We’ve all been there. You’re on a road trip or flying overseas when, a few days into your vacation, you become uncomfortably backed up. You’re bloated, your stomach’s cramping and no matter how badly you want to go, you can’t.
Travel constipation, or vacation constipation, occurs when people are unable to have a bowel movement when they’re, well, traveling. It’s a fairly common experience: estimates suggest it affects about 40% of travelers.
The main reason so many people get constipated while traveling is because they fall out of a routine that normally keeps their bowels running smoothly. When you travel, for example, you sit for longer periods of time (in a car, plane or train) and tend to eat, drink and sleep differently.
All that change occurring at once can do a number on your digestive tract and make it tough to have a bowel movement, according to Dr. Neena Mohan, a gastroenterologist at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia and an assistant professor of clinical medicine at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University.
Most cases of travel constipation will improve when you get into a routine. But if the thought of waiting that long puts even more knots in your stomach, there are a few things you can do to regulate your gastrointestinal system so stubborn bowels don’t ruin your vacation.
Here are the general rules gastro doctors follow when they’re vacationing and what they recommend for you as well:
Try to stick to a normal routine.
As we mentioned above, the main reason travel constipation occurs is because people stop adhering to their routine. Our daily routines and rhythms help regulate gastrointestinal physiology, including digestion and gut motility.
When we switch things up and, say, take a long flight or car ride, it’s natural for the digestive system to fall out of balance. “Limited movement can contribute to constipation, as decreased physical mobility can slow gastrointestinal motility,” Mohan said.
That’s why Mohan recommends preserving your regular routine as much as possible when you’re on the go. Of course, this can be tricky, especially when you’re traveling to a new time zone, but do what you can. “This can certainly be challenging during vacations, but it can help keep your bowel habits more regular.”
Dehydration can make travel constipation worse. Liquids add fluids to the colon to bulk up and soften stools, making it easier to go to the bathroom. Water also lowers the risk of hemorrhoids, which you definitely want to prevent because they can further contribute to constipation, according to Dr. Roopa Vemulapalli, a gastroenterologist and an associate professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.
“If there is not enough fluid in the body, the colon will absorb extra water from stool, making stool harder in consistency,” Mohan added.
While traveling, opt for water, juice or sports drinks, and skip the soda. Carbonated beverages can make constipation worse, Vemulapalli explained. “It is recommended to drink 0.25 liters of water [8 ounces] for every hour of travel, especially during long journeys.”
Eat foods packed with fiber.
Another tip: Eat lots of fiber (fruits and veggies, like apples, oranges, small salads and broccoli, Vemulapalli said). These fibery foods can increase the weight and size of your stool and help soften them to keep things running smoothly. Fiber can also stimulate the growth of colonic flora, which help alleviate constipation, according to Mohan.
When adding fiber to your diet, you don’t want to overdo it. “Sometimes, overconsumption of fiber can lead to bloating and flatulence, so try gradually increasing fiber intake according to tolerance and its efficacy,” Mohan said.
While we’re on the topic of foods, you may also want to avoid too many greasy, fatty foods. Because it can take your body longer to break down high-fat, processed foods, they can exacerbate constipation, Mohan said.
The more you move, the more the waste in your bowels will move, too. Research shows that exercise helps move foods through the intestines, so try to stay physically active when you’re on a trip. “Walking, hiking and swimming on vacation can help,” Mohan said.
If possible, try to schedule some breaks into your journey to get up and move around. If you’re traveling by plane or train, take a few short breaks where you can get up and stretch, Mohan recommended.
“Mild physical activity increases colonic muscle contractions while a sedentary position can increase the chances of developing hemorrhoids, which can aggravate constipation and bowel evacuation,” Vemulapalli added.
Get enough sleep.
Finally, you’ll want make sure you’re getting enough sleep. According to Vemulapalli, poor or erratic sleep messes with the circadian rhythms that the gastrointestinal system relies on to keep waste moving through the digestive tract. In addition, evidence suggests a lack of sleep can increase inflammation in the body and impair gut motility.
The takeaway: Obtaining enough regular sleep (at least seven hours a night) can lower the chances that you’ll be battling constipation throughout your trip.
If all else fails, you can always give stool softeners or polyethylene glycol a go, Vemulapalli said. These meds will help draw water into the stool, softening it up and making it easier to excrete.
Travel constipation can be a drag, but once you start getting back into a routine — even while you’re on the go — your bowels will spring back into action and, with time, clear out.