Travel can be stressful for your mind and body. But following these simple tips can help you keep your gut happy and healthy while you’re on the go.
An upset stomach or digestive issues that require spending extra time in the bathroom are surefire ways to bring a fun trip to a screeching halt.
“Travel can be a hectic time. You may not have your normal, healthy diet available. You may be eating out more and eating new foods in new locations, including more processed foods, and it’s easy to overeat in this setting, placing more stress on your digestive system than at home,” Dr. Shilpa Ravella, gastroenterologist at NewYork-Presbyterian and Columbia University Medical Center, told Healthline.
Whether you travel by plane, car, or another mode, Ravella says doing so stresses your body and digestive system.
“All of these factors can leave you more susceptible to GI [gastrointestinal] issues while traveling. You may experience diarrhea (including traveler’s diarrhea), constipation, heartburn, nausea, bloating, [or] gas,” Ravella said.
But nobody wants to take time from a trip to deal with digestive issues. So, to keep your gut healthy while traveling, consider the following expert tips.
Part of the fun of vacationing is eating at new restaurants and trying new foods. However, Ravella says resist the temptation to overeat.
“Overeating stretches the stomach, and research has found that people who overeat are 10 times more likely to need emergency medical attention for food obstruction,” she said.
To keep your bowel movements regular, Colleen Webb, nutritionist and spokesperson for OMG! Nutrition, says eat as much fiber as you would normally eat at home. The best sources of fiber include fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and beans.
“Stick to cooked vegetables and peeled fruits to reduce your risk of foodborne illness,” Webb told Healthline.
Ravella agrees, noting the main reason for constipation while traveling is lack of adequate fiber.
“Minimize your intake of processed foods. Pack healthy snacks to eat, or buy them at local groceries. Try to make sure you’re including as many whole-plant foods (which are rich in fiber) as you can, even if you’re eating out,” Ravella said.
Dehydration is another major cause of constipation, so drinking lots of water while vacationing is a must.
“But find out ahead of time if the water is safe to drink,” Webb said. “Stick to bottled water if there is any question about its safety. And avoid ice cubes in places where the water isn’t safe. Contaminated water will disrupt the gut.”
Overconsumption of drinks that contain a lot of sugar, caffeine, or alcohol can irritate the GI system, especially in people who have sensitive stomachs.
“Coffee and alcohol can speed up digestion, meaning there is less time for the intestines to absorb water, causing water, diarrhea-like stools,” Ravella said.
To give your stomach a rest from restaurant and processed foods, buying fresh food from nearby markets and cooking at your resort or hotel is an option.
“This is a great way to learn another culture, save money, and take a break from dining out,” Webb said.
“Eating at home is almost always better for digestive health than eating out,” Webb adds. “It’s more likely you’ll get food poisoning while traveling compared to eating at home. Not only can food poisoning lead to GI misery in the short term, but it can cause postinfectious irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) that can last a lifetime.”
Traveler’s diarrhea is another common illness that can occur after eating food or drinking water that’s contaminated with bacteria, viruses, or parasites.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that while traveler’s diarrhea “can occur anywhere, the highest-risk destinations are in most of Asia (except for Japan) as well as the Middle East, Africa, Mexico, and Central and South America.”
To help reduce the risk of getting traveler’s diarrhea, the CDC published a food and safety list.
“Follow practices to avoid traveler’s diarrhea… Try to avoid eating street food, stick to bottled water, and make sure your food is cooked,” Ravella said.
While having a bowel movement in a public restroom or shared hotel room is uncomfortable for some people, Webb says don’t ignore your urge to go to the washroom.
“Doing so can cause irregular [bowel movements] and GI discomfort. Ignoring the urge to go can lead to constipation. A few days of constipation can lead to diarrhea when the urge finally strikes,” she said.
Webb says other common food triggers for diarrhea while traveling include spicy and oily foods, which are often used in restaurants.
Before eating, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water to avoid spreading germs and illness. The Mayo Clinic suggests washing your hands in the following way:
- Use warm or cold running water to wet your hands.
- Cup your hands and apply liquid, bar, or powder soap, and lather well.
- Rub your hands, palm to palm, for at least 20 seconds. Scrub all parts of your hand, including the back, between the fingers and under the fingernails.
- Wash your wrists too.
- Use a clean towel to dry your hands.
- Use the towel to turn off the faucet.
Ravella says over-the-counter medications, such as antacids, can help with heartburn. For symptomatic management of mild traveler’s diarrhea, she says having bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol) and loperamide (Imodium) on hand might be a good idea.
“Regarding prescription medications, it’s important to see a healthcare provider first prior to taking antibiotics or other medications for GI symptoms,” Ravella said.
“Always see a healthcare provider if you have more than mild to moderate symptoms or any alarm symptoms, including fevers, bloody diarrhea, or bloody vomiting, severe abdominal pain, [or] intractable GI symptoms,” she said.
And to ensure you’re rested and ready to take on any GI issues, Webb says, “A well-absorbed magnesium bisglycinate chelate supplement can improve jet lag and promote relaxation and sleep while traveling.”
Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who specializes in stories about health, mental health, and human behavior. She has a knack for writing with emotion and connecting with readers in an insightful and engaging way. Read more of her work here.