The thrill of traveling is the chance to break out of your usual routines. But when your gut gets out of its usual routine, you might have a problem. That’s where having a list of go-to foods that can help keep your system in balance can come in handy.
But let’s back up a step to understand what could be throwing your body off in the first place. “For many, the changing air pressure on a plane affects your digestive system and causes constipation,” says Joy McCarthy, CNP, a faculty member at the Institute of Holistic Nutrition. “Traveling to a different time zone can be a double whammy on your regularity because your body takes some time to adjust to a new clock.”
“Traveling to a different time zone can be a double whammy on your regularity.”
Your destination plays a role, too. In places with poor food sanitation practices, travelers’ diarrhea might occur. In places where the food is out-and-out delicious, you can end up with indigestion. “It’s from eating too much as a result of the ‘when in Rome’ mentality taking over,” says McCarthy, who’s also the best-selling author of Joyous Health and Joyous Detox and a co-creator of Eat Well Feel Well, a nutrition and yoga program in Toronto. But here’s the good news: With a little know-how, you don’t have to suffer or pass up the croissants in Paris or the pizza in Naples.
Here are Joy McCarthy’s top tips for keeping your digestive system humming while you’re on vacation.
To counteract constipation
“Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate,” McCarthy says. “I recommend that everyone bring their favorite water bottle, fill it, and take it wherever they go. Your digestive system needs water to break down food and move it through the intestines for easy elimination.” BYO (water) bottle, and try to limit salt, alcohol, and caffeine, each of which has a dehydrating effect.
Fiber-rich foods are also helpful, as they move food through the digestive system. Menu items that include foods like flax, chia, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, beans, lentils, and hemp seeds help add bulk to stools, which permits more effective transit through the intestinal system. The soluble fiber in foods like oatmeal, chia, apples, apricots, bananas, and blueberries will help to soften stools, making them easier to pass.
You can bring many of these superfoods with you from home, as long as your destination isn’t too strict about bringing in foreign foods. Pack those along with McCarthy’s number-one supplement recommendation: probiotics. They’re proven to prevent travelers’ diarrhea, can relieve constipation, and support your immune system.
To prevent bloating
Take a supplement to support digestion. “It’s very likely you’re going to eat foods you aren’t used to eating that your body isn’t able to break down very well,” McCarthy says. Certain bitters support digestion by stimulating secretions of the liver, pancreas, stomach, and small intestine, which allows food to move more quickly through the digestive system. Look for bitters that contain dandelion, rhubarb, or fennel (St. Francis Canadian Bitters and Flora are two brands she recommends) and take the prescribed dosage on an empty stomach before a meal.
“Sparkling water is a one-way ticket to gas and bloating.”
Ginger is another healing rock star, whether fresh or in supplement form. A potent anti-inflammatory, it’s helpful for relieving bloating and preventing it in the first place. Steep it in hot water for at least five minutes and add lemon.
Oh, and perhaps pass on the sparkling water. “It’s a one-way ticket to gas and bloating because you’re literally drinking gas,” McCarthy says.
To minimize jet lag and fight fatigue
Adjusting your meal times helps. “A lot of people don’t know that our gut has a circadian rhythm, too,” says McCarthy. “It likes consistent meal times to maintain the rhythmic contraction of smooth muscles in order to push food and nutrients through it.”
To alter your eating plan, consume smaller amounts at your regular meal times as you gradually adjust to the meal times where you are. McCarthy fasts on many flights because she feels better when she arrives somewhere and has a proper meal, but she cautions against it if you have blood sugar issues, are pregnant, or are breastfeeding.
To boost energy
Removing alcohol from your diet is ideal, but it’s not necessarily the most realistic recommendation when you’re on vacation. If you opt for the local wine, remember that alcohol has a dehydrating effect, which can lead to fatigue. Drink two glasses of water for each adult beverage.
If you’re a coffee person, swapping in herbal tea or matcha every now and then can help. Coffee may lead to a boost in energy, but it’s typically followed by a crash. Both alternatives are more calming and helps maintain your energy level.
And make sure you’re getting enough sleep—but not right after dinner. Avoid super late meals—as long as your brain detects food in the stomach, your body’s main priority is digestion, and you won’t produce melatonin.
To soothe traveler’s diarrhea
McCarthy’s favorite supplement for preventing diarrhea is a probiotic with Saccharomyces boulardii. This type fills the gut with good bacteria, and it also contains a non-pathogenic yeast that helps to fight off disease-causing organisms.
If it’s already too late, McCarthy turns to activated charcoal. Unlike Imodium, which keeps you from pooping, activated charcoal absorbs toxins, which allows foreign bacteria to bind to a surface so it can be safely eliminated. While Imodium may provide temporary relief, if something wants to be eliminated from our body but we’re forcing it to stay in, we are reabsorbing those toxins into our body. Activated charcoal is a natural alternative.
If you’re suffering, rehydrate with lots of water or coconut water. Being dehydrated makes you feel even worse.
To keep your gut balanced
“Take your probiotics,” says McCarthy. “I take probiotics every single day to maintain my gut health. When we support our gut health, we benefit from strengthened immunity, and we prevent bad bacteria from finding its way in.” She recommends carrying a shelf-stable probiotic like Genuine Health Advanced Gut Health Probiotic to maintain the strength of your gut, support immunity, aid in the assimilation of nutrients, and prevent food allergies.