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Top Ten Tips for Traveling with IBS

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Updated July 06, 2013

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. Here are some tips to get you out on the road again.

1. Mental Rehearsal

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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. 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 the challenges in a relaxed, confident manner. This will greatly enhance your ability to stay calm as you make your way through your trip.

2. Active Calming

Due to the effect of stress on IBS, it is essential that you actively work to keep your body as relaxed as possible before and during your trip to decrease the potential for unwanted symptoms. Relaxation exercises can be very effective in keeping yourself calm. Try these various techniques to figure out what works best for you.

3. Be Prepared

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. Again, anything that you can do to calm your body is only going to have a positive effect on your digestive system. Here are some ideas:

  • Map out bathroom access
  • Use an incontinence product, such as Depends
  • Pack baby wipes
  • Bring a change of clothes
  • Purchase a small portable toilet for the trunk of your car

4. Confide in 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!

5. Mind Your Body Clock

Optimally, the mechanisms in our bodies that regulate sleep, appetite, and bowel movements all function according to an internal rhythm. Similar to the importance of putting a newborn on a schedule, respect and pay attention to your body’s need for predictability. Travel, particularly across time zones, can throw off the body’s clock, contributing to gastrointestinal distress. Try to maintain some consistency in meal- and bedtimes so as to keep your body as settled as possible.

6. Move Your Body

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.

7. Drink Smart

Dehydration is a very real risk of traveling, particularly on airplanes. Adequate fluid intake is crucial for optimum digestive health. Drink plenty of bottled water throughout your trip. Avoid alcohol and caffeine; in addition to contributing to dehydration, they can be irritating to the intestinal system.

8. Avoid Infection

The last thing you want to do 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.

9. Explore Medication Options

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 for diarrhea or Milk of Magnesia 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.

10. Maintain a Positive Perspective

In spite of the rigors, travel is filled with many life-enhancing benefits. The rewards can be tremendous - reconnecting with loved ones, seeing the beauties of this world, learning about new cultures, and meeting strangers who become friends for life, are just a few examples. 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.

DISCLAIMER: The information contained on this site is for educational purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for diagnosis or treatment rendered by a licensed physician. It is essential that you discuss with your doctor any symptoms or medical problems that you may be experiencing.

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