The Ins and Outs of Traveling with IBS

Every time my husband and I go on a road trip, the same scenario plays out: We’re on the highway, we encounter an upcoming rest stop area, and he asks if I need to stop. “Nope, I’m good,” I say. “Are you sure?” he asks, having been through this a few hundred times. I may stop to humor him and try to use the restroom with no luck.

A few miles later, usually after we’ve passed all of the easy-access restrooms, my insides start feeling pinchy.

I have to go. NOW. I have IBS-C, so having to go ever, let alone urgently, is rare for me. But for some reason, when I’m get on a plane, train, or inside an automobile, my bowels go the opposite way of what is usual for me. And without a restroom in sight, I start to get anxious and wish I could be home.

IBS or anxiety? What comes first?

Which comes first, the IBS or the anxiety? After more than 25 years of living with both conditions, I’m still not sure. All I know is that traveling does a number on me, no matter how well I plan for it. There are lots of ups and downs with IBS, and also plenty of ins and outs, but never so often as when I travel.

My flare-ups tend to come most frequently when I eat certain foods, so I’ve learned to adjust my diet for the most part, but when traveling, I can’t always avoid eating something that might trigger an IBS reaction. Over the years, I’ve tried everything from increasing my fiber intake to skipping meals before traveling to getting prescriptions filled for antidepressants. Some of these methods work, some of the time. None of them work all of the time.

There’s no doubt that IBS can prevent you from doing the things you love. In my case, it’s also caused me to dislike some of the things I used to enjoy. I’m not giving up on travel entirely, but I’m also not willing to put my body through unnecessary stresses, so I’m learning to put limits on the kind of travel I sign up for, and I’m learning to plan for the worst. Here are a few that have helped me the most:

BYOF (Bring Your Own Food)

And make sure to pack snacks I keep almonds on hand throughout my trip – they are portable, filling, and they have helped me to prevent eating something I shouldn’t out of desperation. I also pack chamomile and peppermint tea, and I just ask for hot water when symptoms strike.

Stay somewhere with a kitchen

Being able to prepare a meal for myself is invaluable, and it gives me peace of mind to know that I can make something “at home” if there are no IBS-friendly food options around.

Establish a routine

Even when I’m in a different time zone, I still eat at the same time in order to keep my stomach on a regular pattern as much as possible.

Don’t ignore symptoms

For years, I’d try as hard as I could to ignore my symptoms and continue on as normal. This is no longer an option, so when I need to, I will take the day a bit slower, take a nap when I need to, and stay closer to a bathroom.

Be strict

It’s so tempting to eat whatever you want when you travel, but it’s not worth feeling miserable all night or running to the bathroom every 20 minutes the next day. Speaking from experience, fried churros and hot chocolate aren’t the best idea on a jet-lagged, IBS stomach.

Managing IBS and anxiety while traveling can be difficult, but thoughtful planning helps increase the odds of making it a good experience. Sometimes I have to remind myself that traveling can be fun – and there are few things better for the heart, mind, soul, and belly than being happy.

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