Top Ten Tips for Traveling with IBS

The Problems with Traveling with IBS

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Trains, planes and automobiles: the title of a pretty funny movie with John Candy and Steve Martin -- a potential nightmare if you are traveling with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). The rigors of travel, anxiety about bathroom access, strange foods, and disrupted sleep schedules can all serve to exacerbate the discomforts of IBS symptoms.

Luckily, there are things that you can do to maximize your comfort level as you venture forth. In the following slides, you will find my top tips for getting you out on the road again.

1. Get Yourself Mentally Prepared

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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.

2. Be Prepared Before You Even Leave the House

Man packing for a trip
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People are often unwilling to do things out of the ordinary to cope with a chronic condition, thinking that they are “giving in” to their disorder. On the contrary, taking active steps to deal with any ‘worst case’ scenarios can be quite empowering and calming. And as you know, anything that you can do to calm your body is only going to have a positive effect on your digestive system.

1. Talk to Your Doctor:

Prior to your trip, consult your physician about prescription options for treating any severe symptoms. Also, ask for permission to use over-the-counter products (OTCs) -- such as Imodium tablets for diarrhea or laxatives for constipation -- to help to minimize your discomfort. You may not need them, but knowing they are available can greatly contribute to peace of mind.

2. Pack Smart:

  1. IBS-friendly snacks, such as nuts, gluten-free bars, and trail mix
  2. Baby wipes
  3. Change of clothes 
  4. Prescription medications
  5. OTCs

For peace of mind, you may want to use an incontinence product, such as Depends.

If you are heading out for a road trip, you may want to invest in a small portable toilet to keep in the trunk of your car.

3. Map Out Bathroom Access: 

There are now many helpful bathroom-finding apps for your mobile device. Knowing ahead of time where bathrooms can be found can certainly help to keep your anxiety level down.

3. Eat Smart

woman choosing between fast food and a salad
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Travel can be stressful in and of itself, and sometimes involves changes in body clocks and sleep routines, all of which can serve to make your IBS symptoms worse. One thing that you have some control over is what you choose to eat.

Because your body will be dealing with those other potential triggers, give it a break when it comes to food. Perhaps this is the time to try to stick to low-FODMAP foods and avoid high-FODMAP foods.

It can be challenging to find healthy, gut-friendly foods while on the move. However, many fast food places now offer some healthier options such as grilled chicken, salads, and smoothies. Whenever possible, avoid junk food and fried foods as they can serve to set off unwanted symptoms. 

4. Work at Keeping Your Body Relaxed

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Because travel can be stressful, it becomes imperative that you engage in activities that will help to offset that stress.  Relaxation exercises are an easy way to do just that and can be very effective in keeping yourself calm.  As with all things, you get better with practice. Try out these various techniques to figure out which type of relaxation exercise works best for you and then practice, practice, practice!

5. Confide in Your Companions

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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." 

6. Pay Attention to Your Body Clock

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Optimally, the mechanisms in our bodies that regulate sleep, appetite, and bowel movements all function according to an internal rhythm.  Travel, particularly across time zones, can throw off your body’s clock -- and thus set off some IBS symptoms. In particular, traveling can raise your risk of getting constipated.

Similar to the importance of putting a newborn on a schedule, try to respect and pay attention to your body’s need for predictability. Whenever possible, try to maintain some consistency in your mealtimes and bedtimes.

7. Move Your Body

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Whenever possible, engage in some light exercise. A proven stress reliever, it will feel good to get your blood pumping and your muscles and joints moving. Stretch your legs at a rest stop; walk around the airplane terminals. Avoid an unusually intense workout during times of travel, as you do not want to put further stress on your immune system.

8. Stay Hydrated

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Dehydration is a very real risk of traveling, particularly on airplanes. Adequate fluid intake is crucial for optimum digestion. If you don't drink enough water, you put yourself at risk to become constipated. Similarly, if you are prone to diarrhea episodes, you will need to replenish any fluids lost in your repeated trips to the bathroom.

Drink plenty of bottled water throughout your trip. Try to avoid alcohol and caffeine; in addition to contributing to dehydration, they can be irritating to your digestive system.

9. Avoid Infection

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The last thing you want to do is to complicate your already comprised health situation is to expose yourself to an unwanted bacterial infection, commonly known as travelers' diarrhea. Protect yourself by doing the following:

  • Drink only bottled or boiled water.
  • Avoid street vendors or other unhygienic food sources.
  • Avoid raw or undercooked vegetables and fruits.
  • Avoid raw or undercooked​ meats and seafood.

10. Have Fun!

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In spite of the rigors, travel is filled with many life-enhancing benefits. The rewards can be tremendous:

  • Reconnect with loved ones
  • See the beauty of the world
  • Learn about new cultures
  • Meet strangers who become friends for life

IBS can be an isolating disorder; taking the steps to get back out into the world in spite of discomfort can be extremely empowering. See each excursion as a success, regardless of how you felt or what symptoms you experienced.


National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC) "Foodborne Illnesses".

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