Like most people (myself included), you may have experienced embarrassing travel-related tummy troubles. In fact, almost everyone I know has had one of those cringe-worthy “waste management” stories where they couldn’t get to a bathroom fast enough. For many, those need-bathroom-now moments occur when traveling, and often when some 35,000 feet in the air, stuck in a middle seat, far, far away from the lavatory that has an endless line. Yes…I’ve been there, done that.
There’s a lot of published research that shows how travel can disrupt your bowel habits. “Your GI tract has as many neurons as your entire spinal cord and acts almost as your body’s ‘second brain,’ explains Michael Gerson, M.D., Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. “With the direct two-way communication between your gut and brain, if you’re stress about flying or traveling in general, you’re going to feel the effects in your stomach,” he adds. These unwelcome effects may include gas, bloating, diarrhea or constipation. These symptoms are particularly bad for up to 25 percent of the population who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), dyspepsia and other functional GI disorders, he adds.
Whether you have stress-induced symptoms or experience a more sensitive stomach when traveling, here are three smart strategies to keep your GI tract on track so you can minimize your bathroom breaks when traveling.
Relax When Flying
If your “fear of flying” stems from too many previous close calls, you’re not alone. Flying poses the most problems for people with travel-related digestive issues because the stress associated with flying can trigger a “nervous gut,” explains registered dietitian Kate Scarlata, a Gut Health expert and author of The Low FODMAP Diet Step by Step. What’s more, studies show that the more you worry, the worse your symptoms may be. Scarlata suggests reducing FODMAPs (the types of poorly digested fibers and sugars) a day before the flight and when traveling as well as the following tips:
- Eat foods that you are comfortable and familiar with and limit foods high in hard-to-digest FODMAPs like onions, garlic, apples and fermented foods the day before and during your trip;
- Pack portable low FODMAP snacks to enjoy en route like Rachel Pauls Food Happy Bars and Happy Jerky, Fody Foods Trail Mix, popcorn, an orange or grapes, rice crackers and string cheese.
- Throw in a few gut-soothing natural remedies like coated peppermint tablets or ginger tea.
- Try relaxation breathing techniques an Apps like Belly Biofeedback or Breathe2Relax.
Follow the 25% Rule
Any significant changes to when and how much you eat and drink can trigger GI symptoms, including gas, bloating diarrhea and constipation. Splurging when traveling can have disastrous consequences. A good rule of thumb is to try to eat about 25 percent less than you normally do when traveling and drink 25 percent more water. The water will help you stay regular and cutting back on how much you eat can reduce the likelihood that you’ll experience upper or lower GI symptoms. What’s more, many people aren’t getting as much exercise when flying or traveling by car, so you simply don’t need as many calories on your travel days as you do when you’re more active.
Curb Caffeine and Put the Brakes on Booze
Caffeine stimulates the GI tract, so if you suffer from diarrhea when traveling, it’s a good idea to cut back or eliminate caffeine as part of your “road game” to manage your GI tract. And, if you like to kick back with adult beverages when traveling, they can also trigger diarrhea, gas and bloating because alcohol irritates and causes inflammation in the GI tract that can keep you in bathrooms — not at the beach. Studies show that when people drank six or more alcoholic drinks per week, they were more likely to suffer from GI symptoms.
If you’re traveling out of the country where the food and beverages have different bacteria than what you’re used to, that can trigger traveler’s diarrhea, notes Gershon. It’s one of the ways that your GI tract gets accustomed to the changes to the natural bacteria present in different parts of the world. To help keep symptoms at bay, practice good hygiene by washing your hands thoroughly with soap and water before handling food, skip tap water, focus on eating more cooked foods rather than perishables and always ask locals for recommendations for where to eat. You can eat yogurt or take a probiotic daily and pack an OTC anti-diarrheal medication, just in case.