When Your Gut Interrupts: How to Travel with Chronic Digestive Issues
Nine. Alone in a stuffy, foreign hotel room, I kept count of the times I vomited.
When the number reached nine, I grabbed the cellphone meant only for emergencies and called a member of my traveling team.
“I think I need to see a doctor,” I remember saying.
I was a part of a mission trip to Hungary, and my team was responsible for teaching English classes to elementary school kids. The team had left me behind at the hotel that morning when I woke up doubled over in pain with horrible stomach spasms.
I was only 18, and young enough that my digestive issues hadn’t caught up to me — yet. I ended up at an outpatient clinic in Budapest, pumped full of fluids and antibiotics. The medics were afraid my appendix had burst because of the excruciating abdominal pain. I found out later that it was most likely a reaction to multiple food allergies.
Unfortunately, my gut has continued to interrupt my life since that memorable trip. Fortunately, I’ve learned a lot about my digestive problems, allergies, and food intolerances since then, which means I’m much more prepared for traveling now.
I’ve continued to explore the world since that first overseas misadventure, and each time I have a successful trip with no digestive flare-ups, I can’t help but celebrate a little.
If you suffer from chronic digestive issues, too (IBS, Crohn’s, Celiac, severe food allergies, or another health concern), this is for you. I’m here to share what I’ve learned over the past several years about keeping pain at bay and making the most of your travels.
Be overly prepared.
I cannot stress this enough: always be over-prepared.
The times I’ve felt most vulnerable when traveling are the times when I’ve failed to be prepared. Anxiety about navigating mealtime turns into just plain anxiety when I forget to pack my go-to items for digestive relief.
I suggest pre-packing a “Go Bag” that you can keep in your car or by the door, filled with extra prescriptions and anything that helps you. Tums, peppermint essential oil, portable heating wraps and ginger tea are lifesavers for me, so I always make sure I have extras in my purse, car, and travel bags.
Tums and other over-the counter antacids neutralize stomach acid, helping to relieve reflux and ease an upset stomach. (You can pick up a bottle of antacids for about $5 USD in any drugstore.)
Portable heating wraps are incredibly helpful for chronic digestive pain. The heat applied directly to the abdomen helps relax sore, cramped muscles and minimize spasms. They’re usually sold in packs of two for about $8 USD.
Peppermint essential oil (which usually runs about $15 USD for a 4 oz bottle) can be purchased online from Amazon and other specialty retailers. When applied directly to the abdomen in a carrier oil (try coconut oil), it provides a relaxing, calming sensation, similar to the soothing feeling of menthol in cough drops.
Bring extra, especially of prescriptions or items that you won’t be able to buy from a convenience store. Bring more than you think you may need. I usually use a multi-compartment case to store pills and take the ginger tea bags out of the box to save space.
Traveling is stressful on the body and introduces a variety of new pathogens to your immune system. In other words, it’s the perfect recipe for gut distress. If you can anticipate and get ahead of digestive episodes, you’ll feel in control of your health, which will lessen physical symptoms as well as the anxiety that often accompanies them.
Educate your travel partners.
To tell you the truth, I’m still working on this one myself.
I’m a private person, and I don’t relish talking about my health problems and scrutinizing my odd allergies to cauliflower and garlic (yes, those are real). I’d rather enjoy the sights and scenes of the trip.
And honestly, it can be awkward to say, “Hey, sometimes I might need to run to the bathroom in the middle of an activity.”
But here’s the thing: every time I have been open with my traveling partners about my health concerns, it’s lessened my fears considerably. I no longer fear that I’m ruining the itinerary, and my friends accept that my digestive issues may mean that I won’t eat in a restaurant or I’ll need to bring along my own compliant food.
Don’t drink the water — or the ice.
If you’re traveling to a developing country, you’ve probably been warned not to drink the water.
But those of us with weak digestive systems often can’t even tolerate water that is designated safe for travelers, because it’s different than what our bodies are used to consuming.
So even if you’re traveling to a developed country, don’t chance it. Just don’t drink water from restaurants or from the tap. Stick with bottled water or bring water purifying tablets with you.
Although it’s often recommended that travelers avoid the water in certain places of the world, it’s easy to forget about ice. But it’s usually not made of filtered water, even in high-end restaurants. And if you’ve read any of those viral articles about how ice machines in restaurants are crawling with bacteria because they’re rarely cleaned, you probably won’t miss the ice, anyway.
Last time my husband and I went to Mexico, we didn’t drink the tap water, but we did have ice in our drinks. He had a few upset tummy moments when we got home, but I vomited for months after our trip.
Fancy an ice-cold mixed drink? Skip the ice. Your gut will thank you.
The water may sneak into your stomach in a few other ways, like brushing your teeth or eating greens.
It may hurt your heart to think about skipping greens for a whole trip, but since lettuce is so absorbent, if it’s washed in unfiltered water, it may cause a flare-up. Give yourself permission to skip the salad this time.
And when brushing your teeth, play it safe and swish and rinse with bottled water instead of the tap.
Bring your own safe foods.
Once, I was stopped in an airport, and a suspicious TSA agent unzipped my suitcase and dug around only to pull out a huge pack of protein bars. He laughed at himself when he realized he had just stopped me to investigate my snacks.
With menus written in a different language and servers that may not be bilingual, it’s extremely difficult to determine if your food will be laced with gluten, nuts, or other allergens.
So it’s best to stay safe and just bring your own food along.
Bringing safe snacks is an awesome way to keep yourself going between meals. I also like bringing protein shakes because they’re travel-friendly. Pack them in Ziplock bags and bring along a shaker cup. They don’t take up much space, and most are designed to include enough calories and nutrients to supplement a meal.
Although it can be disappointing to not be able to partake in the local food, keep in mind that you’re still able to experience all the sights and attractions, and you’ll feel overwhelmingly better without a digestive flare-up.
Pack for a digestive emergency.
Here’s a quick list of some of my necessities. I hope it helps you!:
Traveling while managing digestive issues can be tricky. You might have to spend some extra time in the bathroom. You might have to bring a bag of extra food and medication wherever you go. You might have to educate your friends on how to use an EpiPen.
To all this I say: explore the earth anyway.
The bottom line is that traveling is worth it. Even when I’ve had digestive flare-ups, I’ve always been thankful for the opportunity to travel, learn about different cultures, and soak in the sights.
With a little preparation, you can anticipate or correct any digestive issues that may come your way. And then you’ll be able to spend your time abroad experiencing and exploring, rather than hunched over in a hotel bathroom counting the number of times you’ve thrown up.
Are you a traveler with chronic digestive issues? Share your survival tips in the comments!