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Avoid travel constipation by planning ahead

People spend a lot of time making last-minute preparations to ensure a memorable vacation. But, what they may not bargain for is constipation putting a damper on their well-laid plans. 

If you have problems with elimination when you’re away from home, you are not alone. An estimated 40 percent of Americans suffer from travel constipation. It can cause abdominal pain, discomfort, gas and bloating at the most inopportune times and spoil part of your vacation. The good news is that it can be avoided or alleviated if you plan ahead.

Why does travel constipation happen? 

The body’s digestive system is more sensitive than you might think. Eating at different times, shifting sleep schedules, sitting in the car for long periods of time, jet lag and other things can throw off your body’s rhythm and affect the digestive process.  

The main culprit of constipation is a lack of water and fiber in the diet. During vacations, eating a healthy diet of fruits, vegetables and whole grains can become less convenient and not a priority. Some people become constipated because they have anxiety about using an unfamiliar bathroom due to lack of hygiene, privacy or inability to relax. 

Depending on the severity of symptoms and the length of your trip, travel constipation can be merely annoying or progress to extremely uncomfortable, even dangerous. 

Here are a few tips to help you prepare ahead of time for regularity and more comfortable travel.

Plan ahead

A few days prior to your trip:  

  • Increase fluid intake by two to three glasses of water a day. 
  • Increase fiber intake — fruits, vegetables, bran cereals and wheat breads.
  • If you frequently have travel constipation, consider taking a stool softener for a few days prior. This will help soften your stool and make it easier to pass.
  • Stock up on portable forms of fiber to take on the trip, such as fiber bars, whole grain crackers and dried fruits. 

While you're away

While on your trip:

  • Drink at least eight glasses of water a day.
  • Eat more fruit and vegetables. Try to eat two to three cups of vegetables and two cups of fruit every day. Beans and whole grain breads also help add bulk.
  • Don't fill up on low-fiber foods at fast food chains or airports. Instead, intentionally seek out high-fiber snacks — whole grain crackers, dried or fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, or whole grain cereals.
  • Stay active. Exercise stimulates the movement in the gastrointestinal tract. Don’t sit. Get out of the car periodically.
  • Plan for bathroom time. If you usually use the restroom at a certain time of day, try to plan for this during your vacation. Give yourself time to relax. If you don’t have a bowel movement within 10 minutes, try again later when you have the urge.
  • Limit caffeine and alcohol. They contribute to dehydration, which can lead to constipation. If you consume them, make sure you also drink plenty of non-caffeinated and non-alcoholic beverages.
  • Don’t resist the urge to go. The longer you wait to use the bathroom, the more water is absorbed from the stool by the colon, resulting in drier and harder stools that further compound the problem. 
  • When possible, stay on a similar sleep schedule as you maintain at home. This helps maintain your circadian rhythm, which helps regulate the hormones that play a role in digestion.
  • Consider taking a stool softener if you begin to experience symptoms of constipation. 
  • If diet and exercise don't help, you may want to try a mild laxative. The American Academy of Family Physicians suggests using natural bulk-forming laxatives that add water and bulk to the stools so they can pass more easily. They include oat bran, psyllium (Metamucil®), polycarbophil (Fibercon®) and methylcellulose (Citrucel®).

When to see a doctor

Most cases of constipation go away after making a few adjustments in diet and activity. However, talk to your family doctor if you have any of these symptoms:

  • Constipation so severe that you cannot pass any stool. This could be an impaction and may require intervention.
  • Constipation lasting for three or more days despite modifications
  • Abdominal pain
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Severe pain with bowel movements
  • Blood in stools
  • Bloating and other symptoms persisting for more than two weeks
About Tara Katz DO

Tara Katz, DO, is a family medicine physician at Ascension Medical Group in Andover, Kansas.