Traveling can create lifelong memories and be the perfect antidote to feeling overworked or worn out. Unfortunately, it can also be a major challenge for people like me with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). New foods, unknown environments, and travel-related stress can all aggravate my IBS. But that doesn’t mean I don’t travel, I just am more careful when I’m away from home.
Traveling with IBS takes a little extra consideration, but it’s well worth it. Don’t let your IBS stand in the way of seeing the world. Here are my top tips for traveling if you have IBS.
1. BYOF: Bring your own food
Plane food is risky in general, but add in IBS, and it’s a recipe for travel disaster. I always bring snacks in my carry-on for short flights. I’ll also bring meals if it’s a longer flight or I’m flying during my usual mealtime.
Once I land, I keep snacks on hand throughout the trip. Having snacks while I’m out can keep hunger at bay and prevent me from eating something I shouldn’t out of desperation. When traveling abroad, I typically pack a few favorites that will last me the entire trip and then stop by a local grocery store at my destination to shore up my supplies.
2. Keep a routine
Just because you aren’t at home doesn’t mean you should completely ditch your normal routine. Keep your normal eating schedule, even if you are on a different time zone. Adjust for where you are so you still eat your meals like you would at home.
This is especially important for me when jet lag is involved. Eating at my usual intervals helps keep my stomach on a regular pattern, and it means I don’t go to bed overly full or with a roiling stomach. I felt better all day when I bucked the cultural norms in Spain and ate dinner earlier in the evening like I would at home. As a bonus, I was able to get reservations at popular restaurants because no one else wanted to eat so early.
3. Get Yourself Mentally Prepared
In addition to making your basic travel arrangements, take some time to visualize yourself successfully handling the challenges you will face. Mental rehearsal is an effective tool for athletic success—you can use it to prepare your body for your upcoming trip.
In a quiet place, sit calmly and relax your body. Close your eyes and walk yourself through the trip. This will allow you to identify the aspects that are of particular concern to you. Open your eyes and develop a plan for handling any “worst case” scenarios. Close your eyes again and rehearse your plan. Visualize yourself handling all challenges in a relaxed, confident manner. This will greatly enhance your ability to stay calm as you make your way through your trip.
4. Confide in Your Companions
Dealing with IBS is hard enough. Don’t make it worse for yourself by trying to hide your distress from your traveling companions. If you will need special accommodations, speak up! You have a legitimate medical disorder and therefore you have a right to make sure that you will be as comfortable as possible.
Remember, most people have a true desire to be helpful. Given the high incidence of IBS in the general population, you might be surprised to find out who else is dealing with the very same thing. You can simply say, “I have a digestive disorder that sometimes causes me to get sick when I travel. Therefore I need to be careful about what I eat and I may need to spend some extra time in the bathroom.”
5. Learn Local Cuisine Basics and Key Phrases
If you travel internationally and you’re a low FODMAPer, finding food to eat will most likely be a challenge. Before I travel, I try to identify the most popular ingredients used in local food, and how to ask for modifications. For example, before I went to Thailand, I found that a lot of Thai food is coconut based with garlic and onions and is heavy on the sugar. Not FODMAP friendly, so I had to be prepared. I definitely needed to know how to ask for “no sugar” (“Mai sai nam tan”) when ordering food…they even added sugar to fruit!
6. Choose a friendly destination, if possible
Finally, if you are able to choose where you go, be mindful of your destination and its potential pitfalls.
For example, you may want to avoid Mexico or a third-world country where food and water are problematic. Getting a stomach infection can cause IBS flare-ups, Dr. Kirsh says. Try not to set yourself up for trouble by planning trips where you’ll have to walk for long periods of time or travel frequently by train.
You don’t have to stay home to manage your IBS. Think and plan ahead, and you can confidently open yourself up to a world of travel opportunities.
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