Whether you have IBS or just a case of nervous belly while traveling, you know that tummy troubles can really put a damper on your trip. I was diagnosed with IBS in 2020 as a result of several back-to-back really stressful life events in the midst of the pandemic.
Here, I’ll share my personal insights and professional expertise on how to navigate traveling without compromising digestive health. Whether you’re a fellow IBS sufferer or simply seeking tips for better digestion while traveling, I’ve got you covered with practical advice and easy-to-implement solutions.
How the gut-brain connection affects digestion
IBS is commonly referred to as a disorder of the gut-brain axis as it is often influenced by stress levels and nervous system regulation—and what can be more dysregulating than travel? Your environment, schedule, eating patterns, and stress levels are all out of the norm, and many people experience tummy issues on the road.
When we are excited or nervous—think: butterflies—the vagus nerve, which travels from the brain to the stomach and our intestines, sends a signal that moves directly from our brain along our nervous system and lands in our gut. This is how the gut-brain connection is wired and why it can create symptoms of IBS while traveling (diarrhea, constipation, or a mix of the two), especially.
A common misconception is that you must feel stressed to experience symptoms of IBS or changes and bowel movements on the road. In fact, many people (including myself!) do not feel classic signs of stress like heart racing or anxiety during trips, but wonky digestion is one way that the body manifests these signs of stress.
Remember, you don’t have to feel stressed to be stressed and this is likely true while traveling if you experience tummy troubles.
The first key to managing IBS while traveling is keeping your body hydrated
Sometimes keeping it simple can go a long way, and traveling can make us quite dehydrated. In addition to drinking plenty of water, be conscious of how much caffeine, energy drinks, and alcohol you consume, as these can be dehydrating, and the caffeine can be stimulating for your bowels.
As a general rule of thumb, drinking at least 64 ounces of water is a good recommendation for most people, and you may need even more on heavy travel days. Particularly if you’re flying, changing altitude, or in the heat for any long period of time. Electrolytes can also be incredibly helpful in keeping you hydrated, replacing nutrients lost while sweating, and keeping digestion regular while traveling.
Consume plenty of fiber, fruits, and veggies
If water is the component that keeps our digestion moving, fiber is the gel holding it all together. Fiber—weather from whole grains, fruits, veggies, nuts, and seeds—helps keep you regular, and if you struggle with constipation or diarrhea while traveling, fiber could be helpful for you.
Fiber takes a long time to digest and also acts as the prebiotic “food” for our microbiome’s good gut bugs to eat. The healthy gut bacteria munch on fiber over the course of hours or days and contribute to healthy bowel movements. In addition to that, fiber helps keep us full longer and may contribute to feeling more satisfied, which could be especially helpful on high-energy travel days.
Choose whole grains when you can, add fruit as a side when ordering out, and pack some nuts in your travel bag to emphasize fiber for better digestion when you’re traveling.
Aim for small, frequent meals and be mindful of their timing
When you’re traveling, it can be too easy to skip meals or eat at new meal times. Sometimes this is unavoidable, but when you can help it, try to stick to a regular eating schedule. Going long periods of time without food can contribute to irregular digestive patterns and may cause you to overeat later if you get too hungry, both having a downstream effect on your digestion
Personally, I love to bring travel snacks in my bag so that I’m never stranded in an airport and hungry, and I aim to eat a meal or snack every four to five hours. Avoid overloading your digestive tract with large meals, and focus on eating a meal or a snack about every few hours while on the road.
Don’t fear medication, but do be wary of gut supplements
If you are traveling and have particular circumstances that would make it hard to get away to a bathroom, or you just want peace of mind, don’t fear medication when you really need it. Of course, talk to your doctor and make a decision together that is right for you. There are over-the-counter meds like laxatives, Imodium, antacids, and solutions for gas, bloating, and pain.
Medications are quite different from gut-health supplements, however. There are a million health gurus online who want to give you their opinion on these. If someone is selling you a product, supplement, or shake, I would be extremely wary of the health claims that they are making specifically when it comes to gut health. Many of these products can do more damage than they’re worth or at the very least don’t help.
Talk with a trusted health professional before taking something new, and remember that it’s totally fine to lean on medication when you need it the most.