Welcome to Dear Here, where we tap into the hearts and minds of our readers to help them solve the travel issues you can’t always figure out with a quick Google. We’ve tackled the impact of travel on friendships, romantic partners, and mental health. Today, we’re talking GUTS and digestive health.
This past year I really kicked my travel habit into high gear: I went to seven different countries, drove cross-country on a road trip, walked in three weddings in three different states, and visited family for birthdays and baby showers (not to mention the holidays).
I love trying new foods and indulging while I travel (three out of eight trips were wine related…) and nothing makes me feel more like I’m really experiencing a place than through its food and drink. But travel really takes a toll on my body. I can feel it in my gut—literally.
“Travel really takes a toll on my body. I can feel it in my gut—literally.”
Sometimes I’m constipated for days when I travel and even after I get back. I feel lethargic and bloated. I also feel like I’ve gotten sick a lot more than usual this year, both while I’m traveling and after. It feels like just as I get back to my normal, healthy self, I’m back on the road again. Oops!
I love traveling and I don’t want to slow things down, but I’m struggling with how to balance all the indulgent food and stress on my body with staying healthy (and regular, if you know what I mean). I don’t want to skimp on trying new things, but this year, I really need to keep my gut health in check. What should I do to maintain a healthier gut when I travel?
We’re so glad you’ve caught the travel bug—unfortunately, we can relate to the bodily distress. We also know there’s been a growing interest in the relatively new study of “gut health,” which refers to the balance of microorganisms that live in the digestive tract, of which there are about 38 trillion, and make up your body’s unique microbiome.
According to Medical News Today, keeping a healthy gut means maintaining the right balance of these microorganisms, which support physical and mental health, immunity, and more. Unfortunately, travel can take its toll on your gut.
“You go away to take the worst care of yourself.”
“You go away to take the worst care of yourself,” posits Ara Katz, the co-founder of Seed, a start up committed to “pioneering the inquiry, application, and communication of microbiome science to improve human and planetary health” backed by an army of scientists, doctors, technologists, and more. Her company provides a great 101 on the microbiome, a.k.a. the gut, but we reached to her for specific tips on how travel affects your gut health—and how you can take steps to improve it.
How Travel Affects Your Gut Health
Our gut is so interconnected to bodily function, pretty much anything you do can have an effect on it, positive or negative—but travel can be quite a shock to the system. Everything from shifts in time zone, stress, altering your diet, the change of cabin pressure on a plane, and more can impact your gut, says Katz, and subsequently, your overall health. If your gut health takes a turn for the worse, so will your immune system.
It Doesn’t Really Matter Where You Travel
Essentially, the microorganisms in everyone’s gut has evolved and is continually evolving from birth based on environment, what they eat, who they come into contact with, and more. Any change in environment can affect your gut.
“Western travelers can be very self-centered about health.”
But particularly Western travelers can seem more affected by travel because their microbiome is much less diverse. “Western travelers can be very self-centered about health,” says Katz. “Meaning that they kind of look at other places as very dirty if it makes them sick. But a better way to look at it is that your microbiome has co-evolved to adapt to your environment, and so it’s not that other places are dirty or pathogenic or bad, but that our microbiomes didn’t evolve to adapt to those environments.”
Of course, this doesn’t mean that you should ignore the fact that there can be specific pathogens in places and that actual infections are possible, in which case, medical interventions may be necessary.
Research Your Destination
“Being mindful of where you’re going and understanding both from locals and from the internet what you should avoid is seriously important,” says Katz. “I got a really serious bacterial infection in Egypt from the skin of a tomato, which had I just peeled it, could have been totally avoided. Always do your research to figure out what you absolutely should avoid when traveling.”
“If you’re going to immerse yourself in an incredible new place, it’s probably unrealistic for you to maintain your microbiome’s stasis,” says Katz. “But there are things that you can do if you know you’re not going to be in your normal routine that can help assuage the effects of that.”
Here’s what Katz suggests:
Take a Probiotic:
This will help maintain the integrity of your gut, which will regulate your immune and digestive systems as you are exposed to new environments, foods, and disruptions of your regular routine.
This Millennial mantra holds a lot of weight. Drinking enough water is super important to maintaining gut health.
Keep Up Your Fiber Intake:
Nothing helps digestive regularity quite like getting enough fiber. Make sure to eat plenty of fruits and veggies (but be sure to research what is and isn’t recommended for tourists), and even plan to take a fiber supplement if you know you’re going to indulge.
Get Enough Sleep:
Your gut works with your circadian rhythm. Good sleep = good gut.
If your trip isn’t already physically strenuous on its own, making a point to be active for at least 30 minutes a day will help regulate your immune and digestive systems.
Intervene Only When Necessary:
Any drug you take can affect your microbiome and potentially make it more vulnerable by shocking the system. Try to only take things like Ibuprofen, sleep medication, or antibiotics if absolutely necessary.
But Your Everyday Routine Matters Just as Much
“One of the biggest problems in human health is not necessarily the lack of intervention,” says Katz, “but keeping up a healthy routine day to day.” For this reason, Katz suggests taking probiotics not just when you travel, but every single day.
“There’s probably nothing that’s more impactful to your gut health than diet.”
“Probiotics are what is called ‘transient microbes’ that actually do their work daily as they go through your gastrointestinal system, so taking it daily is actually very important,” says Katz.
However, Katz continues, “while probiotics will greatly help travelers, we’re the first to say that there’s probably nothing that’s more impactful to your gut health than diet.” In other words, the healthier you eat day to day, the better off your gut will be when you travel.
Don’t Stress: Travel Is (Ultimately) Good for Your Gut
Katz claims that maintaining a healthy gut is more about “cultivating resilience” than preventing any and all adverse effects of travel “so that your body can experience multiple changes in environments and have really good muscle to get itself back to homeostasis, which I think is, in our world, a much better marker of health than just never getting sick or never being physiologically stressed. In any ecosystem, diversity equals resilience, which in our world equals health.”
“More exposure means better training and better resilience.”
In this way, travel can actually be a great thing for your gut health. Because you’re being exposed to so many more microbes when you travel, your gut resilience may actually increase, meaning you’re less likely to get sick or experience side effects over time. “More exposure means better training and better resilience,” says Katz.
With that in mind, if you feel some digestive discomfort from travel, stressing over it will only make it worse, so rest assured that your gut is building resilience. “It kind of gives you the permission to try a lot of different things,” says Katz.