Give Your Gut a Rest On Vacation, Too!

Now that winter’s here, many of us are headed to a tropical beach or an exotic faraway land. While traveling and learning about new cultures is fun and exciting, it can also wreak havoc on your digestive system. Traveling can expose us to viruses like norovirus or rotavirus, which cause vomiting and diarrhea, or pathogenic bacteria like E. coli, which can cause the dreaded “traveler’s diarrhea.” Likewise, eating indulgent foods on vacation can also upset your GI tract.

This doesn’t mean you have to stay home this summer. By taking a few precautions and being a smart traveller, you can better the odds of both you and your gut having a fabulous holiday.  


New places, new microbes

Visiting a different country exposes you to different local bacteria that can throw off your gut’s microbial balance. Luckily the local microbes that colonize your gut at your destination are typically beneficial and help you digest food.

Less-than-ideal sewage disposal and water treatment methods, however, can cause unhealthy bacteria, like E. coli, to multiply, as can non-hygienic food preparation. In fact, 80% of “traveler’s diarrhea” cases are caused by bacterial infections. It’s important to be a knowledgeable and prepared traveler so you can protect yourself from both bacterial and viral infections.


Preventing a bad bug

The CDC recommends several ways to keep yourself from coming into contact with dangerous bacteria or viruses, which begins with washing your hands regularly. Another basic and vital rule is to drink bottled water that you open yourself (to ensure the seal is unbroken) or boiled water.

Avoid eating fresh fruits or vegetables that have been washed with local tap water, or iced drinks or juices, unless you know that the local water is safe to drink. Also, try to eat hot food as much as possible—the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services food safety guidelines recommend eating food cooked at over 140 degrees Fahrenheit. If you find yourself in a situation where you have no choice but to eat the less-than-ideal food offered, clinicians suggest that you preemptively take Pepto-Bismol (bismuth subsalicylate), which can keep pathogens from adhering to your intestinal walls and reduce your likelihood of bacterial infection.

As far as viruses go, nasty ones like norovirus—which causes vomiting and diarrhea—can be spread through contaminated food sources or an infected food handler. To keep yourself safe from a viral infection, take some of the same precautions you’d take to avoid a bacterial infection—wash your hands before you eat and choose hot rather than cold food, if possible.


Take your healthy eating habits along with you

It can be really tempting to overindulge on vacation—cheese and pastries in France, wine in Italy, absinthe in Spain, or ice cream at the beach. The problem is that, while your taste buds love those high-fat, low-fiber foods, your gastrointestinal tract may not. Your microbiome is shaped by your daily diet, so your body is really good at digesting what you normally eat. When you travel, you may be introducing new foods that your body isn’t used to digesting.

If you’ve trained your body to function optimally when you eat bran cereal and fruit for breakfast, whole grain bread and veggies for lunch, and a vegetarian dinner, for example, you might face a challenge if you make radical dietary changes on vacation. An abrupt switch to a high-dairy, high-sugar, high-fat, high-alcohol diet could cause bloating, gas, constipation, and feelings of sluggishness or depression. High fat diets are known to cause intestinal inflammation and gut dysbiosis, a loss of diversity in the gut microbiome that happens when your gut microbiome becomes accustomed to fatty foods.

By all means, treat yourself—delicious treats and local delicacies make vacation delightful. Consider, however, leaving for vacation with a plan for how much you’ll allow yourself to stray from your usual diet. See what works, and limit the deviations from your normal diet if your body seems to be struggling.


Avoid that bloated feeling

Bloating during travel is usually the uncomfortable result of constipation, gut dysbiosis, or food sensitivity. In the case of constipation, the longer food sits in your gut, the more time your gut bacteria have to ferment and digest it, causing gas buildup and inflammation. Gut dysbiosis can create inflammation that makes you feel bloated. If you’re sensitive to a certain food, your body will struggle to digest it.

You can reduce gut inflammation and bloating by eating high-fiber foods. Papayas, for example, are high in fiber and contain a naturally occurring protease enzyme (papain) that can break down proteins, aid digestion, and relieve constipation. Other fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and seeds can also take care of bloating by keeping your digestive system moving.

Speaking of moving, it’s a good idea to keep exercising on vacation, whether it’s walking around a new city, taking a sightseeing bike ride, or swimming. Research shows that regular exercise keeps your GI tract healthy and can prevent constipation and other issues by increasing blood flow to your stomach and intestines.

What do you do if you get sick away from home

If you get sick on vacation, the CDC recommends drinking liquids to stay hydrated, whether your illness is bacterial or viral. Pedialyte (or an equivalent product that puts electrolytes back into your system) will rehydrate you and restore much-needed energy. If you can keep down liquids and want to try solid food, start with simple carbs that are easy to digest, like those found in the BRAT diet (bananas, rice, applesauce, plain toast).

If you can’t keep liquids down, are running to the bathroom many times each day, or have bloody stools, be sure to see a medical professional. If you have a child with diarrhea or other tummy issues, follow these American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines.

Many resorts keep clinicians on staff, and there are urgent care clinics around the world. If you have a persistent bacterial infection, you may be prescribed a short course of antibiotics, like ciprofloxacin or azithromycin.If you’re having trouble rehydrating, you may receive IV fluids.


Your gut health packing list

In addition to your clothes and that book you’re definitely going to read, be sure to pack a goodie bag for your gut, too. Medicines like Pepto-Bismol, ibuprofen, Pedialyte, and motion sickness prevention tabs will help prepare you for almost anything. Once you arrive at your destination, you might also want to tuck an extra pair of underwear and wipes into your backpack on your daily excursions.


Before you take off

If you’re traveling internationally, make a pre-trip to your local travel medicine clinic to get information, vaccinations, and even emergency medications. Clinic staff can help you research medical options at your destination, as well.

Of course, preventing bacterial or viral infections in the first place and sticking to your normal healthy diet are your best lines of defense. With a few simple steps, you can help ensure that your gut microbiome is as happy on vacation as you are. Bon voyage!