Traveling with IBS can be unpleasant, to say the least.
Rachel Pauls, a female pelvic medicine specialist based in Cincinnati, has struggled traveling with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) more times than she can count.
At one business dinner, she just moved food around on her plate because she knew the meal would trigger her IBS symptoms.
On another trip to an all-inclusive resort with her family, she ate only scrambled eggs and turkey for a week to keep her symptoms at bay.
“An IBS flare-up can quickly ruin a vacation or business trip,” she says.
The urge to run to the bathroom during an important meeting can feel awkward. And the need to be cautious when trying new foods at dinner with family can feel like a burden.
“There is no question that some IBS symptoms can get aggravated during travel,” says Ashkan Farhadi, MD, a gastroenterologist at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center. “But some of those things can be preemptively dealt with.”
Here are some simple strategies to keep in mind the next time you’re traveling with IBS.
1. Skip the local delicacies
People with IBS are prone to having bad reactions to new foods, Farhadi says. For this reason, he recommends a cautious diet when traveling.
“Rather than going everywhere unknown and testing a lot of new foods, you should be a little bit more conservative with your diet, and try things that are more known to you and your gut,” he says.
Pauls has learned to manage her IBS when traveling by planning ahead. She always calls hotels beforehand to ask for a mini fridge in her room to store her perishable food.
She brings a handful of snacks she knows are safe everywhere she goes — especially in her carry-on for the plane ride.
And if she eats out at a restaurant, she makes sure to check the menu online beforehand to find IBS-friendly items.
Try bringing snacks (such as crackers) that you know won’t irritate your stomach while traveling.
2. If you’re constipation-prone, prep with stool softeners
People with IBS who travel long distances can be more susceptible to constipation for many reasons. It might be the lack of access to a bathroom or a very busy schedule.
In those cases, Farhadi recommends preemptive action: “You should be using stool softeners or something [before travel] to help prevent constipation.”
3. If you’re diarrhea-prone, reduce stress before flying
Many people with IBS feel stressed out once they board a plane for fear they won’t have access to a bathroom. Farhadi says that anxiolytics or other medications can calm people who have anxiety during travel.
If you prefer not to take medication, consider downloading a meditation app or calming playlist for the plane ride.
Selecting an aisle seat can also prevent the inevitable anxiety that accompanies asking your neighbor to get up several times throughout the flight so you can access a restroom.
4. Begin taking a probiotic a few days before travel
One challenge facing all travelers — but especially people with IBS — is food poisoning.
“Exposure to food poisoning can result in a flare-up of the IBS,” Farhadi notes, leading to unpleasant side effects including traveler’s diarrhea. One measure that can help prevent the diarrhea is taking a probiotic.
“Even if you aren’t a religious user of probiotics while at home, you should definitely consider taking one a few days before you go and while you’re there to prevent the chances of traveler’s diarrhea — and also to calm your irritable bowel syndrome,” Farhadi says.
5. Keep up your healthy habits
IBS can be exacerbated by stress and a change of routine. If you exercise regularly at home, try to keep this routine in place when you’re on the road.
For Pauls, exercise is a must.
“Exercise helps me avoid IBS flare-ups, so I make sure there is a fitness room that is open early enough for me to work out,” Pauls says.
The same strategy applies to sleep. To keep stress low, attempt to get a similar amount of sleep as you do at home.
6. Learn the local tongue
Having IBS often means needing to ask where the bathroom is, or if certain dishes have ingredients that are a no-go for you.
If you’re traveling somewhere you don’t speak the local language, consider looking up how to say certain things beforehand.
Knowing how to say “bathroom” and ask simple food-related questions can help lower some of the stress associated with traveling with IBS.
Your IBS Travel Checklist
- Bring snacks you know are safe.
- Get an aisle seat if flying.
- Try a stress-reducing meditation app in transit.
- Take a pre-travel probiotic.
- Prioritize your usual sleep and exercise routine.
- Learn key bathroom and food phrases in your destination’s language.
7. Be flexible with your IBS traveling strategy
Most importantly, remember that IBS affects each person differently. Even for one person, different travel situations can provoke different symptoms.
“If you’re traveling for business or a meeting and it’s stressful, you might not even be able to drink your coffee because it’s very disturbing for your gut,” Farhadi says. “But if this is for vacation, you might even be able to have spicy food or something you aren’t able to eat at other times.”
Every IBS experience can vary, so approach each trip prepared and with a flexible mindset. With luck, it’ll lead to a trip free of flares — and full of fun!
Jamie Friedlander is a freelance writer and editor with a particular interest in health-related content. Her work has appeared in New York Magazine’s The Cut, the Chicago Tribune, Racked, Business Insider, and SUCCESS Magazine. She received her bachelor’s degree from NYU and her master’s degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. When she’s not writing, she can usually be found traveling, drinking copious amounts of green tea, or surfing Etsy. You can see more samples of her work at www.jamiegfriedlander.com and follow her on social media.