Health / Expert Advice

Here’s Why You Feel Like You Can’t Go to the Bathroom on Vacation

Things can get backed up quickly when you’re away. Here’s how to stay regular.

Going on vacation is all about getting out of your comfort zone and breaking with that regular, day-to-day routine. Still, the one thing you probably wish you could keep regular is your bathroom schedule. And while traveler’s diarrhea gets all the hype, it isn’t the only problem you’ll need to worry about—unfortunately. Many people find it difficult to go number two once they leave home. Constipation can strike on the plane or as soon as you land at your destination, and it can make for an uncomfortable trip. Here’s how to get things moving again, so you can get on with your getaway.

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Why You Feel Backed Up When You’re Away

Benjamin Levy, M.D., a gastroenterologist at Mount Sinai Hospital in Chicago, says there’s a variety of reasons travelers may feel constipated when away—and the circumstances can be different for everyone. “Unfortunately, constipation can turn a vacation into a stressful, uncomfortable experience. There are a number of factors that may contribute,” he says.

He notes these common culprits:

What’s more, our gut microbiomes may actually change when we’re away, adds David Rubin, M.D., senior medical adviser at the Gastro-Intestinal Research Foundation in Chicago. That change can affect bowel patterns—whether you’re traveling from Chicago to L.A. or New York to Shanghai.

“Research into the gut microbiome—the complex ecosystem of organisms that lives in our intestines—has shown that the microbiome shifts to be similar to the new environment within the first day or two when you travel to a new locale,” he says. “The bacteria and other organisms in our gut constitute more than 80 percent of the mass of a bowel movement. So a change in the balance of these organisms can definitely affect stool patterns.”

Treating Constipation on Vacation

The simplest way to prevent and treat constipation is to hydrate, hydrate, and hydrate some more. So pack that water bottle, and sip water throughout your flight and after you land. “One of the easiest ways to try and address the issue before it even begins is to increase the amount of fluids you drink,” Dr. Levy says. “Start once you’re on the plane, and keep it up. It’s easy to get dehydrated while traveling, especially during the summer when you’re sweating more.”

While upping your fluid intake is important, he notes that water plus fiber is a winning combination if you’re feeling backed up. “If you do find yourself constipated, I recommend increasing both fluids and fiber,” he says. Look for fiber-rich foods wherever you are, including apples, mango, or raspberries. If fresh fruit isn’t readily available, try lentils, peas, or broccoli. You can also pack oatmeal and date-based snack bars in your suitcase.

It’s easy to get caught up in all the fun activities of vacation, but try to maintain some healthy habits, Dr. Levy stresses. That means getting enough sleep (especially if you are jet-lagged), fitting in a workout, and enjoying healthy meals at set times.

“While it may sound simple, I also recommend drinking a cup of coffee and taking the time to enjoy breakfast in the morning,” he says. “Caffeine and breakfast stimulate the gastrocolic reflex, which triggers the urge to have a bowel movement. And don’t forget to keep moving—taking a walk can also prompt the urge to have a bowel movement by causing peristalsis of your stomach and colon.”

Do you need to pack medication?

You may already keep anti-diarrheal pills in your carry-on. But you’ll want to add a stool softener to your packing list if you tend to get constipated, Dr. Levy recommends.

“If fluids and fiber don’t work, you can try an over-the-counter stool softener like Colace or a stimulant laxative like Senna,” he says. “One regimen that a lot of my patients with constipation like is Colace daily with Miralax every other day.”

Of course, it’s important to talk to your doctor or a gastroenterologist before your trip about which medications are safe for you to take. They may also recommend a prescription laxative if you have chronic constipation. So, visit the doc after you get home, too. “As with any change in bowel habits, if it persists beyond a few days or is worse than usual and not improving after you get home, you should discuss with your doctor,” Dr. Rubin says.

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