Vacation Constipation: The Malady Travelers Don’t Talk About

Vacation constipation Bristol Stool Chart

Vacation constipation is something seldom spoken about. Travelers tell tales about the foods they’ve eaten and recount the places they’ve been but tales of the gut remain under the radar.

On the popular online magazine (BA50) few topics are off-limits, including this one. So I was delighted when BA50’s founder Felice Shapiro’s graciously agreed to share her thoughts. It’s been recently updated, including info on an interesting study that discusses the benefits of eating kiwis to relieve constipation.

Pre-vacation organizing makes my head spin and my belly ache (more on that later).  I am always overwhelmed by the packing and organizing piece of travel. The lists are long and challenging.

Trying to go “carry-on” for a 12-day trip is my latest challenge and I’m not sure I will be able to downsize my wardrobe into the overhead dimensions.  Never mind the clothes, I’ve got hair stuff, night cream, sunblock, and anticipatory prescriptions. My cosmetic/ER bag is full to the brim.

We are going to Israel with our good friends and have put together our day-by-day tour. Because there’s just the four of us, we will be able to decide how long to linger and when it’s time to “move along.”

However, because we are energetic travelers covering a lot of the country, I anticipate there will be little “downtime.”  This leads me to a topic that comes up over and over again when I’m traveling and feeling rushed.

Vacation constipation can crop up anywhere

Eating and vacationing are indeed an activity, a sport and a cultural immersion.

Whether it’s the spices of Thailand or the pastas of Italy, the sushi in Japan, or the wines of France — there is no limit to what I can ingest in a day. The cuisines may vary but the results never do. I am stumped by how I can go days without the satisfaction of a good reason to flush. How can that be?

Days into my travels, I am inevitably in search of a pharmacy to solve my problem. I have learned how to say constipated in French, Italian, German and Japanese; frankly, I’m not interested in learning how to say it in Hebrew.

The topic seems to be gender specific (but there is no scientific research to substantiate this).  It turns out that more women talk to doctors (and each other) about this issue than men. But that doesn’t mean men don’t suffer as well.  However, I never hear the men on our trips discussing this travel issue as much as my girlfriends do.

Both extroverted and introverted women seem to engage in this topic–it is not really personality specific.  As a teen traveling abroad, a 20-something and beyond–the topic has not dissipated as time marches on.  

So, before I take flight, I decided to do some research to understand this chronic issue better and to see if there are ways to ward off the inevitable.

It turns out that vacation constipation is a common risk for travelers.

One estimate suggests that some 40 percent of people experience constipation when they are away from home.

What is constipation?

Travel constipation can make it hard to go
Travel constipation can make it hard to go

According to the National Institutes of Health, constipation is defined as having three or fewer bowel movements in a week.

You may also experience:

  • hard, dry or lumpy stools;
  • stools that are difficult to pass; or
  • a feeling you still have to go.

Why do people get constipated when they travel?

Travel changes us. It also changes our gut.

We eat and drink differently, we may be sitting on planes and trains for longer periods of time, and we may even forget to drink enough water. 

What can we do to avoid vacation constipation?

Some fiber-rich foods for starters
Some fiber-rich foods for starters (credit: NIH)

Here are some options:

1. Eat plenty of fiber (stay away from cheese and processed fast food – isn’t that redundant?)

2. Try to stay away from an excess of baked goods, starch and processed foods.

3. Hydrate often – it will help keep your stools soft.

4. Get off your butt – get moving. Sitting for too long is bad news for the bowels. Get up and move, move, move.

5. Stay away from caffeine and alcohol when traveling – they will dehydrate you further.

6. Regular use of stool softeners help draw water into the stool to make it easier to go when you do; they also will lessen the chance of irritating hemorrhoids

7. Suppositories are available and good as a last resort but if you’re traveling the deserts on jeeps and horseback, the first four are your best bet and will keep you in charge of your body.

Once you turn over your system to laxatives, you may get results but not on a timetable that’s workable.

Of course, before you use over-the-counter stool softeners or suppositories, check with your doctor. And if you have abdominal pain, you should also check with a medical professional.

Kiwis: Another aid to avoid vacation constipation?

Not only an aide for vacation constipation, kiwis benefit digestive, immune and metabolic health
Kiwis benefit digestive, immune and metabolic health

Editor’s Note:

While updating this article, I came upon a new research study in Medscape that offers another tip to help avoid vacation constipation. 

In a multicenter, randomized controlled trial, researchers found that consumption of two kiwifruits per day (among healthy patients with functional constipation) was associated with:

  • increased bowel movement frequency,
  • improved GI comfort,
  • reduced straining (which can exacerbate hemorrhoids), and
  • softer stool consistency

The study compared kiwi consumption with the use of psyllium (a fiber supplement commonly used as a laxative) and concluded that the kiwis were more effective.

Functional constipation was defined as “intermittent or occasional symptomatic alterations in bowel habit, in the absence of warning signs for more serious conditions.

This study reminded me that kiwis are often within easy reach on the breakfast buffet, whether at European hotels or cruise ships.

In addition to their promise for the gut, kiwis are nutrient-rich and exceptionally high in Vitamin C.

I guess it can’t hurt to eat two of these delicious fruits each day.

Felice Shapiro is the model of reinvention for 50-somethings, both personally and professionally. Read more about Felice here.

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Practical Tips to Avoid Vacation Constipation
Practical Tips to Avoid Vacation Constipation

Vacation Constipation

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  1. The rhyming title is a funny combination, but that’s where the fun ends. We’ve always worried about this malady and have been lucky so far. It’s also funny that there is a picture chart of all the types. So which types haven’t you experienced – or is that too personal.

  2. Great tips, and things that we can easily overlook when we’re travelling. I loved the stool chart, and would have liked more explanation – what causes each type – but that’s a bit squirm making really isn’t it!!! I travelled through India and got constipated – who’d have thought!!

  3. I know it’s not meant to be funny, but that Bristol stool chart just is (and I’m a nurse). My fun challenge is going to be going to Mexico next week with a recently discovered non-functioning gallbladder (no stones), so I’ve been on this strict no fat/grease diet that really works to avoid gallbladder problems, and I’ll have surgery when I come back in ten days. Avoiding the lethal foods in Mexico should be interesting, but I’m doing it now, and am determined to stick to it while there. Fiber is also my friend, lots of fruit, vegetables and grilled fish and constipation is not a problem.

  4. I have been traveling for the last 10 years and I never had any issue with my colon so far. Guess I am a lucky one and I really don’t pay attention to any of those. Of course I hydrate then drink alcohol and coffee and enjoy the entertainment systems. I once flew 22h flight to NZ and had a great time. When I read the comment it seems like an issue for a lot of people. ?

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