Traveling with IBS – Coping Mechanisms, Discussed by a Long Term Sufferer

Travelling with IBS can be simultaneously stressful and embarrassing – particularly if you have only recently been diagnosed. However, once you become more accustomed to living with your condition, and once you know what your triggers are, you can start to minimise the impact that IBS has on your adventures around the world.

Disclaimer: This article on travelling with IBS should not be taken as professional medical advice. I am not a Medical professional. You should also consult with your doctor for specialist advice about living with your condition. This article discusses my experiences as a full time traveller diagnosed with IBS.

What is IBS?

Traveling with IBS: Educate yourself as much as you can before your trip
Traveling with IBS: Educate yourself as much as you can before your trip

IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) is a chronic condition. Talking about bowel movements and problems is not the most pleasant thing in the world. However, bodily functions are natural. Speaking openly about the issue will help you come to terms with living with it. 

IBS is relatively common. However it affects people in different ways and severities. The disorder affects the large intestine and causes symptoms such as gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, abdominal pain, and fatigue. 

There is no cure for IBS – it is a lifelong condition. The causes for IBS are not entirely certain. However, oversensitive nerves in your gut, a family history of IBS and gastrointestinal problems, and difficulty processing food can all cause it. 

Receiving an IBS Diagnosis 

I was first diagnosed with IBS back in 2016. At the time I was still living in the UK and working a corporate job in strategic procurement. However I found myself frequently becoming quite unwell. 

I took a trip to the doctors and was tested for celiac disease and Crohn’s disease. However I was eventually diagnosed with IBS. 

It was useful to know precisely what I was dealing with. However, I felt at the time that the Doctor gave me very little insight into handling my condition and attempting to control the episodes of IBS. 

Understand what Triggers Your IBS 

Traveling with IBS: You will be surprised by how many delicious foods you can still eat while avoiding your triggers
Traveling with IBS: You will be surprised by how many delicious foods you can still eat while avoiding your triggers

Everyone’s IBS is different. Some people may have diarrhea if they consume foods that don’t agree with them, while others may suffer from constipation. Others may have both. 

Similarly, it is not always the same food types that set off IBS. One of the most critical things to do if you want to live comfortably with your IBS in the long term, is to identify what your triggers are. 

My IBS seemed to come on suddenly. Growing up I would eat pasta every day and pile tons of cheese on it. Now the concept of that turns my stomach. I am not completely lactose intolerant, but I have to minimise my intake of dairy. 

I can eat feta in my salad, or sprinkle parmesan on my spaghetti,but I couldn’t eat a cheesy pizza because it would make me sick. Sometimes people can make me food and I know I’m gonna get sick from it before I do. 

I can’t eat spicy foods, or too many vegetables – especially things like lentils and beans because my body just cannot process them. I am also fairly intolerant to gluten and if I eat big bowls of pasta or too much bread, I get a weird rash on my arms. 

In some ways, my IBS diagnosis felt like a curse. Sometimes I make myself a big bowl of gnocchi anyway and then berate myself later when I’m feeling unwell. Anxiety is also an IBS trigger for me and if I get especially worried about something, this manifests itself in me having to shove people out of my way and sprint to a toilet (sorry). 

Common IBS Triggers

IBS triggers vary from person to person. However, some of the most common problem foods are discussed below. 

  • Dairy

  • Coffee and other caffeinated beverages

  • Fizzy, carbonated drinks

  • Fruits and vegetables that are very high in fibre – particularly legumes

  • Mushrooms (it’s hard for some IBS sufferers to process the chitin contained in mushrooms)

  • Dairy products

  • Processed foods

  • Fried, fatty foods

  • Spicy foods

  • Gluten

  • Stress and Anxiety 

Traveling with IBS: IBS Travel Tips 

IBS travel tip: Don't be ashamed to tell people about your condition
IBS travel tip: Don’t be ashamed to tell people about your condition

Your first few experiences of traveling with IBS may be worrisome. However once you know how to adequately prepare yourself for your trip (mentally and practically), you will reach a point where your condition falls almost to the back of your mind. 

Tell People About Your Condition

IBS is an illness and although bowel movements aren’t exactly a hot topic of conversation, they are nothing to be ashamed about. Several years ago I used to cringe at the thought of having to do a number two in a public place, or at the prospect of a boyfriend knowing why I was taking so long in the bathroom.

Going to the bathroom is a natural thing. It has actually made me feel somewhat better to have my condition out in the open.

If I am traveling with people, I will let them know that I need to be careful about what I eat. I will tell them if I start to feel unwell, and I will let them know that there may be occasions where I need to excuse myself because I don’t feel great.

People have been very supportive. Contrary to what you might first think, nobody has winced in repulsion.

Mentally Prepare For Your Trip

Stressful situations and encountering problems on the road can be as much of a trigger for IBS as eating questionable foods. Before your departure, take the time to organise and plan your trip as much as you are able to.

Travel throws all sorts of curveballs your way. Try to imagine the “worst-case scenarios” that you may encounter and think calmly about how you will deal with them.

Research the Food at Your Destination 

It is helpful to have a rough idea about the types of food that you can expect to find at your travel destination. That way, you can assess whether the food culture in that specific country is triggering for you. If it is, you can then identify some “safe” dishes to look out for. 

Living in Greece, I seldom worry about my IBS. The availability of fresh fruits, vegetables, and locally-sourced ingredients makes it easy for me to eat things that are free from the things that upset me. 

By contrast, when I lived in Italy, I struggled a lot. Many Italian dishes are too rich for me and I cannot eat much cheese or gluten. 

Sampling the local cuisine should be a highlight of your travel itinerary wherever you go. Once you’ve researched some safe local dishes to try, save them to a note in your phone. You can also review the best-rated restaurants in the towns and cities that you will be travelling to and review their menus online, in advance. 

Disclose Your Dietary Restrictions 

Always disclose your dietary restrictions when booking guided tours, food tours, and flights. Most tour companies and airlines will ask about this at the point at which you make your booking anyway. If they don’t, you can email them and outline what foods you cannot eat. 

Don’t hesitate to reach out to tour companies about dietary restrictions. The majority of companies want to be inclusive of everyone. They know that many people today have specific dietary requirements – be it allergies, halal diets, veganism, etc. 

An Athens food tour for example may serve participants with Greek food such as fried cheese (saganaki) or bouyiourdi (baked cheese) that an IBS sufferer or lactose-intolerant individual could not eat. Provided you let the company know in advance, they will find an alternative for you. 

Be Careful What You Eat Before Flying 

Before you board a flight or embark on a jam-packed travel day, be mindful of what you eat. Try to eat familiar foods that are free from dairy, spice, and high-fiber legumes to minimise your chance of getting sick. 

Pack Smart

It is smart to take additional precautions when packing for your trip. If you are especially nervous, you can consult with your Doctor before departure for any additional advice or prescriptive medication.

It is better to over-prepare for any potential scenario than to find yourself in a bad situation overseas. Pack any medications that you may require (ibuprofen, laxatives, rehydration sachets), IBS friendly snacks (gluten-free bars, nuts and trail mix), and additional extras such as baby wipes, a change of clothes in your carry on, etc.

Eat Light 

Sometimes you can tuck into a meal that does not contain any of your trigger foods and STILL get sick. Witchcraft! As is the joy (!) of living with IBS. 

When you are traveling with IBS, try to stick to eating lighter meals. Follow the mantra of little and often. 

Learn How to Communicate with Locals 

It would be useful if you are able to communicate a few helpful phrases to local waiters, restaurant owners, etc in order to make them aware of your condition. Even if the phrases are as basic as “no dairy”. 

Useful sentences to learn could be things such as: 

Does this contain ____? 

I cannot eat ____

Can you make this without using ____ ?

I am allergic to ____ 

All things considered, learning even just a few phrases in another language is easier said than done. You can also consider downloading a translation app on your phone to communicate with locals. Furthermore, cue cards can be found online in various languages so that you can easily show these to the restaurant staff without becoming ‘lost in translation’. 

Know that Different Countries have Different Levels of Understanding of Dietary Restrictions 

Knowledge of dietary restrictions, IBS and gluten intolerance is much higher these days than it was several decades ago. Many restaurants now include a key of symbols on their menus to help their customers to identify which dishes contain gluten, which are vegan and vegetarian, etc. 

However, awareness of these issues still remains low in some parts of the world. For instance, developing nations in Asia. For that reason, it is imperative that you do some research before you travel with regards to the main local dishes and what they contain. 

Remember it’s Okay to Take Time Out

By no means should you let your IBS stop you from travelling or enjoying life. However, equally,know when it’s time to call time out and give yourself a rest.

To incorporate a slow-paced relaxation day into your itinerary does not mean that you are admitting defeat or letting your condition win. It means that you are taking care of your body and you shouldn’t feel guilty about that.

Locate the Bathrooms Everywhere You Go 

When you enter any restaurant, coffee shop, or indoor establishment, peer around and make a mental note of where the bathrooms are. This way you know exactly where you need to go in the worst-case scenario.  

Reserve the Aisle Seat on Long Haul Plane Journeys

It is unfortunate that most airlines nowadays require you to pay an additional fee for reserving a seat. However, opting to reserve the aisle seat when you fly – particularly on long-distance flights, can give you extra peace of mind if you were to get sick during your journey.

Surely the last thing that you want is the added stress of worrying about whether you can get to the bathroom. This is especially the case if you’re boxed in by the window and the person next to you is asleep; or if you have to keep disrupting your flying companions by asking them to get past every few minutes. 

Be Cautious with Street Food Markets

Be cautious when experimenting with new local foods but don’t terrify yourself into assuming that all that is different is going to make you sick. Street food markets in places such as Asia, South America, and the Middle East can be great places to discover local specialties.

Not everything on a street food market is going to make you unwell. Exert basic common sense. For instance, don’t eat meats or fruits which have been left out and of course, don’t eat anything with flies buzzing around it, but don’t restrict yourself too much.

Hydrate

Always drink plenty of water and where possible avoid carbonated drinks and caffeine. Water flushes out the toxins within your body and helps it to function as it’s supposed to.

Not to mention, plenty of water aids you in avoiding constipation. It also allows you to rehydrate if you suffer from loose bowel movements.

Parting Words 

Traveling with IBS: Don’t let your condition get in the way of what you want to do

Traveling with IBS can cause a few headaches, but everyone deserves a break. What kind of life would we have if we were just nervously loitering around at home indoors all of the time in case we got sick? Remember that travel is supposed to be a great experience so don’t spend too much time worrying about your IBS. Go out there and enjoy it!

Do you have any additional questions about traveling with IBS? Perhaps you have some useful survival techniques that you want to share with fellow IBS sufferers? Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me via the comments below. Safe travels! Melissa xo


Melissa Douglas

Melissa Douglas is a British Travel Writer and Blogger based in Athens, Greece. She writes for numerous high profile travel publications across the globe - including Forbes Travel Guide, Matador Network, The Times of Israel and The Huffington Post.

2 thoughts on “Traveling with IBS – Coping Mechanisms, Discussed by a Long Term Sufferer”

  1. I am suffering with both IBS and Diverticular and am trying not to let this put me off my travel plans post-Covid. One thing I am particularly worried about is squat toilets. Are they common in Greece? Are they a problem for people with bowel issues?

    Reply

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