Why it’s so hard to poop when you travel

Destination constipation represented by a woman in a bathing suit clutching her stomach, with a pool and the shadow of a plane behind her.

Destination constipation is real, say experts. (Photo: Getty Images; illustration: Nathalie Cruz)

While everyone is different, most people poop on a schedule that’s normal for them. But a slew of factors can throw off that schedule and cause constipation — including something as simple as going on a trip.

Amanda Mae Renkel tells Yahoo Life that she’s dealt with so-called destination constipation a lot. “I have experienced constipation on almost every trip I have taken as far back as I can remember,” she says. “The degrees of constipation have varied, but I’ve suffered from total to slight constipation.”

Renkel is a runner who travels for races, which she says makes the traveler’s constipation a “problematic” for her. “The night before my first Chicago Marathon, in 2016, I felt like I needed to use the bathroom, but my body would not allow it,” she tells Yahoo Life. “It was torture.”

Olguyne, who asked that her last name not be shared for privacy reasons, also says she’s struggled with traveler’s constipation for years. “My worst experience was when I went on a trip to Europe and I didn’t go for about 10 days,” she tells Yahoo Life. “We were always on the go, doing activities back-to-back. Looking back at the photos, my stomach was very bloated, and I was struggling to keep up when we had to walk longer distances, which was unusual for me.”

She didn’t get relief until she took a laxative. But unfortunately, Olguyne says, constipation “is something I have experienced with almost every vacation.”

There are no hard-and-fast numbers on how constipation often occurs in destination, but doctors say it happens more than most people realize. “It is very common,” Dr. Rudolph Bedford, a gastroenterologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Life. But what is destination constipation, exactly, and what can you do to avoid it? Here’s the deal.

What is destination constipation?

“Destination constipation” (or “traveler’s constipation”) isn’t a medical term; it’s a phrase used to describe getting constipated when you’re away from home for longer periods of time. Constipation on its own is a condition where you may have less than three bowel movements a week; poop that is hard, dry or lumpy; poop that is difficult or painful to pass; or a feeling that you didn’t get everything out when you tried to go No. 2, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

“It’s a relatively common phenomenon to get a little slower than usual while away from home,” Dr. Ellen Stein, interim clinical director of the GI division at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, tells Yahoo Life. “Travel brings a lot of changes in sleep, diet and stress levels that can influence or completely disrupt the normal routines that keep people regular.”

Why does destination constipation happen?

Doctors say there are a few different things that can cause you to get stopped when you’re on the road.

  • You don’t have the opportunity to go at your usual time. Many people who regularly go around the same time every day, Bedford points out. But if you’re on a plane when you typically poop, you may try to hold off to go at a more convenient time. Unfortunately, that can throw you off, raising your risk of constipation in the process, he explains.

  • Your sleep cycle is off. “There is some neurological benefit to your resting body and the effect that it has on your bowels,” says Bedford. A change in routine that can mess up your sleep cycle can also interfere with when — and how often — you poop. “Our bodies are used to daily routines in many ways,” he says, noting that a change in sleep schedule can throw off the peristaltic waves that help push food through your gut.

  • You’re not well hydrated. “Hydration is really important to keep all the body functions working properly,” Stein says. “During long air travel or traveling to higher elevations, there can be less humidity and the body may require even more hydration.” But if you’re not taking in enough fluids — which is understandable if you’re trying to avoid frequent trips to the bathroom on the road or while sightseeing — you could end up with poop that’s harder to pass, Bedford says.

  • You’re eating different foods. Taking in a few fruits, vegetables and other foods with fiber can mess with your bowel habits, notes Bedford. When you couple that with a lack of hydration, you raise the risk of being constipated, he says.

  • You’re in a different time zone. Time zone changes can also throw you off, Stein says. “If you were a regular 6 am pooper, and you travel over to somewhere 12 hours apart at a time, that urge may strike at its usual time — which would be now 6 pm,” she points out. It may be inconvenient for you to go at that time, raising the risk you’ll get backed up.

How to lower your risk of destination constipation

“Be mindful of your various habits on the go,” Bedford says. That means doing your best to try to drink the same amount of fluids as usual, along with making it a point to have enough fruits, vegetables and fibrous foods. “Some people would even suggest having a bowel movement before you leave, just to be safe,” he says.

Stein agrees about the importance of hydration, saying: “Try to, on average during your trip, keep up with your fluid needs. But if one day gets less due to extended time periods of traveling, you may need to concentrate on keeping up with hydration on the days before and after your travels.”

Staying active is also key to keeping your bowels regular, points out Bedford. “Movement is always helpful,” he added.

For Renkel, she’s found that keeping a regular sleep-wake schedule is important. “Staying on a schedule similar to the one I carry out at home can completely change the game,” she says. “This might mean I can’t sleep in on vacation to avoid constipation.”

What to do if you’re constipated on the road

Bedford recommends trying natural remedies first — meaning, drink plenty of water and fill up on fruits and vegetables. Stein suggests having prunes, raisins or dates to “naturally speed things along.”

If that doesn’t help, taking a laxative like MiraLax could help get things moving again, she says.

Olguyne said that people should be aware that this is a fairly common issue. “You are absolutely not alone,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to find a solution, especially if you’re feeling uncomfortable. It also helps to know the word for ‘laxative’ in different languages, especially if you’re going to a different country.”

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