Traveling with IBS

Look, I know I’m not the only one who’s experienced a change in bowel habits after travel. And I’m not talking about acquiring a traveler’s bug from drinking contaminated water. I’m talking about constipation, diarrhea and bloating that happen – seemingly out of the blue – while abroad.

If you have IBS, you may have experienced a flare in symptoms while traveling. You might not have made the connection yet (you’re welcome), but travel exerts stress on our body that exacerbates the symptoms of IBS. And even if you don’t have IBS, travel probably affects your digestion, too – sometimes in ways you would never expect!

For example, have you ever noticed that you’re constipated in a new country? If so, you probably didn’t think to yourself, “Oh, must not have drank enough water on my flight over” or “It’s probably because of the change in my circadian rhythms.” Most likely, you cursed under your breath and thought something along the lines of “Not again!” or “Not now!” But as frustrating as coping with IBS can be, traveling doesn’t have to feel like a never-ending sh*t storm (literally) of symptoms.

During the year my boyfriend and I spent dating long-distance, I flew almost once a month – not to mention, I went on a 10-day trip to Europe where I ate in five different countries and took seven flights. Both these experiences have taught me a thing or two about maintaining digestive health while traveling – and now, I’m here to impart my wisdom to help you avoid an IBS flare-up on the open road.

Drink Up

Unsurprisingly, travel renders us vulnerable to dehydration. The problem begins mid-air, as the change in altitude experienced during your flight is very drying. Once you land, you might find yourself in a hot climate where you’re sweating out more fluids than you’re taking in. And let’s not even start about the dehydrating powers of all those wine and cocktails you’re about to imbibe by the shore.

To put it simply, you need extra water to make up for the dehydration of travel. Bring an empty water bottle through airport security (or empty it before going through TSA) to fill before you get on board. Take advantage of in-flight refreshments to knock back a big glass of water, rather than a soda or coffee. And maybe, just maybe, consider alternating your mai tais with ice water.

But what about waterborne illness? If traveling in a remote location where waterborne illness is common – for example, rural South America – stick to bottled water to avoid falling victim to traveler’s bugs. Your stomach will thank you, in more ways than one!

Map Your Bathrooms

As silly as it sounds, you never know when the urge to go will strike – and repeatedly “holding it” can build unhealthy habits that lead to further constipation. Thankfully, modern technology makes it easy to plan ahead, without ever leaving your bedroom!

Before you leave, Google what fellow travelers are saying about the bathroom situation at your destination. (My quick and dirty tip? Paris is probably the worst city in the world for finding public restrooms.) You can also download an app like SitOrSquat, which not only locates public restrooms, but also allows users to rate them based on cleanliness.

Also, be aware of cultural differences when it comes to where you “go.” In Europe, public restrooms often cost a few coins to enter. So, even in the airport, make sure you convert some currency instead of relying on a credit card – and always carry spare change wherever you go!

(Don’t Get) Lost in Translation

One of the biggest challenges when traveling with IBS is managing dietary restrictions abroad. Screwed-up restaurant orders and hidden ingredients are always scary for those of us with IBS – but confronting these challenges becomes even more scary when there’s a language barrier involved!

Contrary to what grandparents like mine may say, you don’t need to take a Rosetta Stone course for every country you visit. Instead, use a dictionary (or Google Translate) to convert key phrases, such as “gluten-free” or “vegan,” into the local language.

Another lesson I’ve learned while traveling abroad? In major tourist cities, most workers are more than happy to speak English to you….once you’ve thoroughly butchered their native language. So, you might make an effort to say “hello” and ask if the person you’re speaking with knows English – before explaining your dietary needs to them in a way both of you will understand.

Feel the Rhythm

Jet lag: it happens to the best of us. We know it affects our waking and sleeping patterns, but did you know that crossing time zones could also affect your normal “number two” routine?

Think about it! Your body doesn’t recognize time zones – meaning it won’t be able to tell the difference between a morning poo back home and a midnight poo in a foreign country. So, you awkwardly awake in the middle of the night, which only throws your sleeping schedule off further….and so the cycle of jet lag continues.

As I mentioned previously, it’s important to find a bathroom and do your business whenever you feel the urge – don’t hold it for fear of embarrassment or for the inconvenience of getting out of bed! This habit, when perpetuated over time, only leads to further constipation.

Alternatively, you could also begin to train your bowels to move at a more convenient time of day several weeks before your trip. For example, you could sit down on the toilet and make an effort to go in the evening back home. This time might be closer to morning while abroad – but it still won’t interrupt your much-needed time to catch up on sleep.

Eat Strategically

Okay, here’s the part of the post where I contradict everything I just said: although we all want to avoid flare-ups while traveling, we shouldn’t worry if we experience a little bloating or discomfort abroad. To me at least, it’s much more important to experience the local cuisine than to have a flat tummy while wading in the Mediterranean Sea.

I like to indulge abroad whenever I can – but, of course, not every meal needs to contain trigger foods. Devise a plan before you go that allows you to balance the need for symptom control with the spontaneity of traveling abroad. For example, I like to eat a healthy, IBS-friendly breakfast and lunch, while indulging a little bit more for dinner. This works for me because by the time I’m experiencing symptoms, I’m already back in my hotel room getting ready for bed – and not affecting the rest of my adventures for the day!

You can also pack your own snacks if you’re afraid of finding foods to meet your dietary restrictions. Try a peanut butter chocolate chip GoMacro bar or oat and flax instant oatmeal packets from Trader Joe’s (you can add hot water from your hotel room’s tea kettle – or, in their airport, order a cup of boiling water from Starbucks).

If you’ve got access to a fridge and aren’t subject to TSA restrictions – on a road trip, for example – you can also bring your own lactose-free yogurt and milk to enjoy. That way, when your companions brew a pot of coffee or want to eat breakfast at your hotel, you won’t feel left out by your dietary restrictions.

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