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How To Poop Like a Pro When Traveling With IBS

Traveling with IBS can cause anxiety. Here are our suggestions for how to keep pooping like a pro when you're away from home.
By 
April Panitz
MS, RDN, CDN

How To Poop Like a Pro When Traveling With IBS

You’ve finally figured out the secret sauce to pooping on the regular. You’ve got your routine down pat…you know what to eat and what supplements you need to take, and you’ve got your toileting positioning down. And then it happens - you have an upcoming trip scheduled, the wheels start turning, and the panic and anxiety set in.

What will I eat? What if I’m doubled over in pain and can’t make it to the dinner or a family function? What if my gas is so bad while I’m in an all-day meeting? What if there isn’t a bathroom when I need one? You try to focus on the positive, but you keep returning to the “what-ifs” in your head. 

We don’t want to poo-poo your concerns (hehe); we know that traveling with IBS induces anxiety. But here’s the deal - you’ll most likely not poop as you do at home, and this is completely normal!

In fact, one study found that 40% of its participants had either traveler’s diarrhea or other GI symptoms that interrupted their planned trip activities. Another small study found that 46% of its subjects believed that their bowel habits changed during the trip, with 38% reporting that they experienced constipation and 8% reporting diarrhea. The researchers noted that this was most likely a result of altered eating, fluids, and physical activity habits, anxiety around public/shared bathrooms other than the ones you're used to, and jet lag (disruptions in our circadian rhythms) and its effects on the gut-brain axis. 

If people with a so-called “normal gut” have problems with pooping when traveling, how are you, someone with IBS, supposed to deal with this? 

  1. Start by using the diaphragmatic breathing technique (see below!) and take a few breaths. 
  2. Recognize that your bowels may not work like they do when you’re at home, but that’s okay. You’ve managed your symptoms before, and you’ll be able to do it again. 
  3. The most important step is to plan ahead. Bring your supplements, your squatty potty, snacks, fiber, and anything you can think of that will make you more comfortable.

Where do you even start with such an extensive plan? Read on for some of our travel suggestions to keep you pooping like a pro when you’re away from home. 

What Should Be in your IBS Travel Toolkit?

As we mentioned above, traveler’s constipation and diarrhea are real things, and if you combine this with IBS, you could be heading for trouble. Bring your supplements and any prescribed medications with you, and if traveling by plane, pack them in your carry-on bag. Try to keep whatever regimen you have going at home, and make sure you try to do the same when you’re away. And if you don’t normally need these at home, it’s not a bad idea to bring some of these supplements and medications with you. They can provide a gentle-ish push for when you just can’t seem to go, help you out if you have urgency, provide pain relief, and reassurance for when you don’t have control over what you’re eating. 

As with all medications and supplements, always consult with your physician or a licensed healthcare professional before starting any supplement, especially if you are pregnant or have pre-existing medical conditions. 

Over-the-Counter (OTC) Medications 

OTC Laxatives

There are two types of over-the-counter laxatives that are available for purchase: osmotic and stimulant laxatives. Osmotic laxatives like Miralax, Milk of Magnesia, or magnesium supplements draw water into the colon, soften stool, and help to speed up transit time. They should be taken before bed as they take about 8-12 hours to work. Stimulant laxatives like senna or Dulcolax work by making the intestines contract more. They will usually cause a bowel movement within a few hours; however, we also suggest taking them overnight. 

OTC Antidiarrheals

Antidiarrheals like Imodium can be useful if you experience anxiety-induced urgency, overflow diarrhea, or if you have to travel and can’t stop going. These medicines work by slowing digestion time and intestinal contractions. They also increase the reabsorption of fluids and electrolytes, which results in a more formed stool. 

Supplements

Encapsulated peppermint 

Encapsulated peppermint (IBGard) is an antispasmodic that can act as a smooth muscle relaxant and may decrease visceral sensation, the heightened feelings that are so often experienced when you have IBS. It may also help to reduce your bloat, belly pain and discomfort, and any urgency that you may experience. 

Enzymes

It’s nearly impossible to control everything that you eat when you’re away and eating out. Enzymes that contain lactase, alpha-galactosidase, and xylose isomerase may help decrease symptoms like gas and bloat if you’re sensitive to FODMAPs. Some brands we like and our patients find helpful are Fodzyme, Fodmate, and Beanzyme. 

Fiber Supplements

Fiber supplements (Citrucel, psyllium, partially hydrolyzed guar gum) can be taken when you know you're not going to meet your fiber needs through food. These soluble fibers form a gel in the intestines and help to soften stool, making it easier for you to go. If you are not used to consuming fiber supplements, make sure you take it with plenty of fluids and always start with about a quarter of the recommended dosage to get the body used to it and then increase your dosage over time. 

Must Haves: Fiber, Food, & Herbal Teas

Most Americans are not meeting their fiber needs on a daily basis, and this is especially true when away from home. The food at airports, fast food restaurants, convenience stores, and hotels aren’t always the most nutritious or fiber-packed, and holiday meals aren’t known to be the most gut-friendly. That’s why we recommend that you bring fiber add-ins. Plus, our guts need to eat regularly to be able to work their best! Keeping snacks on hand will ensure that you have something to feed your gut, maintain your energy levels, and prevent hangry moments. 

Fiber Add-Ins

Chia seeds, ground flaxseed, nuts, and oats can be packed in plastic or reusable baggies. They can be added to smoothies, yogurt, shakes, soups, and salads to boost fiber and the vitamin/mineral content of your food. 

Non-Perishable Snacks 

Granola bars and trail mix travel well and can be thrown into any bag. Look for ones without inulin, chicory root, or sugar alcohols. Fody Foods and BelliWelli are two brands that offer Monash-certified low-FODMAP options. Go Macro and 88 Acres are two other brands we often recommend that are made without filler ingredients.

Fruits & Veggies 

Eat known tolerated fruits and vegetables when you can get them in. Mandarins and clementines are easy to throw in a bag and eat throughout the trip. Bananas (often green) can be found at airports and even gas stations. Kiwis can be picked up from a local store and help with constipation. Order salads with lemon and olive oil and steamed veggies or sauteed in light oil at restaurants to increase your intake while away. 

Ginger Tea Bags

The active ingredient in ginger, gingerol, has been shown to help with nausea. It may also have antispasmodic and muscle-relaxant effects. Ginger tea is warming and could help if you feel bloated or nauseated.

Peppermint Tea Bags

Peppermint tea is cooling and is also anecdotally known to help with nausea. It also might help relieve some abdominal pain. Peppermint tea is not the same thing as encapsulated peppermint oil; however, peppermint tea might help those with functional dyspepsia. 

Tea bags can be packed in a plastic pouch and hardly take up any room in your carry-on or suitcase. Plus, a warm cup of tea can be calming and soothing, especially after a day of meetings or a hectic family event. Taking the time for yourself to enjoy a cup of warm tea can also reduce your anxiety and stress. 

Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate

Proper hydration is vital for digestion and maintaining normal bowel movements. Drinking water throughout the day often gets overlooked when traveling, so setting yourself up for success is key. 

How to Get Your Drink On

  • Drinks aren’t the only place you get fluids - fruits and veggies like cucumber, oranges, tomatoes, and lettuce are also great sources. 
  • Bring a water bottle with you to ensure you stay hydrated on your trip. If flying, you can bring an empty bottle through security and fill it on the other side. Having a bottle in front of you will help remind you to drink throughout the day. 
  • Drink a large glass of water first thing in the morning to set yourself up
  • If you don’t like plain water, try adding a little juice, citrus fruit, or a low-sugar electrolyte supplement to help you to keep drinking throughout the day. Herbal teas, like the ones above, and coffee are also fluid sources; just be wary of caffeine and its effects on sleep. 

Move, Move, Move 

As one of the studies mentioned above, one reason that we may become constipated when traveling is a lack of physical activity (Sitting on planes, trains, in cars, and meetings). All muscle groups benefit from movement, which is true for the muscles in the gut. Exercise brings blood to the muscles and organs, can stimulate gastrointestinal motility, and can help to regulate bowel movements. Below are our suggestions for planning physical activity when you’re out of town.

Plan for Movement When You’re Away

  • Research parks and hikes to take in your location. Alltrails.com is a great resource that lists hikes, walks, and biking trails by level, time, distance, and features such as family and dog-friendliness. 
  • Take the stairs when they’re available. Walk or run up to get your heart pumping and blood flowing. 
  • Walk parking lots, airports, neighborhoods, and malls. Even two minutes at a time can be  beneficial. 
  • Scope out local gyms - many offer day passes, or you can download an exercise app to do in your hotel room or at the park; look for yoga and exercise studios that offer drop-in classes.

Breathe, Breathe, Breathe

Diaphragmatic Breathing, also known as belly breathing or box breathing, helps the body to relax and is shown to reduce blood pressure, muscle tension, and stress hormones. It can also help provide a gentle massage to the intestines and stomach. Diaphragmatic breathing can be used during any moments of stress, before and after eating, and while on the toilet to help relax the bowels. 

Step-by-Step Diaphragmatic Breathing Technique

  • Place a hand on your chest and one on your abdomen
  • Inhale through the nose for about 4-5 seconds, filling your belly (not your chest) with air.
  • Hold your breath for about 3-4 seconds
  • Exhale steadily through the mouth for about 6-7 seconds.
  • Repeat for a few minutes. 

Remember to Practice Proper Toileting Positioning

Toileting position (how you hold yourself on the toilet) can either help or hinder stool evacuation. You want your knees to be above your hips to allow for the rectum to release its contents completely. How can you do this if you’re in a hotel or staying with family?

How to Up Your Toilet Posture Game When Out-of-Town

  • Pack a travel squatty potty. You can find them online and on Amazon. They fold up and can fit in a carry-on suitcase.
  • Use a stool or a stack of books, extra rolls of toilet paper, and even upside-down garbage cans or tissue containers will work - anything to keep your knees above your hips!

You’ve Got This

Traveling and being away from home can be stressful for anyone, but it can increase fear and anxiety if you have IBS or another disorder of the gut-brain interaction. And while constipation and diarrhea can be common outcomes, knowing that you’re prepared can help reduce some of the negative feelings that you might associate with travel. If you’d like more guidance or if you’re still feeling scared about your upcoming travel, we can help you manage your symptoms and give you personalized advice that will help you to keep pooping like a pro!

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