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Once you’re finally on vacation, it’s no fun when suddenly not being able to poop keeps you from enjoying your trip.
This predicament is known as travel constipation, when people who typically don’t have digestive problems at home develop “the characteristic symptoms of constipation” while they’re traveling, said Dr. Darren Brenner, a gastroenterologist and professor of medicine and surgery at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Illinois.
These symptoms can include “less frequent stools, harder stools, more straining and greater sensations of incomplete evacuation,” he added. Some people experience constipation on some trips, while others do every time they travel.
Addressing the problem may require a multipronged approach since constipation, in general, is a multi-symptom problem, said Dr. William Chey, a professor of gastroenterology and nutritional sciences at Michigan Medicine.
Here are some of the most common causes of travel constipation and what you can do about them.
Throwing off your circadian rhythm
Some digestive health experts have theorized that being in a different time zone or following a new schedule during travel could contribute to travel constipation by throwing off your circadian rhythm — physical, mental and behavioral changes that happen over a 24-hour cycle.
“Most normal people will move their bowels in the morning after waking,” Chey said. As people wake up and especially after a meal, the body releases different hormones that help the bowel to contract.
There hasn’t been enough research to conclude whether there’s any way to prevent this effect on your circadian rhythm or how long it lasts, Brenner said, since there’s not much you can do to counteract a different time zone.
Transportation and physical activity
Your mode of travel can also affect your regularity for multiple reasons.
Whether you drive, take a train or bus, or fly, being sedentary for a long time can have a negative effect since movement is necessary for pooping regularly. And if you’re lounging around a lot on your vacation, suddenly being sedentary will not help your digestive system move much at all.
Flying can also make you feel bloated because of the drop in atmospheric pressure as your altitude increases, Chey said.
“A gas will expand or contract based upon the atmospheric pressure of the airplane cabin,” he added. “As you start to ascend, go way up in the air, the air in your bowels will expand, and it’s going to make you feel really bloated.”
To alleviate constipation from sedentariness, “learn and engage in some simple exercises with your arms and legs during the course of the flight, and maintain some level of physical activity,” Chey said. Try walking to some destinations instead of driving or doing an exercise routine in your hotel room.
And to prevent flight bloating, avoid drinking fizzy beverages and eating foods you know typically bloat you. What can also help is chewing your food adequately and slowly and drinking slowly. Don’t chew gum or suck on hard candy since those actions can make you swallow more air than necessary, Chey said.
One supplement Chey likes is enteric-coated peppermint oil capsules, which can alleviate discomfort from bloating.
Diet and hydration
Changes in eating habits “can significantly alter your gut microbiome,” Brenner said. That “may play a role in the development of constipation as well.”
These changes typically include trying lots of new foods, eating fast food during a long road trip or eating more indulgent meals than you typically would since you are, after all, on vacation, experts said.
And when you’re indulging, hydration levels can also take a hit. Dehydration can also result from excess alcohol consumption or from the dry air on planes, experts said.
“Going on vacation should not be viewed as a license to eating as much as you want and whatever you want,” Chey said. “Some people can get away with that, but most people actually can’t.”
However, there are some things you can do to enjoy different cuisines on your trip and support your digestive health. In addition to ensuring you stay hydrated, include some fibrous fruits and vegetables — think pears, apples, kale or broccoli — in your daily food intake. For road trips and flights, you could pack your own healthier snacks and meals, Chey suggested.
Stress or anxiety
Another influential factor is when people “become more self-conscious about moving their bowels when they’re outside of their own home,” Chey said. “People tend to hold it, which can make it a lot harder to move your bowels when it’s more socially convenient.”
Stress and anxiety around travel itself can also affect your ability to move your bowels, he added. What can help is doing activities that help your mind feel relaxed rather than rushed, Chey said.
Diaphragmatic breathing, also called belly breathing, could be a valuable tool to learn, Chey said. “When you take a deep breath in, you really focus on expanding your belly button and then breathe out. Engaging in diaphragmatic breathing has been shown to relieve anxiety and also even reduce your heart rate.”
When all else fails
If adjusting any of these lifestyle factors doesn’t work for you, you could talk with your doctor about trying laxatives, experts said.
Some natural laxatives that can help include high-fiber fruits such as kiwis, mangoes and prunes, experts said.
Starting your trip by taking a fiber supplement or over-the-counter laxative — such as magnesium oxide, bisacodyl, psyllium or polyethylene glycol 3350 — with a glass of water or juice could help you prevent constipation and ease into things, experts said, rather than responding to discomfort. Just don’t take more than the product’s instructions recommend, lest you hog that airplane bathroom.
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