Scientists don’t know exactly how many people experience difficulties with bowel movements on holiday, a phenomenon sometimes called traveller’s constipation.
But Dr Satish Rao, a professor of medicine at Augusta University in Georgia who studies constipation, says that in his experience, it’s pretty common – affecting perhaps one in three people.
Having a bowel movement anywhere from two or three times a week to three times a day is normal, Rao says. But if you’re going much less often, or if your stools are lumpy and difficult to pass, you’re probably constipated.
If your trip involves a long flight, you can often blame dehydration and immobility, says Madhulika Varma, chief of colorectal surgery at UCSF Medical Centre. Dry airplane air can be dehydrating, and some travellers may consume fewer drinks on flights to avoid getting up frequently, Varma says. If you become dehydrated, your body may pull more fluid from your colon, leaving behind a hard, lumpy stool that can be challenging and painful to pass.
Sitting still for a long time, Varma says, can slow the muscle contractions that move food through your digestive system.
A departure from your sleep routine can be a culprit. Changing time zones can disrupt your circadian rhythm, the internal clock that regulates sleep and digestion, Rao says: “If you’re not waking up at your usual time, your colon gets confused.”
This can happen even if you don’t cross time zones, says Erin Toto, a gastroenterologist at Penn Medicine. Sometimes, slight changes from your typical eating and sleeping routine can throw things out of whack.
The best way to prevent constipation is to be proactive with diet, sleep and hydration, Toto says.
A few days before your trip, make sure you’re getting enough fluids, especially if you’re heading to high altitudes or hot climates, says Samita Garg, a gastroenterologist at the Cleveland Clinic.
Rao cautioned against bubbly drinks, like soda water or soft drink. While they can help with hydration, they may make you feel gassy and bloated.
Try to limit how much alcohol you drink, too. This can cause or worsen dehydration.
Schedule permitting, Garg says, you could try shifting your sleep schedule toward the time zone you’re visiting. Once there, exercise, even just 15 minutes of walking, can stimulate your colon.
Try to avoid going overboard on fatty meats, fried foods or foods rich in dairy, Garg says. These take longer to break down in the gut. She recommended the “three F’s”: fluid, fibre and fruits (and veggies).
Prioritising fibre is key. Recommendations vary from person to person, but most people should aim to consume at least 25 grams of fibre per day, Varma says.
Soluble fibre supplements, such as psyllium, tend to work well for constipation, she says. But be sure to drink them with water, which makes your stool softer and easier to pass. And it’s always a good idea to check with your doctor before taking any supplements.
Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi or yoghurt can also help keep your gut microbiome healthy, which aids digestion, Rao says. And drinking coffee can stimulate the urge to go.
Over-the-counter laxatives can help, but not all are best for travel.
If it’s been a few days and you haven’t had a bowel movement, don’t panic, Toto says. “It’s definitely a myth that you need to poop every day,” she says.
Rao recommends calling a doctor if it’s been three times as long as what’s normal for you. If you usually go every other day, you can probably go around a week without a bowel movement.
No matter what, experts say, call a doctor if there’s blood in your stool or if you’re in extreme pain. And if you’re not feeling the urge to go, Varma says it’s best to avoid pushing or straining too much. This can cause a host of other problems, including haemorrhoids.