You’ve escaped the daily grind for a much-needed vacation. Everything is going great until you start to feel an uncomfortable rumbling and pain deep within your abdomen.
It dawns on you that, in the midst of planning and setting off on this exciting trip, you haven’t gone for a number two in a few days.
Vacation constipation is incredibly common, affecting between 30 and 40 percent of American travelers. It’s often a result of dehydration, sitting still for a long period of time on planes and trains, the stress of travel, eating new or junk foods, or a combination of them all.
While the hard and fast rule that says you must poop every day is a myth, going fewer than two or three times per week could be an indication the body needs more fiber and fluids to stimulate the colon and prompt a bowel movement.
In addition to staying hydrated and eating fiber-rich foods, gastroenterologists advise their patients to maintain a normal sleep schedule as much as possible, given that changing time zones upsets the body’s internal clock that regulates sleep and digestion.
And, if possible, prepare yourself by taking a probiotic supplement or dining on fermented foods that aid in digestion, such as yogurt and kimchi, in the days leading up to the trip.
Vacation constipation is estimated to affect roughly 40 percent of American adults. Staying hydrated, eating fibrous foods, and cutting back on stress as much as possible will help you stay ‘regular’
Travel and vacation do not lend themselves to staying ‘regular.’ In fact, everything about it throws a wrench into one’s bathroom schedule.
The stress of rushing to pack or get out the door can lead to a blockage.
In response to stress, the body releases corticotropin-releasing factor or CRF, which stimulates the production of a series of other hormones.
One of those is adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which is released from the pituitary gland.
ACTH then stimulates the adrenal glands to produce and release cortisol, a stress hormone that interferes with the normal movement of food through the digestive tract.
High cortisol levels limit the secretion of crucial digestive enzymes that help the body break down foods and absorb nutrients, which slows down the pace of food moving through the digestive system. This means muscles do not contract as they normally do, which is what propels food through the digestive system, leading to a slower transit time.
Travel also typically comes with changes to one’s sleep schedule, which has a hand in causing constipation.
Too little sleep has been linked to a 30 percent higher risk of constipation AND Sleeping too much has been linked to a 61 percent increased risk of constipation compared with a normal amount of time sleeping.
Dehydration is also a major contributor to constipation and flying to your destination can dry out the body.
Airplane cabins have very low humidity levels. About 50 percent of the air in a plane cabin is pulled in from the outside at high altitudes, where it’s almost completely devoid of moisture.
People may also be hesitant to use the airplane bathroom, or any public bathroom for that matter.
Toilet shyness affects a range of 6.5 to 32 percent of Americans, adding a layer of anxiety to travel, public events, and vacations.
Many people, either at the airport, train station, or their destination may ignore the urge to go if they feel uncomfortable using a strange toilet.
And it’s no secret that eating unhealthy foods on the go does few favors for your GI health.
Common foods that rushed travelers may reach for at the airport, train stations, and rest stops along the highway are typically not the types that a gastroenterologist would recommend, including pizza, cheese, sweets, processed and fast foods, chips, and processed meats.
These foods tend to be high in fat and low in fiber, a combination that slows digestion, causing the slow down of bowel movements.
Dr. Teri Brentnall, a gastroenterologist at the Digestive Health Center at the University of Washington, said : ‘Prunes, fruits, broccoli and other vegetables, wheat bran and yogurt with probiotics can improve the bulk of the stool, which in turn helps with the retaining of water in the stool, preventing constipation. These foods can also help balance the microbiome.’
In addition to drinking lots of water and snacking healthily on the go, experts recommend trying osmotic laxatives, which draw water into the stool to soften it.
Common osmotic laxatives on the market include Metamucil, Milk of Magnesia, and Miralax.
Taking a stool softener before a long trip can also help you poop more often while out of town, making it easier to pass with natural moisture in the intestine.
If all else fails, stimulant laxatives such as Ex-Lax and Dulcolax could be the way to go.
They trigger contractions in the bowels that move stool along.
But doctors prefer the osmotic variety because taking stimulant laxatives too often can cause the bowel to stop functioning normally and lead to a dependence on them to have all bowel movements.
Constipation can have very real effects on daily life – and your mood – especially if it happens often.
It can also cause severe pain in the abdomen and possibly bowel obstruction that requires a doctor’s help.
A 2011 study conducted by Iranian researchers published in the journal Gastroenterology and Hepatology from Bed to Bench found people with frequent constipation had an increased risk of anxiety and depression.
Even more troubling are the links between constipation and colorectal cancer (CRC) that have been uncovered. Conclusions are mixed, though.
A 2003 report in the American Journal of Gastroenterology found constipation, defined as fewer than three reported bowel movements per week, was associated with a greater than two-fold risk of colon cancer.
A separate 2012 report in the same journal found the risk of developing CRC was 1.78 times higher for patients with chronic constipation, and the risk of developing benign tumors was 2.7 times higher.
Another 2022 study in the journal Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology reported a 10 percent increased odds of developing colorectal cancer associated with constipation.