Both my husband and I have irritable bowel syndrome (perfect right?). Traveling with IBS isn't always easy, but I don't let it stop me from seeing the world. Traveling with irritable bowel syndrome requires some extra trip planning, but it's worth it. Don't let dealing with IBS stop you from visiting your dream destination. Keep reading for our tips for traveling with IBS.
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What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)?
Some of you may not know what irritable bowel syndrome is. IBS is not a pretty topic. It's a gastrointestinal syndrome that impacts the large intestines. The symptoms of IBS include, for me, gas, pain, issues on the toilet (diarrhea/constipation/both), and severe bloating. The causes of IBS are not well known although research links it to the nervous system, gut flora changes, food, muscular contractions, and intestinal inflammation. A doctor can diagnose you with IBS although, for me, it felt a bit like a let-down as I wanted an easy solution to the severe stomach pains that I had been having. There's not a single cure for IBS although you can take steps to help manage your IBS.
For some people, like myself, food is a big trigger for IBS, but stress and hormones can trigger IBS as well. Traveling can make IBS worse as it can increase your stress levels as well as throw new ingredients into your diet. That said, I do not let my IBS prevent me from traveling. Similarly, I have been lucky enough to find a significant other who also has IBS with the same triggers (dairy).
Know your trigger foods
Before your trip, it's most important to determine which foods are a trigger for your IBS if you don't already know them. It took a lot of trial and error to learn which foods made my IBS worse. For me, my issues are specific types of legumes (such as black beans), fried foods, dairy, and cauliflower. For my husband, his trigger is primarily dairy. Slowly cutting individual ingredients out of my diet was very helpful for realizing that yogurt (one of my favorite foods and something that can help with IBS) was making me sick.
Before you arrive, research the food at your destination
As you might imagine, cutting all of these things out of your diet on a trip anywhere new that isn't a wellness retreat can be a ruin your plans to eat all the food at a destination. As a result, researching the common ingredients in the local food is key to preventing problems as you will be able to determine which foods are "safe" and don't use any triggering foods. I find that knowing your ingredients is more critical for traveling internationally with IBS than within your own country.
I really do think some countries much easier than others. I've found travel in various Asian countries much easier than Eastern Europe due to the popularity of cheese in Eastern Europe. That's just my experience, however my IBS has made me rethink some destinations due to the popular ingredients as it means that I cannot eat the popular foods. Can you imagine living in the Netherlands and needing to avoid cheese? This has been the case for over two years, however it made me seek out healthy eating restaurants or to find dishes that didn't include dairy when traveling within the Netherlands to ensure that dealing with my IBS wasn't an issue.
Italy is a deep struggle for me as someone who is lactose-intolerant with IBS. I absolutely love dairy (and miss it!). Italy is a huge temptation for me as I'd love to eat all the pizza and gelato when there. To deal with IBS and indulge just a little, I typically have one splurge meal where I indulge in one gelato and one pizza and I'm fully prepared to deal with the consequences of eating my trigger foods. Do I regret it after? Not typically, but I try to limit having one splurge meal that might leave me in pain unless it's something truly tempting.
Learn which foods at your destination will be a significant problem
When I was in Hungary, sour cream became my enemy. Despite my best efforts, I would find it lurking in all kinds of dishes, even when I explained that I could not eat dairy, and I spent many nights in pain from IBS. I found that just getting a good grasp of the common foods and ingredients gave me a good idea of what to avoid when ordering. I ended up writing the Hungarian words for sour cream and different types of dairy with a big word NO in Hungarian on the top of the page. I'd then hand that to waiters.
Something as small as coffee and assuming that it will come without milk can make your day miserable. In Malaysia and Singapore, it's standard to make coffee with milk, so unless you ask, it will come with milk. I tend to avoid soups as a rule as most use cream or lentils.
Locate a few safe dishes that don't include your IBS trigger foods.
I find it is helpful to find at least one or two dishes that won't trigger your IBS that are filling and readily available at your destination. In Romania, it was polenta, and in the Netherlands, it was bread. The reality is that not every restaurant can cater to your dietary restrictions and if you're interested in trying traditional food, you might not always be pleased to discover that it has something that you didn't think was in it. In some cases, it's salvageable (you can remove the ingredient from it easily) while in others, you need to decide if it's worth eating it.
Learn how to explain your IBS trigger foods
If you are traveling to somewhere with a different language, look up how to write/say your IBS trigger foods in the local language and write down "I am allergic to ____. Does this have dairy? Please do not use this ingredient. Is it possible?" as well as "Yes"/"No." Technically, it's not an allergy. I used to be a lot less insistent upon this, but the idea of an intolerance confuses many people, and I find that an allergy more reliably conveys that you will be sick if you eat a specific food. Depending on the severity of your reaction, you may want to pre-vet restaurants that are good for food allergies. I find that offline Google Translate is helpful for translating these phrases.
Phrases to know in the local language
You don't need to be fluent, but I find that having offline Google Translate was a lifesaver in Albania as well as Japan as it allowed me to look at a menu in Albanian or in Japanese to figure what actually inside of the food. I also memorized the words for dairy and beans. Google Translate also allowed me to type what I needed to say and hand my phone to the waiter/staff when the language barrier was significant enough that I was worried about what I would end up ordering.
My top IBS travel tip is to have these phrases written down and ready to go when you go to a new restaurant. New restaurants in foreign countries give me a lot of anxiety to be honest, so I find that having these phrases ready on a piece of paper help a lot.
Don't be afraid to ask if there's another option
In some places, customizing your food will be much harder due to the language barrier or cultural expectations that you will eat what is given to you. Similarly, if you're in a remote area, there might not be other options for food and dealing with your IBS can become an issue. Traveling with IBS has made me more willing to ask at least if something has dairy although I tend to be shyer about modifications beyond just asking for cheese or butter to taken off.
When we were in the mountains of Albania, we had a fabulous home cooked meal at a homestay. However it was very clear from the food that this was they had in their kitchen, and if I wanted to eat after a long hike, I needed to eat dairy, including locally made goat cheese. I was a bit shocked when the cheese barely impacted me the next day, but I had to eat as I had a long hike the next day.
Ask tour operators before you book a tour
Similarly, if you are taking a tour, it's critical to inform the operator ahead about your food issues as many restaurants will have a set menu for groups and traveling with irritable bowel syndrome some extra planning. In some cases, they can be a bit more flexible, so it's good to even check before you book how they typically cater to those with food sensitivities. Some tours are much better about this than others and it's also country-dependent as some countries are better about catering to food issues than others.
Some people recommend booking a private tour as it provides more flexibility to stop off if you need a bathroom although I haven't found it to be a major barrier. However, a road trip is easiest as you can stop off whenever you want.
Tell your travel partners(s) about your IBS
I really try not to make traveling with IBS a big deal and it doesn't usually come up often until it's a problem, however it does impact the way that I eat when I travel and I might end up looking at a lot of restaurant menus to find somewhere that will work for me. I always try to do a bit of research before we go out, so I already have a restaurant in mind (by checking the menu online), but sometimes that doesn't work well as it's impossible to find the menu online. If you're just wondering how to travel with someone with IBS, I recommend being understanding and patient.
Don't eat anything new before a big day
If you're planning on having a big day out or you're going hiking, I recommend being very cautionary with what you eat. You don't know what the impact will be and you don't want to spend the day in pain or in need of a bathroom.
My biggest tip for traveling with IBS: Eat light.
Large meals trigger my IBS more than anything else and I find being more sensitive to portion sizes has helped a lot with my IBS. It's best not to have a large meal if possible and save some of it for later/get your meal to go if you can.
Bring your own snacks
If you will be in more remote places or on a long plane/bus ride, it's good to carry snacks with you as you might be unable to eat the food that you find along the way without getting sick. I received a complimentary sandwich last time I flew KLM, however, it was a cheese sandwich. Luckily, I had my own plane snacks that I could eat instead. In the past, I've caved when I was hungry, and the only food available made me regret it later on. Many people with IBS also check for nearby supermarkets and ensure that their hotel room has a refrigerator. My own IBS isn't this severe.
I typically carry a box of granola bars with me just in case the food options are disappointing.
For long-haul flights, always request the special meal
If you're taking a long flight, always request a special meal. In the past, I've requested the lactose-free meal. I've sometimes found that the other ingredients triggered my IBS, so I've found that requesting a different variety (such as the vegan meal or the Indian vegan meal) allows me to try something different and typically delicious. Some airlines have some fantastic food for those with food sensitivities and I was really impressed with lactose-free meal on Emirates.
Always know where the bathroom is
When you're traveling, it's often hard to know when something will trigger your IBS and you might need the bathroom. As a result, I recommend double-checking that there's a toilet in a restaurant before you sit down. Similarly, check ahead for bathrooms on buses/trains.
When I'm in a new city, I often look for nicer cafes, which tend to have cleaner bathrooms than the public ones. If you're traveling in a country like Japan where some toilets are in the ground, carry your own toilet paper with you.
Get the aisle seat
Although I love looking out the window on planes, I try to sit in the aisle seat if my stomach is upset as I don't like to annoy the people around me by getting up multiple times. Dealing with IBS can be really annoying sometimes and I hate being the reason that we have to stop off multiple times on a road trip. Luckily, my husband also has IBS, so he gets it 1000%.
Drink water and carry medication from home to help with gas
Drinking water often helps a little That said, your stomach may be more sensitive to water changes, so ask the locals ahead if the water is safe to drink for tourists. In some places, people will say no. I was a bit shocked when numerous people told me that we could drink the mountain spring water in Albania, but it was some of the tastiest water that I've had.
Similarly, I often carry a gas related medication (such as Imodium) to help with IBS pain in case I eat something that gives me gas pain. My husband always brings extras of his lactose relief medicine to help with lactose in case he's forced to eat dairy when there's not other options. It may much harder to find both of these in a remote area and/or a country where lactose-intolerance/IBS is not discussed as much. We have not been able to find lactose relief pills in some countries when we forgot them.
Carry some extra items with you if you're concerned about your ability to control your food while traveling
Lastly, don't overdo your schedule on vacation!
Many people do this thing where they plan every hour of every day while on vacation. This can be stressful, and stress can make IBS worse. Your vacation should be relaxing and calming.
Note: I am not a doctor, and you should consult with your doctor before making changes to your diet/medications. This is only for educational purposes.
Do you have IBS? What's your go-to tip for traveling with IBS? Where has been the hardest place for you to travel with IBS?
Karen and Jacob. American expats and cat lovers from New York City and Kentucky who lived in Amsterdam.... Now in Paris with moving back to the Netherlands this month.
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