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Travelling with IBS: tips for taming IBS on the go

My gut grumbled and churned.  Diarrhea in the rental car was imminent.  This was not a drill! 

Whether you’re embarking on a road trip, jetting off to an exotic location, or simply taking a weekend getaway, travelling with IBS can be a pain in the you-know-what.

From unpredictable bathroom breaks to limited food options, it can be tough to tame IBS symptoms on the go. But with a little preparation and some insider know-how, you can navigate your travels with ease and enjoy all the adventures that await you.

So, pack your bags and buckle up because if you follow some of the travel tips below, you’ll be less likely to end up in the situation I did…(expand below for my tale of woe).

(Warning: this blog is all about managing gas, bloating and unruly BMs.  There’s no such thing as TMI around here because – as they say – everybody poops.  And polite society I ain’t.  So if you’re not easily shocked and you’ve come close to sh*tting your pants before, read on…)

I tend to get a bit backed up when I travel.  Away toilet situations, time zones, mild dehydration, low fibre, and the stress of airports generally bring my gut to a halt at the start of my vacations.  I used to pop 1-2 tablets of senokot on day 2 or 3 of vacation and this would be more or less effective at flushing my system.

So that’s precisely what I did 3 days into our Ireland holiday.  As expected, I had an epic BM the following morning, felt 10lbs lighter and was jazzed to hit the road and tour the gorgeous Connemara region.

After a white-knuckle drive on an obscenely narrow and winding highway with almost no shoulder and a 100km/hr speed limit (seriously?), we lunched at a lovely old castle nestled in the countryside, and then enjoyed a post-prandial saunter about the gardens.  Ah, life was good.  But my gut had other plans…

As we drove, my gut slowly began to express its displeasure at the lunch I’d just fed it.  Churn, grumble, repeat.  At the outer edge of an idyllic oceanside village, my eyes widened and I gasped.  My bowels had come knocking and diarrhea was imminent. 

“Oh my god!  Pull over!  I’m going to have diarrhea!”  I shouted.  Startled by my shrill and desperate cry, my husband braked and swerved the car toward the shoulder.

Problem was – the shoulder was about a foot wide and the ditch was in full view of every passing car.  I’d have zero privacy squatting over the bucolic Irish shrubbery.  And this wasn’t gonna be brief.  Plenty of locals would have the opportunity to gawk at the silly tourist be-fowling their beautiful countryside.

“Never mind, let’s drive back into town and find a restaurant.” 

The pressure was mounting.

“No, I can’t wait!  Pull over!”  We swerved again. 

“No, I can’t have diarrhea in public!  Back to the town!  Quickly!”  I held my breath and willed my bowels to hold off.

A minute later (it was a tiny town afterall), we found a hotel with a bartender who was sympathetic to my situation and  off to the washroom I ran.

Gosh, what a nice washroom to spend 20 minutes in: dried flowers on the counter, ceiling to floor walls in the toilet stalls, pretty poupouri scent (which I soon destroyed).  And no one came in the whole time I was in there! 

Phew!  Disaster avoided. 

It turns out I accidentally bought extra-strength senokot and took two tablets the night before my em-urgency.  Oops!   Won’t make that mistake again!

So the lessons here for IBS-C sufferers are two-fold:

1) read your laxative packaging carefully, and

2) before any kind of travel, find yourself a gentle, trusted laxative that helps you out but won’t overwhelm your system.

If you’re a bit confused about how senokot and the lunch I ate interacted to produce my perfect storm, here’s the run down:

After a big meal, your stomach stretches and sends a message to your colon to pass stool.  This is called the gastrocolic reflex and is strongest in the morning for most people (hence the common morning BM).  Senokot is a stimulant laxative, meaning it stimulates contraction of the intestine that propels its contents forward.  With a stimulant in my system, a stomach full of rich restaurant food, and a sensitive gut (thanks IBS), my colon got the message that evacuating was a matter of life or death.   And it almost was!

Highway in Connemara Ireland
Road-tripping through Connemara, Ireland. At least I had a lovely view whilst my bowels misbehaved! (See story above)

Know your symptoms

The best way to prepare for travel and maintain a calmer gut on vacation is to know your symptoms and triggers.

If you’ve never kept a detailed food/lifestyle and symptom journal before, I highly recommend you do it so you can get to the bottom of your symptoms and learn your triggers. This will enable you to manage your symptoms both day-to-day and on vacation.

Eating while travelling with IBS

Food is a persistent challenge when travelling with IBS. One of the most important tips is to know your trigger foods. This will help you make the best food choices for your body, which will in turn minimize digestive distress. 

You may also want to consider going low FODMAP for a week before travelling.  This will clear high FODMAPs out of your system and quiet your symptoms so the first few days of travel are a bit smoother.  

Once you arrive at your destination, hit a local market or grocery store and stock up on IBS-friendly foods you can carry with you or keep in your hotel room.  If you don’t understand the language on the packaging, stick to foods with few ingredients, like fruit, hard cheese, peanuts, plain gluten-free bread and peanut butter.

Drinking enough water is a must for both IBS-C and D. Water keeps stools soft and prevents dehydration in the event of a diarrhea attack.

How to manage your eating while travelling will depend on the degree of dietary restrictions you want…

Tips for enjoying local foods without too many restrictions

  • Savour it. Digestion starts in the mouth so eat slowly, chew well, and remember to enjoy each bite.
  • Keep symptom-suppressing treatments in your purse – eg. enzymes, peppermint oil, Gas-X, pain meds – so you can indulge a little and know that if your symptoms kick up, you have a backup plan.
  • Bring an enzyme that will help you digest the local fare.  For instance, if I were going to Italy I would definitely NOT skip out on the pasta so I’d likely bring some Fodzyme.  Alternatively, you could use FODmate or Intoleran.
  • Eat small portions of foods you might not tolerate.  If you suspect a rich chocolate dessert in Switzerland might trigger some gas or cramping, consider sharing it with a companion. (And if your companion – cough – hungry husband – cough – is a quick eater, cut the dessert in half to make sure you get more than a couple bites!)

Tips for eating when you’re at high risk for a flare-up, or need more restrictions to manage your symptoms

  • Stick to foods you know you tolerate
  • Avoid new foods you’ve never tried before, or at least only take bite size “tastes”.
  • Limit alcohol and coffee.  Since the compound in coffee that stimulates bowel movements is chlorogenic acid rather than caffeine, you may want to limit even decaf coffee.  Opt for tea instead.
  • If coffee is a must for maintaining morning bowel movements, then make sure you can easily access it when you need it.
  • Watch the spicy food.  If you’re travelling in a country with lots of spicy food, know which dishes are mild and stick to those.
  • Research restaurants in advance and check out their online menus to determine if there are foods you can tolerate.
  • Carry a food restriction card in the local language to give to waiters in restaurants.

Flying with IBS

Flying can be easy, convenient and fast, or complicated, arduous and stressful.  I plan for the latter and hope for the former. Here are some tips for making plane travel a bit more bearable when you have IBS.

  • Book an aisle seat close to the restroom. This will make it easier to bolt to the lavatory if you experience a sudden urge to use the toilet.   You don’t want to be stuck in the window seat next to napping neighbours when nature calls.
  • Bring a light and portable carry-on bag so you can move around and stretch without feeling weighed down.  I recently made the mistake of cramming (seemingly) all my earthly possessions in an over-the-shoulder duffle bag. It was torture carrying it around the airport during my 3 hour layover.  Never again.
  • If you’re prone to diarrhea, make sure your carry-on contains worst-case scenario items like a change of clothes and some wet wipes in case you have an accident.  Bring a little plastic bag to wrap up any soiled underwear.
  • If you’re going on a long flight, pack some snacks that won’t upset your stomach. I tend to pack a firm banana, homemade muffin and a little baggy of nuts.  You could also bring rice cakes, low FODMAP granola bars, or gluten-free crackers. Bring a refillable water bottle so you can stay hydrated at the airport and throughout the flight.
  • Stretch and move around during the plane if you can.  Doing some simple stretches or yoga poses in your seat can also help alleviate discomfort.
  • Stay rested. Crossing time zones can wreak havoc on your energy levels and sleep schedule.  Try to be as well-rested as you can before your flight (easier said than done if your flight departs at 6am!).  Also, stick to your usual sleep routine.  So if you land at 8am after a red-eye flight, don’t go to sleep right away.  Have an easy first day and go to bed at roughly the same time as you would at home. This will help your body adjust quicker to the time change and reduce stress on your digestive system.
  • De-stress when on the move. If airports and flying are stressful for you, listen to music you love, listen to guided meditation when you’re seated on the plane waiting for take-off, bury your face in a good book or magazine, get lost in a movie, or play a card game with your travel companion.  Distracting yourself with enjoyable past-times that take your mind off the hub-bub and chaos of the airport and boarding process.

Booking lodging with amenities you’ll need

Maintaining a healthy bowel routine while travelling with IBS may depend in part on your lodging situation.  Here are a few tips:

  • Book lodging with your own private washroom, like a hotel room or an entire Air BnB apartment.  This will ensure you have time and space to do your business without the pressure of a shared toilet situation.  Hostels, bed & breakfasts, and guest houses, where you typically share washrooms, may not be ideal. 
  • If you’re sharing a hotel room with a partner, friend, or relative, have a frank discussion about your toilet access needs. Talk about how you two can share the bathroom.  And be courteous towards your roomie by flushing immediately after each “drop in the bucket” to minimize odour.
  • Create a make-shift squatty potty. If the toilet is high or you’re used to using a squatty potty, propping your feet up on the kleenex box cover or washroom garbage can may work in a pinch.
  • Book a hotel room with a mini-fridge where you can store tolerated foods and snacks like cheese, yogurt, gut-friendly take-out, etc.

Managing your stress

Stress levels can ramp up when travelling with IBS, what with the logistics, schedules and uncertainty involved. Make sure you have a game plan for keeping stress under control – like following some of the tips in this blog. 🙂

Being prepared for logistical hiccups is part of that game plan, so for instance…

  • Give yourself extra time to check-in and go through security at the airport, especially if you’re travelling during high season.   
  • Avoid booking flights with super short layovers where there’s a fair chance you might miss your connection.  Running through Toronto Pearson Airport is a nightmare, trust me.
  • Rent a small car in Europe rather than an SUV so parking will be a breeze. And make sure you have good car insurance. We once blew a tire in rural Scotland and the experience was fairly smooth because we had excellent car insurance.

Other helpful stress-management strategies include:

  • Listen to a session of Nerva’s gut-directed hypnotherapy. (In my experience, it took a month of daily sessions to start feeling less abdominal pain, so get started with this strategy before you travel).
  • Listen to a meditation session on an app like Headspace.
  • Practice diaphragmatic breathing for 5 minutes.
  • Practice mindfulness (you can do this anytime, anywhere. I once heard of someone who practices mindfulness whilst waiting for the bus!).
  • Maintain your exercise routine the best you can, especially if you find it a great stress reliever.
  • Soak in a hot relaxing bath.
  • Take some time for yourself if you need it – read, watch some teli, enjoy a cat nap. It’s OK to slow down on vacation.

Managing bowel emergencies

OK, so you’ve implemented a lot of the tips above and done your best to avoid an IBS attack, but bowel emergencies can still happen.  Here are some ideas for dealing with an urgent situation…

  • Know how to get to a public washroom pronto.  Toilet-finding apps, like Bathroom Scout Pro, can be life-savers if you feel impending doom is upon you.  Keep change handy in case the public toilets are pay per use.  Knowing how to ask where the washroom is located in the local language is only useful if you can understand directions given in said language as well.  Google Translate could help in a pinch.
  • Carry a mini survival kit in your purse for when you’re out and about. Pack tissue, wet wipes, extra undies, and a plastic bag you can later use to wrap up any sullied knickers.  Include supplements or over-the-counter medications than act fairly quickly. Examples include pain medications, Gas-X, and Iberogast (though a bottle of Iberogast is, admittedly, not the easiest thing to carry around but do so if you find it tames your gastrointestinal symptoms promptly).
  • Appeal to the kindness of strangers in a polite and honest manner.  Fearing rejection at the hotel, I approached the barkeep with a pleading expression and a hand on my stomach – hoping he’d get the hint – and then in honey tones I begged, “Excuse me, can I please use your restroom?”  (see story above).

Bottom Line

We travel for fun, so don’t let your gut take over and spoil the party.

Pick a destination you’re excited about. Know your symptoms. Be prepared. Devise an action plan. And keep emergency supplies on hand. Show your gut who’s boss!

Got any tips for managing symptoms while travelling with IBS? Leave them in the comments below! 🙂

xoAndrea, RD, MHSc, Monash FODMAP trained

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