IBS Travel Tips
Traveling can be fun, but stressful. But for those of us with IBS, it can also bring on dreaded flares and even ruin our plans for fun or work while on the road. I have honestly scaled way back on traveling in great part due to my health complications, including (but not limited to) IBS. But when I do hit the road, I have some guidelines I have created for myself after years of trial and error that at least seem to greatly minimize – if not altogether eradicate – my symptoms. I would like to share them with you:
Make sure to have a travel-friendly probiotic and supplemental fiber on-hand
Many probiotics need to be refrigerated. However, there are some ones that do not and are still high quality and come in travel packs for the road (I am particularly fond of Jarrow). Sometimes I also will take a couple of probiotics a day as opposed to one to compensate for the extra stress on my digestive system. As for fiber, I usually take a travel-size bottle with my fiber powder, but if by some chance I forget it at home, Benefiber sells these travel “sticks” of fiber that can be added to any liquid. These are definite musts when I am traveling to keep my GI system in check.
Avoid traveling right before or during menstruation
Of course, this isn’t always possible (or applicable to everyone with IBS) and sometimes my period tends to be unpredictable. But when I can, I try to plan around my period as my IBS symptoms tend to be worse when I am either PMSing or bleeding, so being able to avoid traveling that time of the month when at all possible can really decrease my chances of an IBS flare. When I do travel and have my period, I tend to semi-fast, only eating very bland foods in small helpings. Even those who do not have endometriosis like I do but get their periods report GI issues during menstruation, so it can definitely play a role in exacerbating IBS and should be a consideration when possible for travel plans.
Stock up on “tummy teas” and some “safe” foods
When I travel, I always carry some bags of organic chamomile tea, as well as some packets of organic instant oatmeal (which contains lots of soluble fiber and is a great tummy tamer, at least for me). I also sometimes will bring along some organic instant white rice. If I am driving and it’s a short distance and I have more liberty to take along perishable or bulky food items, I will also bring some bananas and boxes of squash or carrot soup. If I can’t bring along bananas, I find they are usually easy to find at any corner market of wherever I am going so I stock up on a few when I get to my destination.
Eat an IBS-friendly diet right before and during travel
Of course, I try to eat an IBS-friendly diet on a daily basis, though I must admit I tend to push the boundaries more when I am at home and feeling I can do so without as much fear. But when I travel, I play it much safer, because while it sucks to be sick, it definitely does much more when away from the comforts of home. I once made the mistake of having a very rich, fatty dinner the night before a major flight out West to visit my friend to California. I regretted it because the next morning I was having a lot of GI upset. I even had to use the plane bathroom several times the first leg of my trip – which was both annoying and embarrassing (though I don’t know if anyone really took notice). I learned my lesson from that and now I make sure to always eat a light, low FODMAP dinner the night before a major trip, as well as a light breakfast. I also always AVOID airplane food.
Time travel departures around times GI issues are least likely to flare
Like with my period, this is not always possible, though most of the time it is. I find that my IBS is worse in the mornings most days (or more specifically, the first few hours I am awake), so I find booking flights or planning road trips for either later in the morning, or more preferably, that begin in the afternoon, are less likely to cause me intestinal strife, so I strive for those windows when scheduling travel time.
Have a handle on the bathroom situation
Whenever possible, I try to make sure I have (preferably unrestricted) access to a bathroom wherever I will be staying during my travels. For this reason, I have often stayed away from hostel situations with communal bathrooms and instead sought private rooms. One time, I discussed my health issue with a hostel, who then declared a bathroom on my floor as private to my room as an accommodation to my health condition, which was an enormous help. When staying with a friend, I am usually fairly honest about my concerns and they usually have at least some idea about my health issues and needs, so I feel more comfortable about the situation. I have had a lot of great friends, who have let me stay in the guest rooms closest to the bathroom in their homes or even in the a part of their home where I have my own bathroom. This eases my stress considerably about the situation, which by itself reduces my chances of an IBS flare.
Have backup medication or treatment at the ready
Sometimes no matter how well I plan in terms of diet or preemptive strategies, I will still get sick. As such, I always carry both my prescription medicine and some over-the-counter remedies to have on hand for emergencies. For me, my medication arsenal includes prescription Bentyl (a smooth muscle relaxant that soothes intestinal cramping) and either Pepto-Bismol or charcoal tablets (I don’t take Imodium because it tends to constipate me). Be warned that taking too much of either Pepto-Bismol or charcoal can be bad for you because they also absorb other nutrients. I usually only reserve taking these sparingly and when I am in an urgent situation. But it helps to have as a last resort and I feel calmer and more confident knowing they are in my luggage should I need them. I also find a heating pad can be very helpful (and also help with #8 for relaxing tense muscles other than just abdominal)
Be mobile/move around if possible
I once took an Amtrak from my native New York City to Boulder, Colorado – a near 72-hour trip. This meant I did a lot of sitting, which was constipating. Sitting or being immobile for too long can cause a lot of stiffness and tighten muscles up in the back and legs, which I find can also impact my intestines. So, now when I travel by plane or train, I try to walk around, move, stretch and self-massage my legs and low back as much as possible. If I am driving or a passenger, I plan frequent breaks to get out of the cars and stretch or walk around. This has made a big difference.
Try to relax
It sounds cliche and obviously is a lot easier said than done. But stress and anxiety can definitely contribute to or exacerbate an IBS flare. So, even as travel is exciting for positive reasons, it can also be nerve-inducing. I also personally have a bit of a flying phobia, so that adds to it. This means I try to do whatever I can to remain calm, whether meditating right before or during my trip, assuring myself, relying on creature comforts (like music or a good book) to relax or distract me.
Have an exit strategy
Sometimes no matter how hard I have tried, my body has other plans than what my mind does. So, I always plan accordingly and give myself a break for my physical imperfections. When I take shorter trips closer to home, the people I am staying with or my travel companions know I might need to leave early or stay at the house/hotel depending on how I am feeling. When my ex and I occasionally went camping, he always knew we needed to camp right near the bathroom facilities, be extra careful about the food we ate, and that even still, we might have to leave a day or so earlier (which we did once) if I am not feeling well. I have had to sit out excursions and just lay on a couch convalescing between bathroom trips. I even once had to leave a summer job in Colorado a week early because my body was revolting. I have learned to accept my body and not berate myself for things beyond my control….and in many ways that has made it more possible to continue living life as best I can.
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