Of all the things to worry about while on a vacation—Will we be robbed? Will the local water make us sick? Will I have enough room in my suitcase for souvenirs?—worrying about maintaining regular bowel movements is usually pretty low on the list. It shouldn’t be though, because constipation is one of the most common gastrointestinal complaints in the United States, and for many people, constipation and vacation go hand in hand.
It’s not something that people often want to talk about, but I’ll admit it: I am one of the millions of Americans who suffer from vacation constipation. The minute I clock out of work, it seems like my digestive system takes the week off too, and nothing is more uncomfortable than feeling bloated and crummy in a tropical paradise. Not to mention the fact that it doesn’t exactly make you feel confident in a bikini. I have a much-needed vacation coming up very soon, and since I plan to spend most of my time frolicking on the beach, I’m determined to keep things moving.
Constipation happens when you can’t have regular bowel movements. The large intestine’s job is to remove water from waste and move it out of the body, and one big cause of constipation is dehydration. When the body doesn’t have enough water, stools get hard and more difficult to pass through the digestive system. Another cause of constipation is a diet deficient in fiber, which causes stools to move too slowly through the intestines. Whatever the cause, you know you’re constipated when you feel bloated, gassy, sluggish, and have headaches. Another big sign of constipation is not having a bowel movement for a few days, or straining painfully on the toilet. If left untreated, chronic constipation can develop into a more serious problem like hemorrhoids or impacted stools, or can be a symptom of irritable bowel syndrome, all of which can require medical intervention.
Things that keep a body regular include having a predictable schedule, eating a healthy and fiber-rich diet, drinking plenty of fluids, and regular exercise. Vacations tend to be missing all of those things, resulting in perfect conditions for constipation to occur. When we’re on vacation, our schedules are unpredictable and our diets tend to be less balanced. Whether we’re grabbing a 6 a.m. Egg McMuffin at the airport or eating heavy, rich dinners, we’re probably not eating food conducive to regularity. Also, people tend to drink less water and consume more alcohol on vacation, which further dehydrates the body.
Another thing that contributes to vacation constipation is the fact that many people have trouble using unfamiliar bathrooms. Having a bowel movement can be closely tied to our regular environment and therefore difficult when we try to use an unfamiliar toilet. Our colon responds to the gastrocolic reflex, which signals to the intestine that it’s time to move the bowels. It naturally activates upon waking in the morning and after meals, but on vacation, schedules tend to be so irregular that we miss our “usual” time to have a bowel movement. When that reflex is interrupted, whether because of a schedule disruption or because we feel uncomfortable in strange restrooms, sometimes it doesn’t re-set itself right away. Even one missed bowel movement is enough to throw the digestive system out of whack, and ignoring nature too many times can actually desensitize the body to its call, leading to further constipation.
How to Keep Things Moving
To prevent getting all stopped up on your next trip, it’s best to start preparing even before you leave. Starting about a week before your departure, make sure to drink plenty of water to keep your body hydrated, and while on your trip, keep drinking plenty of fluids. If the water at your destination is suspicious or undrinkable, stick to bottled water, fruit juice, or milk. That will help keep your waste soft and moving briskly through your large intestine. Making sure to eat plenty of fiber and roughage is another important way to prevent constipation, so before vacation and during, consume plenty of fresh vegetables, grains, and beans. Luckily, if your vacation is tropical, there should be plenty of fresh fruit and juice available. Colon-clogging foods to avoid include cheese, chocolate, red meat, pastries, and desserts with refined sugar.
Exercise is another easy way to keep things regular, since movement increases the muscle action of the digestive system, and encourages the bowels to move. Before you leave for your trip, make sure to get in at least twenty minutes of exercise per day, and while you’re away, even a swim in the ocean or a walk on the beach is enough to help keep your digestive system working properly.
Carefully listen to your body’s urge to defecate and try to follow it. Since the gastrocolic reflex usually kicks in about a half hour after waking up and after eating, most experts recommend devoting some time after breakfast to using the toilet, before you venture out for the day. If you ignore the reflex or hold off on using the bathroom until you return in the evening, it may not come back. If you’re someone who has trouble using the toilet in public restrooms, keeping some disinfectant spray or toilet paper on hand could prove very useful for making things cleaner if nature calls while you’re at the beach or visiting tourist attractions.
If drinking water, eating fruit and veggies, and taking a brisk run aren’t helping to get you back to normal, talk to a pharmacist about a gentle laxative or stool softener. There are many different types of laxatives, but taking the wrong one might solve your constipation but leave you with a case of diarrhea, so these should only be a last resort. Laxatives that bulk up stool or try to “jump-start” the digestive system can actually do more harm than good, especially when used long-term.
I’ve worked hard to get ready to hit the beach, and I’m determined not to be weighed down by slow bowels. I can’t promise I’ll always forego a delicious mai-tai in favor of a more poop-friendly glass of water, but you can bet that I’ll be getting plenty of sleep, eating plenty of fruit, and staying active. Vacations aren’t always the favorite time for healthy living, but when the alternative is trying to stuff your bloated belly into a bikini, it’s a worthwhile tradeoff. Trust me.