Travel constipation - preventing it and dealing with it

Any change in routine has a real impact on the body. And travelling is a big disrupter.

So often it is our stomach that tells us we are not doing something right – whether it be bloating, cramping, constipation or diarrhoea – it is a clear signal that something is not working properly in our system.

This post covers how to deal with travel constipation: the causes, the preventatives, and the remedies.

What is constipation?

Constipation is infrequent or difficult evacuation of the bowels, with hard faeces, caused by functional or organic disorders or improper diet.

What causes constipation?

It is usually due to the colon absorbing too much water because the digestive process is moving too slowly. The slower the food moves through, the more water the colon absorbs. Leaving the faeces dry and hard. So, what causes the food to move slowly and ultimately lead to constipation?

Lifestyle

  • Lack of physical activity
  • Lack of fibre in diet
  • Dehydrated
  • Change of routine
  • Lack of access to facilities
  • Stress and anxiety

Medical

  • Medications – e.g. painkillers with codeine, sleeping pills (another reason why we prefer Melatonin)
  • Medical conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Pregnancy

All of the lifestyle causes above can come about simply by boarding a plane. Meaning your risk of constipation increases significantly when you travel.

I am not going to get into any of the medically related causes because I am not a doctor and this post is only from my experience as a traveller not a medical professional. You should check with your GP if you suffer from constipation regularly and also check when you’re prescribed medication if you need to be aware of constipation as a side effect.

Foods to limit / avoid:

  • Cheese – and other dairy products
  • Red meat – in excess i.e. back-to-back meals
  • Refined carbs – chips, biscuits etc.
  • Fried food
  • Bananas – because they are a “stopper” rather than a “loosener”

How to prevent travel constipation

Meet the 5 F’s – Fluids, Fibre, Fermented food, Fitness and Feeling

FLUIDS – Drink more water

A lack of water is thought to be the leading cause of travel constipation.

Avoid overdoing the alcohol – Whilst too much alcohol can often have the opposite effect for some people, either way it also dehydrates you and puts pressure on the gut.

Avoid overdoing the coffee – One cup of strong coffee may help to get things moving along (it stimulates the muscles in your gut) but too much coffee will dehydrate. Drink water as well and be careful of time zones!

FIBRE – Eat more fibre

Nuts and seeds – Filling and good for you. You can easily substitute a meal with some nuts and seeds. I always carry a packet of raw nuts (such as almonds) or a seed & nut bar in my carry-on. Careful of customs in some countries you may have to declare it on arrival if you didn’t eat it on the plane.

Whole grains and legumes – Whole grain bread, quinoa and brown rice. Don’t do the white versions – refined carbs will just make you more constipated.

Fruit – Except bananas! Just don’t overdo it on the fruit especially if you don’t usually eat a lot in your diet. Too much sugar won’t help your gut either.

Pineapple is a good anti-inflammatory and almost always in the hotel breakfast buffet (especially in the Asia Pacific).

Vegetables – Fairly obvious and should make up more than half of every meal. Think more leafy greens rather than starchy potatoes.

Psyllium – A soluble non-fermentable fibre can be used successfully as a supplement.

Hot water with lemon – I have this every morning, whether I’m at home or on the road. It helps to flush the digestive system. (Some say it helps to lose weight as well). You can always ask for this in a cafe or hotel or even on the plane. (You know they have lemons for the G&Ts.)

FERMENTED FOODS – Eat more

Fermentation is a process of transforming the food using bacteria, enzymes or funghi. It has been around since ancient times.

Fermentation serves to preserve food but also increases the bioavailability of the nutrients in the food. E.g. Cabbage vs kimchi – kimchi is far more full of goodness.

Fermentation promotes good bacteria in the gut, keeping your system working and preventing constipation. Try adding some of these into your diet:

  • Yoghurt
  • Sauerkraut
  • Kimchi
  • Pickles
  • Miso
  • Apple Cider Vinegar
  • Kefir
  • Kombucha
  • Prebiotic and probiotic supplements

FITNESS – Do more

Do more physical activity – Speeds up the digestive process and works and tones the muscles around the organs.

Move whenever you can – Instead of sitting at the gate or in the lounge, take a stroll around the terminal. Walk instead of riding the travelator – with all the annoying people that stand on these it’s often faster to walk anyway!

Get to the gym – Almost all half-decent hotels have a gym facility. Even if you’re tired just go for a walk on the treadmill. Also a good option if you can’t sleep because of time difference. Put on an audio book or a podcast and go for a stroll. In airport gyms are less common, but check out these hot airport gyms.

Get stretching – In yoga there are specific poses that help, including “the wind removing pose” and “happy baby”. Read more about gas relieving poses.

Doing a series of sun salutations for ten minutes will get the body moving and the blood flowing. Highly recommend starting your day with this routine.

Get outside – One of our favourite things about travelling to a new city is exploring first thing in the morning – on foot. Less people, less traffic, and watching the sun come up in a new place is something quite special. And no matter how hard it is to get up that bit earlier, you always feel better for it. I have never regretted it.

FEELING – Keep calm

You may have heard people refer to the gut as our “second brain” so the way we feel and respond to the stress or anxiety of travelling can play a big part in preventing travel constipation.

Bach Rescue Remedy – A bach flower that I (and a lot of people!) swear by. If you’re feeling anxious or stressed, a couple of drops on your tongue will help you to relax. It also helps with sleeplessness if you’re struggling to adjust to time zones or sleep on the plane. I prefer the drops, but you can also get tablets and lozenges.

Breathe – Stop to concentrate on your breath. Diaphragmatic breathing or deep breathing into your stomach has amazing health benefits, not just as a calming exercise, it will also help you to poop easier!

Remember to inhale through your nose, expand your chest (imagine your rib cage expanding 360 degrees) and then breathe deep into your belly. Exhale through your mouth slowly and completely, so you feel like all of the air has left your body. Try doing it as slow as possible to a count e.g. 5 in, 5 out.

If you have an apple watch try the breathe function to remind yourself to spend a minute concentrating on deep breathing.

Practice mindfulness and meditation – It feels so good but also takes a lot of discipline to fit it in. Headspace is our fave app. Get started spending just ten minutes listening to the free guided meditations – they are very good.

Getting relief from travel constipation

Types of laxatives

  • Bulk forming: A fibre-based laxative increase the water content of the stool
  • Stool softener: Contain oils to soften the stool
  • Stimulant laxative: Stimulate the nerves in the gut
  • Osmotic laxative: Soften the stool by pulling water into digestive system

Quick constipation remedies

Pitted prunes – Nature’s own laxative. Prunes contain sorbitol, a sugar alcohol, which has a laxative effect. Your nana probably swore by them! Put a handful of these in a ziplock bag inside your toiletries bag (domestic travel hint only – you might run into difficulty with fruit internationally).

Bulk forming laxative e.g. psyllium husk – Help to absorb water to form a bulky stool which prompts your intestines to start working. These are the most common and probably the least impactful on your body, can be taken every day as a fibre supplement. My preferred type is Metamucil Multi-Health Psyllium Fibre.

Mineral Oil - Helps to soften and lubricate the stool to pass through easier. Available as a liquid taken orally or an enema.

Olive Oil or Organic Flaxseed Oil or Organic Virgin Coconut Oil – Try a tablespoon to start with.

Epsom Salt (Food Grade) – Dissolve 6 teaspoons in a glass of water. An Epsom Salt bath soak may also help to get things moving.

Magnesium citrate – A form of osmotic laxative. There are many other forms of over the counter laxatives, some that work as fast as 30 minutes! This should be a last resort and not used regularly. I would personally see a doctor before self-treating with any of those.

So, hopefully you don’t get to the point where you’re umming and aahhing over different enema brands in a pharmacy. Especially if the products are in a foreign language – we’ve all got one of those stories.

Stick to the 5 F’s to prevent travel constipation occurring in the first place.

Happy tummy, happy travels!

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