SWMBO tackles the sometimes embarrassing topic of travel digestion.
This post isn’t about healthy eating per se. It’s about maintaining gut health while travelling. Travel is hard on the system – no doubt about it. Changing time zones, lugging suitcases, eating foreign foods, sleeping on the plane. But what kind of travel are we talking about? There is Travel and then there is travel. Capital “T” travel to me means being in transit. Small “t” travel means the vacation/adventure portion of a trip. Each has its own challenges.
Capital “T” Travel – the further you travel, the more amplified the effect.
- Sleep disruption
- Unhealthy foods
- Physical Strain
- Lack of exercise
It doesn’t seem so dramatic but the journey can really affect your gut health and the further you go and the longer you take to get there, the worse it will be. So what to do?
Sleep disruption is inevitable and I, for one, know that I can’t sleep in weird situations. Personally, I would rather wait until I can sleep well but that could be a long, long time. Get good quality sleep when you can and try to minimize the other challenges to allow you to face sleep deprivation. Believe it or not, sleep issues will affect your digestion. Travelling with an eye mask is a good idea. Or, in a pinch, you could just use a (clean) knee high sock.
Try to limit unhealthy foods as much as possible. Sometimes when we travel, we eat stuff that we normally wouldn’t. A treat. My recommendation is when “t”ravelling that is okay but when “T”ravelling that is not a good idea. When “T”ravelling, your body has too many other things to deal with and let’s face it, the “treats” you will encounter will be less about delicious temptation and more about memories of bad habits of the past. Try not to go for the “Asian snacks” and complimentary gin and tonic on the plane – you won’t regret saying no.
Please do bring healthy things to eat in transit, remembering all the various restrictions you will face. I like to pack dried fruit, nuts and things like that. I also bring a super healthy dish like kale or beet salad to eat at the airport before boarding. That takes the edge off my hunger and allows me to skip most of the airplane meal. I admit it – I eat the mediocre sweaty cheese and hydrogenated fat crackers. Bringing things like coconut water (to drink before security) and fruit (to eat post security but prior to landing) and healthy packaged snacks like seaweed (to eat after clearing customs at destination) is the secret to maintaining your digestive health while travelling.
Bring an empty vessel for water and try to fill it as much as possible. You will get dehydrated on the plane if you have to ask for water each time you want a drink on a long trip. Different airports have different security scenarios. In some, you can bring liquids in because security is done at the gate. At most, you can’t take liquids in but once through security, you can fill up with liquids and take them onboard. You will be busy and won’t think to drink water. Whenever, wherever possible, drink, drink, drink.
Stress during travel is inevitable. Try to keep calm and carry on. Goodness knows there is enough merch with that slogan around to remind you. On short trips of up to ten days, stress usually arises because of delays (cutting into MY time!!!!) or sub-par bookings (we were supposed to have an ocean view!!!!). On long trips stress usually arises because of danger (this civil unrest is getting a little out of hand), cultural differences (why are gongs playing at 4 am) and language barriers (I don’t understand anything and I just want to find the bus station). Time, money, safety. If it’s a question of safety – maintain your level of stress and keep your wits about you. If it is a question of money or time, try not to worry. You can probably fix problems after the fact.
The most likely cause of physical strain is yourself. Your discomfort doesn’t seem so bad at the time and there is a real sense of urgency when travelling. At the risk of sounding wimpy, try to take it as easy as possible. Slow down, shift bags from one shoulder to the next, take the travellator, and don’t feel shy to let others pass you. There is always another bus is you miss the first one. Try not to maintain poses that will cause you to cramp up. This is hard when you are wedged into a small space or have four kids drooling on you but try, as much as possible, to make sure you aren’t uncomfortable for long periods. It won’t seem (so) bad while you are doing it but after you have slept and stiffened up – ai yai yai!!! When others are moaning and taking Robaxacet, you will be smiling and taking the stairs up the Eiffel Tower.
Lack of exercise creeps up on one and before you know it you feel bloated, blah and constipated. Try to keep moving when travelling. It doesn’t have to be anything dramatic but stretch on the plane (even if you look crazy), take advantage of the outdoors to do squats and lunges, take the stairs.
Small “t” travel – balance indulgence with moderation to keep your tummy happy.
- Change of Routine
- Lack of Excercise
When you’re on vacation – you’re on vacation, man! It’s time to cut loose. IMHO, I don’t approve of a vacation where you don’t allow yourself to indulge. But be careful. Eating cheese twice a day for two weeks will not make you feel too great. Eating hash brownies (since we’re in Amsterdam, it comes to mind), probably even less great. And there is nothing worse than being constipated on vacation. Unless it is having diarrhea. Or maybe being horribly bloated. Or puking your guts out. Or going into detox or jail.
Again, when on vacation it is time to enjoy the local atmosphere and flavour. The longer you are in a place, the more you will acclimatize and be able to enjoy local customs. Also, the more foreign the locale to your place of origine, the longer the transition. Fahbio and I love spicy foods and tolerate them well but when we arrived in Malaysia, we took it really easy at first.
Travel is exciting. That’s why we do it. You might be visiting family or old friends. You might be going to a Michelin three star restaurant. You might be spending all day in the sun at the beach. Keeping your gut healthy will help you to enjoy the excitement without having it get the best of you.
We all know we need to keep hydrated and we all know that when travelling to certain destinations, we should drink bottled water. But over many years of travel, I have noticed that water can play a major role in travel digestion. I am a believer in tap water and contrary to what most North Americans think, Europeans do drink their tap water. In much of Europe, the water is extremely hard (lots of minerals) and delicious. BUT, I believe that the hard water contributes to constipation. I have nothing to back that claim up but I suggest starting with bottled water no matter where you go and then easing into the local tap water until you have weaned yourself off the bottled stuff.
When travelling, dining times are often way off what you are used to. Sleeping and waking times might be very different too. The more you are able to ease into these changes one at a time, the better your system will tolerate it.
Many of us, even the really active ones, use a vacation to take a break from exercise. Nothing wrong with that. Again, it is about cutting loose from your regular routine and doing something different. Rather that just becoming a couch potato while travelling, why not try something new? Rent a bike, play a round of golf, take a rowing lessons. Gentle exercise is one of the very best things you can do to maintain digestive health.