You’ve waited months for this trip, planned every detail and managed to remember to pack everything you need.
But now, it’s Day 2, and you realize you haven’t pooped. Suddenly, you’re panicking. When’s the last time you’ve used the bathroom?
“With spring break and summer vacation on the horizon, people will be taking vacations with family and friends. A common problem that pops up is ‘vacation constipation,’” says Dr. Kabir Julka, gastroenterologist with Advocate Medical Group.
“Simply put, when traveling away from home, it can be very typical for bowel habits to change significantly. Anecdotally, constipation and change in regularity of bowel movements frequently occur and make vacation a less pleasant endeavor.”
While Dr. Julka says there haven’t been any quality studies examining this phenomenon, there are some plausible reasons as to why this may occur.
“Most people have a regular routine with their bowels (for example, move bowels first thing in the morning). When we travel, typically, we are out of our routine and may even be traveling out of the time zone we are used to. Just as when people are jet lagged and the regular sleep cycle is disrupted, a similar issue can occur with bowel movements during travel. With the change in routine, bowel habits will expectedly be variable while traveling.”
“Some people may prefer to have a bowel movement in a particular location, and while traveling, this isn’t possible, further affecting toileting. The additional factor is that the urge to have a bowel movement might occur while sleeping or while sight seeing, and we will consciously suppress the urge to go at a more convenient time, which disrupts the routine even more.”
Dr. Julka says one of the great things about traveling is having the opportunity to try different types of food.
“This, of course, will have effects on bowel habits and frequency. While out of town, there is a tendency to eat heavier meals that may be lacking in fiber, which can also tend to be quite constipating.”
Stress also plays a role in our gut function. While going on vacation is meant to be fun, “it can clearly be stressful – especially when going with family!” says Dr. Julka.
“It is well established that our GI tract has its own independent nervous system and auto-regulates itself. It’s very common for people to get abdominal pain or altered bowels during times of stress, which may be related to the enteric (intestinal) nervous system and how it processes food and signals throughout the intestines. This can lead to problems with diarrhea or constipation, as well as abdominal pains.
So, the big question is, what can be done to avoid vacation constipation?
Dr. Julka says the key should be prevention.
“Realistically, there will likely always be some element of bowel habit changes when significantly changing our routine. As the diet changes, it would make sense to try and supplement with more fiber to help ease bowel movements. A simple, over-the-counter fiber supplement such as Metamucil or Benefiber would be expected to help (generic brands fine). The role of probiotics for this situation is not clear. Some people feel like they can help with looser stools and bloating, but certainly not a first line recommendation here.”
“In the end, it may be very similar to a jet lag situation, and tincture of time is what is needed to get back to normal. The main thing is try and relax and enjoy the vacation as much as possible. Things will ultimately take care of themselves,” he reassures.
So, while traveling, remember to do these things:
#1. Enjoy your trip.