Do you ever suffer from an upset stomach or diarrhea when you’re traveling? Stomach problems affect many people, and can leave you feeling uncomfortable and out of sorts on vacation away from home. But don’t worry – there are ways to improve your digestive function and avoid those unpleasant symptoms! In this blog post, we’ll look at why many people experience digestive discomfort while traveling and provide some helpful tips for avoiding an upset stomach or diarrhea when you’re away. We’ll also provide advice about getting further help from a functional medicine doctor if needed.
Learn more about the functional medicine approach to optimal digestion health here.
What causes gut problems when traveling
Your stomach can become upset for several different reasons, like stress, a change in diet, or exposure to a bacteria or virus. Common causes of digestive upset while on holiday include:
Overindulging – Traveling typically also involves eating differently than you do at home. This might mean fast food, more eating out, sugary snack foods, or eating fatty foods. All this can disrupt the gut microbiome or increase inflammation which leads to bloating, abdominal pain, constipation, or diarrhea.
Traveling is stressful – Whether it’s jet lag, long car or airplane rides, or simply just a complete change in routine, your body can see these changes as stressful. And all types of stress (both good and bad) can cause a change in bathroom habits and digestive function (1).
You contracted ‘traveler’s diarrhea’ – Common with travel to foreign countries, this illness is caused by consuming bacteria or parasites from contaminated water or foods, and can leave you with symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea (2).
You’re already prone to digestive troubles – For patients with Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis, simply traveling to high-altitude destinations is associated with symptom flare-up (3).
Other possible causes include food passing through the gut too quickly or too slowly, over-sensitive nerves in the gut or immune system, or a disruption in intestinal flora.
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Tips to avoid digestive problems while traveling
The following recommendations can help you avoid symptoms of digestive discomfort while you travel.
Include vegetables & fruits at meals and with snacks
Fruits and vegetables are naturally higher in fiber, and eating food with fiber helps prevent uncomfortable symptoms by (4):
- Supporting a healthy microbiome
- Promoting stool regularity
- Stimulating digestive movement
Eating a balanced diet is a great way to promote regularity and digestive comfort while traveling. Prioritize whole foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, and lean proteins.
The naturally occurring fiber may reduce abdominal pain, bloating, and altered bowel habits in people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) (4).
When eating fiber-rich foods, make sure to drink plenty of water, and increase your fiber intake slowly if you haven’t been eating many of these foods prior to travel.
Water is key for good digestion, but busy travel often throws off normal hydration habits. The best way to stay hydrated is to keep water with you and sip throughout the day.
Caffeinated beverages like coffee, tea, and soda can actually contribute to dehydration by further increasing urine output. So limit your caffeine intake and try to drink plenty of water if you want optimal digestive health on your travels.
Staying hydrated is also important for regular bowel movements (both frequency and consistency) and it can reduce constipation.
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Get enough sleep
Not getting enough sleep can make it harder for your digestive system to function properly. So try to get an adequate amount of rest each night while traveling and this actually promotes regular bowel movements. This means avoiding late-night activities if possible, and getting at least seven hours of sleep a night so that your body has time to repair and recover.
Eat smaller meals
While on vacation, it can be tempting to overeat, especially if you’re in a destination with delicious local foods. However, overeating is a trigger for heartburn and indigestion. To avoid these symptoms, try to stop eating before you’re uncomfortably full.
You can avoid overeating during your trip by:
- Making sure you eat balanced meals with fiber & protein
- Sipping water throughout the day
- Chewing thoroughly and not hurrying through meals
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Taking a probiotic supplement or eating yogurt with live cultures can help support your gut health while you travel (5). The beneficial bacteria in probiotics can help you digest food more efficiently and reduce the risk of digestive issues.
Certain strains are more effective than others in protecting your gut during travel. Saccharomyces boulardii and L. rhamnosus GG are two types of probiotics that have been clinically shown to reduce symptoms associated with traveler’s diarrhea (5).
Don’t let stress build up
Making time for relaxation and stress management is key for overall digestive health. In fact, chronic stress is one of the leading risk factors for the development of digestive diseases like IBS and Crohn’s (6).
Some people experience digestive upset as a result of stress more than others. Evidence suggests this is due to overly sensitive nerves in the gut, altering the microbiome and causing possible immune changes (7).
Symptoms of a stressed out gut include:
- Abdominal pain
- Poor absorption of nutrients
- Constipation or diarrhea
If you already have a chronic digestive disorder, have a game plan in advance for how to deal with stress to minimize a flare in symptoms. This might include avoiding trigger foods, adding extra time for travel, deep breathing, or other activities.
3. Stay Active
Your gut responds to movement. It’s active when you’re active, and less when you’re not. Regular physical activity stimulates peristalsis, or the muscle contractions that move food through your digestive system.
Staying active is a great way to minimize the chance of constipation by keeping the contents of your digestive tract moving along.
Avoid contaminated water & food
Traveler’s diarrhea is usually only a concern when visiting foreign countries, and it’s caused by contaminated drinking water or eating contaminated foods. Avoiding street food, raw fruits and vegetables, and unpasteurized dairy products can reduce your risk of getting sick.
If you’re traveling somewhere where the water isn’t safe to drink, use bottled water for brushing your teeth as well as cooking and cleaning dishes.
Also, always wash your hands with soap and water before eating, after using the restroom, and any time you touch animals or their waste. Hand sanitizer should also be used if you don’t have access to running water and soap.
Worried about stomach problems while traveling?
Any kind of uncomfortable digestive symptoms are a pain to deal with, especially when away from home. Travel makes many people more likely to experience changes in bathroom habits, bloating, or indigestion as a result of changes to your routine, diet, and stress.
You can lower your risk of digestive symptoms when traveling by:
- Staying hydrated
- Eating a balanced diet with plenty of fiber
- Having a plan to manage stress
- Getting regular physical activity
- Avoiding problem foods like fried foods, alcohol, or contaminated food & drinking water
Seek help from a functional medicine doctor
If you’re still having digestive issues, it might be time to seek help from a Functional Medicine doctor. Some symptoms could have an underlying cause, such as IBS or another digestive disorder.
Contact a patient care coordinator to get started—virtual appointments are available!
If you have persistent digestive problems while traveling or when you return home, a functional medicine doctor can look at your symptoms and suggest treatments that will help get your gut back on track.