avoid tummy trauma during your vacay.
Ever found it difficult to "go" when you're on the go? Nothing can mess up a beautiful, adventurous vacation like blocked bowels. Whether you're taking advantage of the never-ending buffet at the resort or trying new foods in an exotic land, experiencing tummy troubles can certainly put a cramp (literally) in anyone's style.
Full disclosure: I'm about to get real with you. Last summer, I took a 10-day trip to Thailand during which I maaybe had 3 or 4-ish, err, movements (which, since I'm being honest and all, were super uncomfortable and forced). While that may not seem like a big deal to some, my intestines and I were absolutely at odds, leaving me with a semi-permanent food baby in my (bloated) belly that caused a lot of discomfort.
So, about a week into my getaway, I took a laxative only to...have zero results. While we were feeding elephants, exploring temples, and taking pictures for IG, I was silently praying that some greater power would place a healing hand on my stomach — and do away with my number two blues. My body was yelling "I hate it here," and quite frankly, I was ready to get home so I could hopefully put an end to my digestive drama. (See also: How to Deal with Stomach Pain and Gas—Because You Know That Uncomfortable Feeling)
The good news? My vacation or travel constipation did, in fact, come to an end once I was back in my very own bathroom, and I chalked the whole thing up to the fact that I have IBS-C (irritable bowel syndrome with constipation). If I typically have problems pooping on the regular, of course, I'd have even more trouble in an unfamiliar, faraway land. Right? Right. Except that you don't have to have a history of digestive distress to experience travel constipation (or quarantine constipation, FWIW). Rather, anyone and everyone can become backed up when traveling.
"Vacation constipation is a normal and common occurrence," says Elena Ivanina, D.O., M.P.H., a board-certified New York City-based gastroenterologist and creator of GutLove.com. "We are creatures of habit and so are our guts!"
Causes of Travel Constipation
When it comes to the battle of the bowels, infrequent stools are the number one symptom many people experience while traveling, according to Fola May, M.D., Ph.D., a board-certified gastroenterologist and assistant professor of medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles. "If you're a person who has one bowel movement a day, you might go down to one bowel movement every three days," she says. "Some people will also experience bloating, abdominal pain, discomfort, loss of appetite, and lots of straining when using the bathroom."
Travel constipation typically stems from two things: stress and changes in your everyday schedule. Experiencing a disruption in your daily routine — and, thus, your diet and sleep schedule as well as the anxiety that tends to come with traveling — can cause a host of gastrointestinal issues. "When you're traveling, you're likely to feel stressed and eat whatever is on the go," says Kumkum Patel, M.D., M.P.H, a board-certified gastroenterologist based in Chicago. "This can lead to a hormonal and gut bacteria imbalance, which can certainly slow down your bowels." (Related: The Surprising Way Your Brain and Gut Are Connected)
Here are some specific causes that may be to blame for your travel constipation:
Mode of Transportation
ICYDK, airlines pressurize the air in the cabin to keep those flying aboard safe at varying altitudes. While you can continue to breathe normally during this change in pressure, your belly may not experience such smooth sailing with this shift, as it can cause your stomach and intestines to expand and leave you bloated, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Holding "It" In and Moving Less
On top of that, pooping on an airplane isn't exactly the most appealing scenario (think: cramped, public restroom hundreds of feet above ground), so you’re also less likely to go number two while flying and more likely to remain sitting — and the same goes for other forms as travel as well, i.e. train, car, bus. Holding in your poop and moving less can lead to backed-up bowels. (And if you’re worried about vacation constipation, you might not want to fast while flying.)
Changes In Routine, Sleep Schedule, and Diet
Whether in the Caribbean or your casa, constipation is constipation — essentially when poop moves too slowly through your GI system. In an effort to speed that stubborn stool along, your body withdraws water from the large intestine, but when you’re low on fiber and dehydrated (aka too little water available to help push your poo), the stool becomes dry, hard, and difficult to move through the colon, according to the American College of Gastroenterology (ACG).
But one of the major perks of going on vacation is being able to break free of your normal schedule and habits. Just as there's no need to set an alarm for the crack of dawn (praise!), and there are abundant opportunities to experience new foods you may not eat on a regular basis. But when you forgo your spinach salads and lemon water, packed with nutrients and H2O, for poolside burgers and daiquiris, you're more likely to become backed up.
Speaking of diet, experimenting with new cuisines can also aggravate the GI system, says Dr. May. "People who travel to new countries and aren't quite used to the food or how it's prepared may end up with an infection or some other sort of microbiome abnormality that can cause them to have hardened stools." (Sound familiar? You're not alone — just take it from Amy Schumer, who's asked Oprah for constipation advice.)
As for all that sleeping in you’re so excited about? Well, uprooting your regular routine and sleep schedule can throw off your body’s internal clock or circadian rhythm, which tells when to eat, pee, poo, etc. So, it’s not shocking to learn that disruptions in your circadian rhythm (even if just caused by jet lag or a new time zone) have been linked to GI conditions including IBS and constipation, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Amped Up Anxiety and Stress
While, yes, what you consume can affect your gut, your emotions can also cause all that vacation constipation. Traveling can often lead to feeling mentally drained and overwhelmed. Grappling with different time zones, unfamiliar territory, long waits at the airport can all attribute to stress and anxiety — both of which can impact how the enteric nervous system (part of the nervous system that controls GI stuff) functions. A quick refresher: The brain (part of the central nervous system) and the gut are in constant communication. Your stomach can send signals to the brain, causing an emotional shift, and your brain can send signals to your stomach, causing a symphony of GI symptoms including, but not limited to, cramps, gas, diarrhea, and, yup, constipation. (Related: How Your Emotions Are Messing with Your Gut)
"Some even call [the gut] the 'second brain,'" says Jillian Griffith, R.D., M.S.P.H., a registered dietitian based in Washington, D.C. "There are many neurons in your gut that regulate digestive processes like swallowing, breaking down foods, and helping your brain decide which foods are nutrient-dense and which foods are waste. When you're feeling worried or anxious, stress tends to impede all of the mechanisms in your gut."
Say you're sitting in the airport and the gate agent just announced that your flight is delayed. Or maybe you’re on your first romantic bae-cation and a little hesitant to stink up the hotel room. Either way, both situations will likely stir up some worries, i.e. making connecting flights or timing your bathrooms breaks around your travel mate. Meanwhile, your brain tells your gut that something stressful or "unsafe" is happening, causing your gut to gear up for whatever is about to come. Think of it as fight or flight, says Griffith. And this can negatively impact an array of typical gut functions, such as motility — how fast or slow food moves through the GI tract — which can then lead to diarrhea or constipation, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). (Related: Surprising Things That Are Secretly Destroying Your Digestion)
How to Prevent Travel Constipation
Griffith suggests that preparedness and planning ahead are two helpful hacks in preventing travel constipation. "When you're on the go, you can't always control the things you will have access to," she says. "But we can bring healthy items with us, such as fiber snacks, oatmeal packets, and chia seeds — quick things you can throw in your purse or backpack." (See also: The Ultimate Travel Snack You Can Literally Take Anywhere)
Griffith says its equally as important to enter into a vacation with a good gut environment or microbiome, which includes staying hydrated, ramping up probiotics and prebiotics, and maintaining a balanced diet that includes fruit, vegetables, and whole grains.
Once your bags are packed and its go-time, "try to recreate as much of your normal routine as you can to keep bowels regular," advises Dr. Patel. "And make sure that you get plenty of rest too. This will help to keep the stress down so that your cortisol levels and sympathetic nervous system [the 'fight or flight' response] are not just on overdrive."
When you're on the move, be it mid-walking tour or rushing to your gate, it's easy to hold in your pee or poo, but please don't. If you feel the need to use the restroom, listen to your body. "Don't ignore the urge to go or it may pass and not come back soon!" adds Dr. Ivanina.
How to Treat Vacation Constipation
While it's important to enjoy your time off and all the delicious food that comes along with it, Dr. May cautions against deviating entirely from your usual diet. "One of the things we're very bad about doing when we travel is drinking water," she says. "Try to drink as much water as you can on a daily basis and focus on upping your fiber intake." (Remember that both H2O and fiber are essential for keeping your system running smoothly.)
In more severe cases of constipation, Dr. May suggests using a simple over-the-counter medication. "My favorite medication is Miralax — a very smooth and gentle laxative," she says. "I tell my patients to take a small capful or one dose of this a day. It's not going to give you explosive diarrhea, but it will give you very regular bowel movements." Pro tip: store some Miralax packets (Buy It, $13, target.com) in your suitcase to whip out if or when your system is acting sluggish.
Working out is another optimal way to get your bowels back on track while traveling. "A body that's in motion tends to stay in motion," says Dr. Patel. Incorporating a light walk around the hotel or slipping into a few of your favorite yoga poses can help relieve constipation and gas. A simple 20 to 30-minute exercise every day can help get things moving — an easy feat when you're exploring a new town or strolling along the beach! (Up next: What to Know About Air Travel During the Coronavirus Pandemic)