IBS, or Irritable Bowel Syndrome, is a functional bowel disorder that prevents many people from travelling the world, and seeing the places they have always dreamed of experiencing.
It’s become the most commonly diagnosed gastrointestinal disorder, and it’s estimated that 15% of the world’s population have it.
For many people, IBS is a chronic condition which causes bloating, gas, cramping, and inconsistent stools. There are several types of IBS including what is known as IBS-D which causes frequent diarrhea.
Many people who suffer from IBS-D are afraid to travel in fear they may have an uncontrollable accident while on a plane, in a taxi, or taking a guided tour. Travel can already be quite stressful but when you add the fear of an embarrassing accident, it often becomes too much to bear.
This build-up of anxiety often triggers intense IBS flare-ups which make the symptoms of the disorder much worse. It’s not uncommon for travelers who develop IBS to resign themselves to the belief that they’ll never be able to travel again.
While there is no known cure for IBS, we have come a long way in finding effective ways to reduce the effects of the disorder. And over 10 years of constant trial and error, we personally, have managed to find a way to still travel while managing it.
With a little extra planning and determination you don’t need to spend the rest of your life locked up in the confines of your house. I’ve gathered some of the best tips for traveling with IBS that are currently out there to hopefully get you off the couch!
Tips for Traveling With IBS
What Exactly is IBS?
Before we get into the ways you can effectively combat your IBS, let’s explain exactly what the disorder is.
IBS is not an autoimmune disorder. Rather, it is a functional issue with the bowel, where researchers believe there is an issue regarding the gut and the brain not cooperating in harmony.
While we still don’t know what exactly causes IBS, we do know that patients with IBS suffer from a digestive system that is not functioning normally and there are several different types of IBS. While it may not be an autoimmune disorder, the symptoms of IBS can be quite similar to other autoimmune disorders such as celiac disease (requiring gluten free).
IBS won’t directly decrease your life expectancy or lead to more serious diseases, but it can be quite debilitating for many people who often severely limit travelling or simply don’t want to go out in public, especially those suffering from IBS-D.
IBS causes many people to not only miss out on travel experiences, but they may also struggle with going to work or school. This can lead to severe anxiety and depression.
Counseling, dietary changes, and medication are all ways which can help. If you’re looking for an anxiety therapist, BetterHelp has a great resource for you to check: www.betterhelp.com/advice/therapy/8-tips-for-finding-a-therapist-for-anxiety/.
Travel, however, can cause your IBS to flare up due to the added stress and can quickly erase a lot of the progress you have made when it comes to getting your IBS under control. So, let’s look at the ways you can help stop your IBS from bullying you, and preventing you from seeing the world.
Watch What You Eat
If you’re suffering from IBS, you’re well aware that certain foods seem to exacerbate your IBS symptoms. While you’re no doubt restricting your diet and being cautious at home in regards to what you consume, you should make an effort to be even more mindful about what you eat while travelling.
It often takes a lot of trial and error to learn which foods make you IBS worse, and once you know this list of foods you certainly want to avoid them while travelling.
Fully research your travel destinations in advance to make sure you will be able to find places to eat that offer the food you can easily digest. For instance, if you have found that consuming gluten aggravates your IBS, make a list of restaurants that serve gluten-free options.
Don’t be afraid to order a special meal from an airline or bring along snacks you know will be safe for you if you feel the airline won’t be able to accommodate you. It’s also important to discuss your IBS and food restrictions with tour companies.
You don’t want to be stuck on a 2-week safari being forced to eat foods you know will aggravate your IBS because there are no alternative meals available. Make sure to read up on popular local dishes to see what ingredients may be present, as you may not be familiar with such dishes.
Watch Out for Dehydration
You should also be aware that diarrhea episodes can cause dehydration. If you are experiencing frequent trips to the bathroom, make sure to replenish your fluids and electrolytes.
Those with IBS-C can make their constipation even worse by not drinking enough water during their travels. Flying on a plane can be particularly dehydrating. Stick to drinking water in the air and avoid alcohol and caffeine.
Elimination Diet Before You Travel
Before you start travelling, be sure to nail down what foods you know you can safely eat by way of an elimination diet. Depending on your type of IBS, you may also want to look into practicing either a low or high fiber diet.
Other diets that have proven effect for IBS include a low fat diet, gluten-free diet, and low FODMAP diet. FODMAPs are basically carbohydrates that many people find difficult to digest since they pull more water into the bowel.
You may find you will experience less gas, bloating, and diarrhea by sticking to a low FODMAP diet. Of course you will want to consult with your doctor before tackling any new diet, especially if you plan to go on a diet long term.
High levels of stress often make IBS symptoms much worse. In fact, some researchers believe some instances of IBS may be triggered by a major stressful life event.
Stress can often be brought on by a change of routine which of course is likely when travelling. This can exacerbate your IBS. Travel is stressful for nearly everyone whether they have IBS or not due to making bookings, catching planes, dealing with currency conversions, and dealing with foreign transport. Having the fear you won’t have easy access to a bathroom for IBS sufferers only adds to travel stress.
While you can never guarantee that bad things or accidents won’t happen during your travels, there are steps you can take to minimize the chances of unfortunate events occurring. For starters, you may want to book an aisle seat on the plane near the bathrooms if you have IBS.
Download a mediation app or your favorite soothing music to calm your nerves while in the air. Don’t overload your itinerary with too many activities and allow yourself plenty of time to get to the airport or make it to booked tours and attractions. Creating an itinerary that is flexible will help reduce potential stress.
Other ways to reduce stress while travelling include sticking as close to possible to your normal routine and regularly making time for exercise. Many IBS patients seem to suffer more when they change up their routine too much.
Stick to eating meals when you normally eat them and go to bed when you normally would back home. Engaging in exercise while travelling will help keep your immune system in good working order and can help ease many IBS symptoms.
Remember that travel is supposed to be relaxing and fun. Book trips that make you excited and hopefully that excitement will overpower your fear of travelling.
If you are the type of person that worries about all the potential things that could happen while travelling like losing your luggage or missing a flight, be sure to purchase comprehensive travel insurance to protect you from financial hardship and help get you back on your travels quickly.
While many travelers can be quite flexible in terms of what accommodation they stay in while travelling, it may be wise for IBS sufferers to stick with accommodation that won’t bring on stress.
If you’re an IBS sufferer who needs to use the bathroom frequently, you may want to avoid hostels or hotels where you are forced to share a bathroom with others. Having your own private en-suite you can access whenever you need to will make a world of difference.
If you’re worried about finding the right food for your IBS while travelling, look at booking self-catering accommodation which offers a full kitchen so you can prepare your own meals. Look up hotels that are located near local grocery stores so you can easily shop for foods you can eat.
If you’re worried about being around a lot of people while travelling, maybe stay clear of resorts and instead find more relaxed boutique hotels, glamping spots, or home rentals off Airbnb.
People with IBS often find it stressful constantly having to ride up many floors in large hotel elevators or having to park in an underground hotel lot and needing to walk a long distance to reach their room. Stick with accommodation you can quickly check-in to and one that you can freely leave and return with little effort.
Going to the Bathroom Overseas
We have already covered the fact that having easy access to a bathroom is extremely important for IBS sufferers. When you travel, you are forced to give up the comfort and familiarity of your own bathroom at home.
When you travel, you are going into a place where everything is most likely foreign, and not knowing where all the public toilets are can promote a lot of stress for those with IBS. Simply type in “public toilet” to Google maps to help you locate all the ones available in the area you are travelling to.
You may also want to look up how to ask where the bathroom is if you’re travelling to a country that speaks a different language. If you plan on taking a bus, train, or cruise on a small ship, make sure to ask if bathrooms will be available.
Make sure that a restaurant has a bathroom on site before settling in to place your order. Not all countries have bathrooms around every corner like in the U.S. and sometimes access to public bathrooms is charged.
If you’re an IBS sufferer who is really picky about the bathrooms you use, especially when it comes to cleanliness or actually having a toilet seat to sit on, you may not want to book travel experiences that force you to use dingy bathrooms, squat toilets, or even the natural bush.
Needing to use the bathroom frequently and being forced to use facilities that you really aren’t comfortable with will only make your travels more stressful and unpleasant.
Travel with Family or Close Friends
Consider traveling with family or a very close friend who is aware of your IBS whenever possible. Having someone that understands what you’re going through or at least someone that can support you goes a long way to reducing your stress levels.
Should the worst case happen and you have an accident in public, you’ll have someone there to help and comfort you during this stressful period.
Having a close friend or family member with you is especially beneficial when you have IBS and are too shy or soft-spoken to express what you need. You need to be able to effectively express what your needs are when travelling whether it’s getting the right food or making things more comfortable for you in terms of calming your stress.
If you don’t think you will be able to do this on your own, than having an outgoing and personable companion will be a lifesaver. If travelling with a loved one isn’t an option, it’s important to remember that millions of people around the world suffer from IBS.
Don’t be afraid to explain you have the disorder and ask for the things you need while travelling. You will often find that people are genuinely helpful and may even have IBS themselves or know someone that suffers from it.
Avoid Contracting other Illnesses
If you suffer from IBS, the last thing you want is to get sick from something unrelated while travelling. It’s important to do everything in your power to avoid diseases and infections such as gastro as their symptoms may be similar to your IBS symptoms.
You may think you are just having another IBS flare up when in fact there may be something more serious at play.
You may do everything perfect when it comes to managing your IBS effectively, but if you don’t follow proper hygiene and health safety while travelling, you could still end up with gastrointestinal problems. It’s better to be somewhat of a germophobe while travelling rather than be too lax about catching a nasty bug or illness.
We have all seen how quickly infectious diseases like the COVID-19 coronavirus can spread so you should always listen to any health warnings or health safety tips that are issued by your home country.
Always make sure you’re up to date on all the recommended travel vaccinations and wash or sanitize your hands frequently while travelling. Avoid large gatherings or confined spaces with a lot of people and really watch what you eat.
As an IBS sufferer you are most likely already watching what you eat, but when travelling you must also make sure the water is safe to drink and that you’re only eating from establishments with proper food handling procedures in place. You may want to stick to bottled water and avoid food from street vendors or raw/undercooked food in general.
I hope these tips provide you with a bit of relief the next time you travel with your IBS.
It’s important to remember that many people travel the world with IBS and it isn’t a disorder that should control your life. Take charge of your IBS and test out some of these control measures to start seeing the world again.