For many people, travel is an exciting and romantic experience that holds the promise of new adventures in far-flung destinations. New sights, sounds, smells, and tastes await in a nearby city or on the other side of the world. Yet as exhilarating as travel can be, it can sometimes be interrupted by a missed connection, an unexpected rainstorm, or even a health problem. One health issue that is a relatively well-known phenomenon among globetrotters is travel constipation. But why is it that this familiar gastrointestinal malady is more common when traveling?
Overview of Constipation
With millions of Americans each year seeking medical treatment for their constipation, it is one of the most common digestive symptoms. Constipation is characterized by having infrequent bowel movements and stool that is hard, dry, and difficult to pass during defecation. Additionally, people who are constipated typically also experience other symptoms like abdominal pain or pressure, bloating, or a sense of incomplete evacuation. Constipation is fairly easy to diagnose, but because it is common to so many gastrointestinal conditions, determining the cause can be challenging.
The normal frequency of bowel movements can vary from person to person, but the consensus among medical professionals is that it can range from three bowel movements a day to three bowel movements a week. For this reason, having anything fewer than three bowel movements a week can be considered constipation. There isn’t a specific cause of constipation, but there are a number of factors that can contribute to its onset:
- Low-fiber diet: One of the biggest contributors to especially temporary constipation is having a diet that is low in fiber. Both soluble and insoluble fiber are helpful for keeping stool less bulky and more smooth as it progresses through the digestive tract.
- Insufficient water: Another significant factor in the development of constipation is not drinking enough water. Water helps keep the stool soft and moist, making it easier to pass through the intestines, but it also supports the digestive process overall. Conversely, not getting enough fluids can lead to dehydration and can make constipation even worse.
- Lack of physical activity: Regular exercise and physical activity in general are surprisingly important for the digestive process because it can improve peristaltic contractions, slow down gastric emptying, and increase the diversity of the gut microbiome. On the other hand, a sedentary lifestyle can do the opposite and increase the chances of constipation.
- Habit of ignoring the urge: The body, through the enteric nervous system, sends signals when it’s time to poop, but not heeding those signals in a timely fashion can also make constipation more likely. This is largely because stool that sits in the large intestine for an extended time period is subject to water being continually absorbed; eventually this continued absorption makes the stool harder and dryer.
- Medications: Certain medications like opioids, antacids, and some kinds of antidepressants can cause constipation as a side effect.
- Medical conditions: Various medical conditions can contribute to constipation, including hypothyroidism, diabetes, neurological disorders, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or other gastrointestinal disorders.
- Aging: As we get older, bowel movements tend to become less frequent and bowel motility tends to slow down. This is why constipation and related gastrointestinal issues are a common problem at nursing homes and other elder care facilities.
- Pregnancy: Hormonal changes and pressure on the intestines during pregnancy make constipation more likely for some women.
Why Does Travel Make Constipation More Likely?
The digestive system is a complex set of processes that can be influenced by a wide variety of factors. This complexity also means that the digestive system is sensitive to changes. Seemingly simple changes to your diet, for instance, may have further-reaching effects. Even psychological factors like stress or anxiety can similarly have an impact on digestion and gut health. When you’re traveling, of course, there are often a multitude of changes that your body has to adapt to, and some of those changes can lead to travel constipation. Below are some of the most common reasons why traveling can increase the chances of constipation:
- Changes in routine: By its nature, traveling interrupts our daily routines such as meal times, sleep schedules, and even our bathroom break patterns. Our bodies become accustomed to these rhythms, and significant disruptions can affect the timing of bowel movements and lead to constipation.
- Diet changes: One of the most popular motivations for any kind of travel is the chance to try new cuisines at our destination. In addition to eating at different times of day than you’re used to, travel also tends to involve eating foods that may have unpredictable effects on the digestive system. Moreover, traveling also inspires us to try richer or higher-calorie foods that may have less fiber.
- Dehydration: Long flights, exposure to dry airplane cabin air, or simply not drinking enough water during travel can lead to dehydration. And as noted above, dehydration can then result in drier and harder stools that are more difficult to pass.
- Less physical activity: Traveling often involves long periods of sitting, whether it’s sitting in a cramped airplane seat or stuck in a car on a long road trip. Even if you normally get a lot of exercise in a given week, reduced physical activity can slow down bowel motility and contribute to constipation.
- Bathroom availability: Along with less physical activity and being stuck sitting for long periods of time, traveling can also mean having limited access to bathroom facilities. And if this lack of access causes you to hold it in longer than normal, that can lead to constipation. Also, different countries may have unfamiliar-looking facilities that can add an element of stress to all the other factors.
- Jet lag and time zone changes: Depending on where you’re headed, crossing time zones can introduce jet lag to the equation; in these cases, your body’s circadian rhythms become out of sync with the time zone you’re in and can have a substantial effect on bowel movements, sleep, and other bodily functions.
How Can I Prevent Travel Constipation?
Travel constipation is a fairly common experience, but that doesn’t mean it’s a foregone conclusion. Here are some reliable methods that can either prevent constipation altogether or provide constipation relief so you can get back to sightseeing and enjoying your vacation:
- Hydration: Perhaps the easiest way to prevent constipation is to drink plenty of water while you’re out and about.
- Fiber: While you definitely want to enjoy pastries and desserts and all the exotic cuisines, make sure to also include enough fiber-rich foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts. If you have trouble getting enough fiber from foods, you can also try a fiber supplement (such as Metamucil) for an additional boost.
- Plan bathroom breaks: When you’re at home, you don’t usually think too much about when and where you’re going to the bathroom, but when you’re traveling it requires a little more forethought to make sure you’re not in a position where you have to hold it in for a long time.
- Medication: If other methods don’t work, there are a number of over-the-counter medications that can also be helpful. For example, stimulant laxatives (Dulcolax) speed up bowel motility and osmotic laxatives (Miralax) act as a stool softener. It’s important to note, however, that laxatives are only meant to be taken temporarily since they can cause side effects or even worsen the constipation if taken for too long.
Cary Gastroenterology for Digestive Healthcare
For many people, traveling is one of the great pleasures of life, and being in a new place can expose you to different cultures and customs in fascinating ways. And even though travel constipation can threaten to get in the way of the experience, there are many ways to prevent it or make it less cumbersome. If you’ve been having constipation or any other gastrointestinal symptoms that have been interfering with your life, contact us at Cary Gastro to request an appointment. Our friendly and professional staff is passionate about providing only the best digestive healthcare.