Traveler’s constipation is one of those things that many of us experience — 14 percent of travelers, according to one landmark Swiss study — but no one wants to talk about. While a study from Digestive Disease and Sciences found that 63 percent of respondents reported an onset of diarrhea during their travels, there’s still a sizable population out there who face the opposite problem once the seatbelt sign is turned on.
In many ways, it can feel equally debilitating. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, constipation is a result of the colon absorbing too much water, which hardens the stool and makes it difficult to pass. Pushing and straining can then make you prone to hemorrhoids or a rectal prolapse. The general rule is that fewer than three bowel movements a week counts as constipation, but that can vary based on factors like age and medical history.
Traveler’s constipation, however, is a whole other beast. Here’s how to prevent it from ruining your trip.
Why it happens
Dr. Marcelo Leal, pediatric gastroenterologist and hepatologist, hypothesized why it happens: “It’s a confluence of factors. There’s an increased chance of mild dehydration when traveling from being in a plane, a change in normal eating patterns and maybe more alcohol consumption,” he said. Research from Archives of Internal Medicine found that alcohol is dehydrating, so you’ll have to pair each drink with extra (non-alcoholic) fluids to help keep your digestive system in order.
Next, he said jet lag can be a culprit. The bowel is tied to a circadian rhythm (shout out to everyone who just knows they will need to go to the bathroom, say, 45 minutes after they wake up every morning like clockwork), so if your sleep cycles are thrown off, chances are your bathroom breaks will be, too.
“This is based on no evidence but there are some apps out there like Entrain and Timeshifter that purport to help you regulate your circadian rhythm through some simple techniques the days before you travel,” he said. The idea is that if you suffer from jet lag, you might see an improvement in constipation if you re-stabilize your circadian rhythms. You can also talk to your primary healthcare provider about starting a round of melatonin before your trip, an all-natural way to promote restful sleep and ward off jet lag, according to the Nutrition Journal.
What to do
Your first order of business is to opt for whole, clean foods, like fresh fruit, since it’s loaded with bowel-regulating fiber, according to Dr. Leal. Fruits particularly high in fiber include raspberries, pears and apples with the skin. A benefit is that most fruits are comprised primarily of water, which can count toward your recommended daily water intake, thus also facilitating a bowel movement.
Given that you’re in a new city, we totally get that you want to try all the delicious foods and eat all the desserts. But eating high-fat foods isn’t going to help your case. “They slow down gastric emptying, so avoid those,” said Dr. Leal.
A little movement in the hotel gym can promote a little movement in the bathroom, too. “It’s the physical act of moving the poop around,” said Dr. Leal. “Exercising gives it that extra ‘oomph,’ plus the abdominal muscles contracting and relaxing also helps.”
Don’t feel pressured to skip your plans and run a half-marathon. A few minutes of jumping jacks in your hotel room or a brisk walk should do the trick. If you can’t bring yourself to lace up, just think about all the feel-good endorphins your brain will release as a response to all that physical activity.
While most of traveler’s constipation is attributed to physiological changes, said Dr. Leal, some of it is psychological. We totally get it — foreign bathrooms (especially public ones) can be a scary place. But don’t be afraid to actually use the restroom if you have to go.
“Put down enough toilet paper on the seat to calm the fears and have a bit of a barrier between your skin and the toilet. Put enough paper in the bowl to prevent splash-back,” he said. Given that the bowel operates as a suction, if you wait too long to go, your stool might harden and become even more difficult to expel.
Medical attention isn’t necessary unless your constipation is coupled with sudden weight loss, blood or severe pain, according to The University of Texas at Austin University Health Services.
But in many cases, a little help from the pharmacy might be your ticket to Poop City, population: You. According to Dr. Leal, a stool softener based on polyethylene glycol 3350 (like Miralax) is a safe bet when you’ve exhausted all other options. If you need something stronger, a suppository, which is a pill-like substance inserted into the rectum, might be effective as a last resort.
“Sometimes they’re useful if the stool softener hasn’t worked and you just want to ‘break the seal’ to get the flow going,” he said.
See? Nothing to be embarrassed about. It happens to the best of us.