Why do I get constipated when I travel?

Our bowels don’t love vacation as much as we do. But there are ways to keep a blockage from slowing down your trip. (Photo: NYTimes)
Q: My bathroom habits are pretty regular at home, but as soon as I leave for a trip, constipation hits. Why am I always backed up on vacation, and what can I do about it?اضافة اعلان

Scientists don’t know exactly how many people experience difficulties with bowel movements on vacation, a phenomenon sometimes called traveler’s constipation.

But Dr. Satish Rao, a professor of medicine at Augusta University in Georgia who studies constipation, said that in his experience, it’s pretty common — affecting perhaps 1 in 3 people.

Having a bowel movement anywhere from two or three times a week to three times a day is normal, Rao said. But if you’re going much less often, or if your stools are lumpy and difficult to pass, you are probably constipated.

If your trip involves a long flight, you can often blame dehydration and immobility, said Madhulika Varma, chief of colorectal surgery at UCSF Medical Center. Dry airplane air can be dehydrating, and some travelers may consume fewer drinks on flights to avoid getting up frequently, Varma said. 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 said, 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 said: “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, said 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 said.

A few days before your trip, make sure you are getting enough fluids, especially if you’re heading to high altitudes or hot climates, said Samita Garg, a gastroenterologist at the Cleveland Clinic.

Rao cautioned against bubbly drinks like seltzers or sodas. 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 said, 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 said. These take longer to break down in the gut. She recommended the “three F’s”: fluid, fiber and fruits (and veggies).

Prioritizing fiber is key. Recommendations vary from person to person, but most people should aim to consume at least 25 grams of fiber per day, Varma said.

Soluble fiber supplements, such as psyllium, tend to work well for constipation, she said. 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 yogurt can also help keep your gut microbiome healthy, which aids digestion, Rao said. And drinking coffee can stimulate the urge to go.

Over-the-counter laxatives can help, but not all are best for travel. Toto recommended polyethylene glycol (Miralax), which tends to cause less cramping and diarrhea than stimulant laxatives like bisacodyl (Dulcolax).

If it’s been a few days and you haven’t had a bowel movement, don’t panic, Toto said. “It is definitely a myth that you need to poop every day,” she said.

Rao recommended calling a doctor if it has been three times as long as what is 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 is blood in your stool or if you’re in extreme pain. And if you’re not feeling the urge to go, Varma said it’s best to avoid pushing or straining too much. This can cause a host of other problems, including hemorrhoids.

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