Who doesn’t need a holiday, right? But in the excitement to get away from it all, sometimes we can forget to take good care of ourselves — including our gut — and this can be the very thing that undermines our break.
And there’s something particularly joyless about coming down with an illness when you’re on holiday.
Problems can start on the flight itself — if air travel leaves you feeling uncomfortably bloated or constipated, you’re not alone. It’s something that happens to everyone, but it particularly affects the 20 per cent of people who have a sensitive gut, including those with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Essentially, as the plane ascends, the atmospheric pressure in the cabin changes and this means any air trapped in your gut expands, causing that all-too-familiar bloating and pain. This air expansion phenomenon is the same reason your ears pop and your water bottle or crisp packet inflates after take-off.
Who doesn’t need a holiday, right? But in the excitement to get away from it all, sometimes we can forget to take good care of ourselves — including our gut — and this can be the very thing that undermines our break
Another really common travel complaint is changes in bowel habits (and we’re not talking about travellers’ diarrhoea, more of that later). This can be down to the simple fact that we’re eating different foods — great news for introducing new plant chemicals for our gut bacteria to feed off, but just like when you work a new set of muscles and they ache afterwards, so, too, can your gut.
It can take a few days for your gut to adjust to a new diet as your gut bacteria need to source a new set of digestive enzymes to deal with those new plants.
Another factor is changes in our hormones such as cortisol, the stress hormone (think of the stress of travel), which can speed up the transit of your food, causing diarrhoea for some and constipation for others.
Constipation can also be the result of disruption to our body clock (or circadian rhythm) when we move to different time zones.
Your gut bacteria have a circadian rhythm that can be at odds with a new time zone, affecting their normal daily output, such as hormone regulation and vitamin production.
It can take a few days for your gut to adjust to a new diet as your gut bacteria need to source a new set of digestive enzymes to deal with those new plants
Melatonin is another hormone that takes quite the hit: best known for regulating our sleep and wake cycle, it also affects our gut movement and gut sensations. This explains why moving to different time zones can increase gut sensitivity.
Fortunately, there are plenty of things you can do to keep your gut in the best possible shape for travel.
One option is taking a probiotic supplement (specifically, 500mg of Saccharomyces Boulardii CNCM I-745, available in health food stores and supermarkets) for a week before your holiday — and during it — to reduce the risk of travellers’ diarrhoea.
A key study published in the 1980s by the University of Vienna found that this specific type and dose of probiotic reduced travellers’ rates of diarrhoea compared with a placebo group (32 per cent versus 43 per cent). Other types of probiotics have shown no benefit.
Alternatively, focusing on building a diverse and therefore resilient community of gut microbes through diet before your holiday is certainly worthwhile to reduce your risk of gut infections. This means getting 30 or more different types of plants — from veg and fruit to wholegrains, legumes, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices — a week, for at least four weeks leading up to your holiday.
In the 24 to 48 hours before flying, reduce the chances of a bloated, painful gut by cutting down on a group of carbohydrates known as FODMAPs — or fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols.
These carbohydrates are found in a wide range of foods and are poorly absorbed in the small intestine; they end up in the large intestine, where they’re fermented by the bacteria, producing gas.
This is usually a good thing, but when flying, the air expansion phenomenon means that this gas stretches the intestine.
Going low-FODMAP involves cutting back on wheat, barley and rye-based foods, certain types of sugar (including honey and sweeteners), beans and some fruits (apples and peaches, for instance) and veg (broccoli, garlic, mushrooms) — you can find out more about good swaps from my website, theguthealthdoctor.com.
Did you know?
You can overdo it with fermented foods such as kefir and sauerkraut — they’re good for your gut bacteria but can leave you feeling bloated. If so, halve your portions for two weeks and reassess. If your symptoms improve, continue with smaller portions and gradually increase over time as your gut adjusts.
But make sure you reintroduce these foods once landed, as most FODMAPs are prebiotic — i.e. they nourish good gut bacteria.
Also, on the day you travel (and on the flight), avoid big meals — this helps reduce the pressure on your gut. Divide your usual amount of food over five or six meals instead.
For the flight, along with plenty of hydration, I tend to avoid the rich and heavy meals and stick to packed snacks, such as my lower-FODMAP pea and mint hummus (see recipe in box, right), veggie sticks and wholegrain crackers.
If you experience constipation or looser bowel movement when travelling, consider taking some psyllium husk with you. This water-loving fibre (available from most health food shops) has a dual effect, helping to soften hard stools while also thickening looser stools. Try half a tablespoon (3g) a day mixed in 150ml water per tablespoon.
When you get to your destination, get straight into the meal-time pattern in the new time zone and try to kick-start your digestion by ensuring your first meal contains at least two to three different types of plants.
And if you do end up getting travellers’ diarrhoea, avoid anti-diarrhoeal medication at the start as it may prolong the infection, trapping the culprit in your intestine. Instead, try to:
- Eat smaller, more frequent meals — this helps by putting less strain on your inflamed gut.
- Drink plenty of fluids but limit food and drink that may stimulate the colon, such as chilli, high-fat meals, coffee and alcohol.
- Limit your intake of FODMAPs (see above).
- If the diarrhoea is severe — when fluid is passing ‘straight through’ — use an electrolyte solution (such as Dioralyte), to stay hydrated and maintain levels of important body salts, which help maximise fluid absorption from your gut.
- Consider psyllium husk (again!) — it not only softens stools, but also thickens your stool output.
Travellers’ diarrhoea is usually short term, resolving within three to five days, and most cases are mild so don’t need medical treatment — but if you’re concerned do head to a pharmacy.
The good news is holidays are overall a big win for your gut. The majority of my clients who have underlying gut symptoms report dramatic improvements on holiday — and it’s thanks to that connection between your gut and brain.
A happy and relaxed brain means a happy and relaxed gut.
Try this: Pea & mint hummus
Creamy, minty, and free from garlic and onion — a rare thing in the world of dips — this is a great lower-FODMAP (see main article) option to enjoy ahead of a long-haul flight, or as a snack in the air.
Makes 6 servings
- 270g peas
- 1 tsp tahini
- 2 tsp fresh lemon juice
- ½ tsp cumin
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- Pinch of salt
- Handful of fresh mint
- Twist of pepper
Blitz the peas, tahini, lemon juice, cumin, oil and salt with 60ml water in a blender until semi-smooth (one minute). Add the mint and the pepper.
Blend for a further minute, leaving a little of the texture from the mint leaves.
What effect does adhesive cream used to fix dentures have on the gut?
This is a brilliant question, and something I’m sure many people will have wondered about. It’s similar to what happens when you accidentally swallow chewing gum — which, despite the old wives’ tale, doesn’t get stuck in your gut or take seven years to digest.
Most of the adhesive (and chewing gum) travels through your system undigested and exits in your stool within 36 hours. This is because one of the main ingredients is a plant-derived gum, cellulose gum, which humans (and our gut bacteria) don’t digest very well.
It’s still worth trying to minimise the amount you swallow, as the product typically contains other ingredients such as thickeners and artificial sweeteners which, in high quantities, might not be great for your gut bacteria. But don’t stop using it — a 2022 review paper in the Journal of Dentistry showed that dental adhesives can improve bite strength and chewing performance, which means you’re more likely to be able to enjoy a wider range of gut-loving foods such as nuts and seeds, with a positive impact on your gut health.
Contact Megan Rossi
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Replies should be taken in a general context; always consult your GP with any health worries.