How to take care of your digestion on your escape
Kristina Campbell, MSc
The chances of having a grumpy gut increase when you travel. With these tips to keep your gut microbiome as your ally, you can cultivate problem-free digestion through your entire trip.
Hat and sunscreen? Check. Stack of magazines? Check. I’d picked out a deck chair with a great view of the pool and the palms, and was settling in for a great afternoon in the sun. It was a chance to relax and forget about everything ... well, everything except the sharp pains in my stomach.
Whether or not you normally live with digestive symptoms such as bloating, gas, abdominal pain, or abnormal stool consistency, the likelihood of having to deal with them is greater when venturing away from home. With an estimated 15 million travellers annually experiencing an episode of infectious diarrhea, you can expect the unexpected with your gut while you travel.
Granted, it’s not an easy task to protect the 300-square-metre surface of your digestive tract— an area the size of a tennis court—from the constant barrage of environmental factors you encounter while you travel. The gut surface is coated with bacteria, archaea, fungi, and viruses: a community known as your gut microbiome.
Scientists have described the gut microbiome as the body’s “interface with the external world of the traveller,” as the microbes appear to ebb and flow depending on where you go, what you eat, and what you do.
Research shows that even a perfectly healthy traveller can experience a gut microbiome shift—sometimes called a “dysbiosis”—which could affect health by increasing his or her susceptibility to infection by some diarrhea-causing bacteria.
Fortunately, science has yielded some clues about how to avoid digestive problems while travelling, keeping our collection of gut micro-organisms working for us rather than against us.
Certain live micro-organisms can be a traveller’s best friend. Evidence supports the use of the probiotic Lactobacillus plantarum and some other species (or mixtures of species) for improving gastrointestinal symptoms, while the yeast species Saccharomyces boulardii may be able to treat traveller’s diarrhea specifically.
Probiotics as a preventive measure have not been widely studied in travellers, but evidence shows taking certain probiotics in advance of your trip may help prevent the dreaded bout of diarrhea.
A recent mouse study suggested the microbiome bears the mark of even short-term dietary changes associated with travel; this could affect the movement of food through the digestive tract and plausibly affect our bowel habits.
Wherever in the world you find yourself, choosing your foods and beverages carefully can go a long way toward reducing the risk of gastrointestinal infection. Foods served fresh and hot carry less risk of harbouring pathogenic bacteria than fruit and vegetables you wash and peel yourself do.
You might have to keep a stash of your go-to energy bars in your suitcase for times when you’re unsure about the provenance of the food on offer.
A 2014 study found jet-lagged mice ate at irregular times, leading to gut microbiome dysbiosis. In both mice and humans, this jet-lag-associated dysbiosis increased glucose intolerance and obesity.
It stands to reason that if you’re shifting time zones during your trip, set your clock right away to the local hour and stick as closely as possible to your regular mealtimes to avoid digestive problems.
Just two days of partial sleep deprivation in a recent study was enough to induce a gut microbiome dysbiosis and change metabolism in healthy young adults. It makes sense to use your vacation time as an opportunity to give your gut bugs the sleep they need.
Evidence shows dietary fibre may reduce infection-related problems by boosting levels of short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs)—immune-supportive molecules produced by bacteria—in your gut.
Your microbiome creates SCFAs out of nondigestible carbohydrates, so make sure you seek out sources of fibre at every meal: foods such as plantains, cashews, barley, and muesli are particularly good sources. Or bring along a prebiotic supplement for serious fibre power.
Since it’s well documented that certain medications and supplements affect our gut microbiomes, changing your intake while travelling could potentially induce even greater shifts in the bacterial community.
Make sure you pack a good supply of the supplements and medicines you normally take, and label them clearly.
Stress may increase the severity of gastrointestinal symptoms, perhaps because it triggers changes in the gut microbiome (via the gut-brain axis) that disrupt normal intestinal function.
So at the end of each travel day, it’s wise to let the anxieties and the adrenalin subside by finding a calming activity; for example, watching the sunset, taking a walk on the beach, or practising a quiet meditation.
When you’re set to experience the adventure of a lifetime, you don’t want an accidental adventure of a different kind—Mission: Find the Nearest Washroom Immediately. With just a few preventive measures for gut health, you can avoid digestive problems and focus 100 percent on your great escape.
|turmeric||is thought to inhibit gastrointestinal inflammation|
|ginger||has been shown to alleviate some forms of nausea and vomiting|
|prebiotics||formulations such as galacto-oligosaccharides are associated with a reduced incidence of traveller’s diarrhea|
|probiotics||evidence supports the use of certain probiotics for preventing diarrhea, as well as treating both traveller’s diarrhea and general gastrointestinal symptoms|