Because travelling between time zones needn’t wreak havoc with your toilet habits

You’ve done it: ticked off that last task on your to-do list, set your email to ‘out of office’, managed to get your suitcase shut (eventually) and officially made the shift to holiday mode. Pre-holiday butterflies should now be the only feeling in your belly, but for many, travel and long haul flights can leave us feeling backed up, bloated and (whisper it) a little bit gassy.

No embarrassment here though, because it turns out that jet lag and flying could be doing a lot more than making us tired and sleep-deprived – their effects could stretch to our gut, making us less (or more) regular and causing our toilet habits to fall out of sync.

Whether you find your digestive system’s a little sluggish or you’re more flatulent mid- or post-flight, prepare to feel a whole lot more comfortable. We’ve nabbed some time with Dr Megan Rossi, scientist, clinician and founder of The Gut Health Doctor and The Gut Health Clinic and Boots nutritionist, Vicky Pennington, to find out how we can stop jet lag-related stomach issues in their tracks, and focus more on the beach instead of that next bowel movement.

What is gut lag?

You know that drowsy, disoriented feeling you have when you land somewhere new? Well your gut could be also feeling out of sorts as it acclimatises to a new environment.

“Moving between time zones, as a part of travelling, can disrupt our body clock (circadian rhythm), and can result in constipation,” explains Dr Megan Rossi. “When we change our sleeping and eating patterns, it can disturb the regularity of our gut movements.”

Our circadian rhythms are 24-hour cycles that are part of the body’s internal clock, and are constantly humming around in the background to carry out important processes. They’re all related to the cycle of day to night and tie into a ‘master’ biological clock in the brain. “Gut bacteria also have a circadian rhythm that can be at odds with a new time zone,” Dr Rossi tells us. “This is thought to affect their normal daily output, such as hormone regulation and vitamin production.”

Melatonin is one such hormone that can feel the knock-on effects. “Melatonin’s best known for regulating our sleep-wake cycle; however, it can also affect our gut movement and sensations,” says Dr Rossi. “This helps explain why moving to different time zones can increase gut sensitivity.”

I call this ‘mile-high IBS'

How can flying affect the gut?

You’re buckled up, browsing your in-flight menu when, bam – you can sense that dreaded bloated feeling coming on. Look around, though, and you may notice you’re not the only one shifting uncomfortably in your seat as the plane climbs to 10,000 feet.

“There’s actually a very logical explanation for this,” Dr Rossi assures us. “Essentially, as the plane ascends, the atmospheric pressure in the cabin changes and this means any air trapped in the gut expands, causing that all-too-familiar bloating and discomfort.

“I call this ‘mile-high bloating’. This is the same phenomenon behind the ears popping, and water bottles and crisp packets inflating after take-off.”

Why you may get diarrhoea after flying

While some may feel constipated after a flight, others can experience the complete opposite. After all, everyone’s bowel habits are different. This could be down to changes in the types and timing of food that we eat in transit (particularly when taking a few flights across multiple time zones), but it may also be down to the body’s reaction to unease or anxiety.

“When travelling, we can also experience changes in our hormones, specifically cortisol, the stress hormone (think of the stress of travel),” highlights Dr Rossi. “Cortisol can speed up the movement of food through the digestive system, triggering diarrhoea for some and constipation for others.”

Some small changes in the run up to travel may help ease some of those dreaded ‘gut lag’ symptoms

How to reduce ‘gut lag’ & prepare the stomach for international travel?

While we can’t prevent jet lag, there are ways to help reduce its effects. “You may not think of preparing the gut for travel as part of your typical holiday prep but some small changes in the run up to travel may actually help ease some of those dreaded ‘gut lag’ symptoms,” says Dr Rossi.

From what to do before take off, during the flight and when you land; here are some things to try, to help reduce flying or travel-related stomach issues.

1. Adjust your sleeping hours prior to travel

This could help the body get used to a new time zone before your trip. No need to head to bed at 5pm though, just going to sleep and getting up a little earlier or later than usual can help to give the body a head start.

During the flight, try to sleep, if the local time is night time at your destination; pack an eye mask and earplugs in your hand luggage to help you to switch off and fall asleep faster.

Upon arrival, it can be helpful to skip that oh-so-tempting nap and start your new sleep schedule as soon as you can.

The same idea applies to food: “When you get to your destination, get straight into the mealtime pattern of the new time zone and try to kick-start your digestion by ensuring the first meal contains at least two to three different types of plant foods (for general nutrition and fibre),” Dr Rossi suggests.

Lastly, when it’s daytime, make a move to the outside for some natural light exposure to help your circadian rhythm adjust. 

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2. Drink plenty of water

Flying can be a dehydrating business, so drinking water regularly is very important.

Try to avoid too much alcohol, as it can affect the quality and length of your sleep and also increase symptoms of jet lag. “Alcohol can interfere with good sleep and be dehydrating,” says Vicky. “It’ll be helpful to drink lots of water or other non-alcoholic fluids before, during and after the flight to help avoid jet-lag – at least six to eight glasses in 24 hours. You may find it easier to stay hydrated if you drink little and often.”

It can also be a good idea to keep tabs on your tally of coffee or tea, which can easily add up fast when travelling. “While small amounts of caffeine (found in tea, coffee and energy drinks) can give a much-needed temporary boost, too much caffeine (and this will be different for each of us) can lead to feelings of irritability and sleepless nights,” says Vicky. She recommends consuming no more than three or four cups of coffee, or equivalent, per day. And try to avoid fizzy drinks – as well as being high in sugar, they aren’t as hydrating as other fluids and can also contribute to that uncomfortable bloated tummy feeling.

3. Find ways to relax

The flight, the 101 things to remember, the finding your bearings – if holiday stress has an effect on your stomach, it can be useful to have a list of go-to ways to help you relax.

If flying makes you feel nervous, try a breathing exercise as a means of distraction and to help slow down your heart rate. The NHS recommends the following relaxation technique that can be done anywhere:

• Breathe in, and let the breath go as deep down into the belly as is comfortable
• Breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth
• Breathe in gently and regularly, counting steadily from one to five (if possible), if you find it useful
• Now breathe out gently, counting from one to five again
• Continue for at least five minutes.

4. Constipated? Eat more fibre

If you tend to get constipated as a result of jet lag, in addition to staying hydrated, increasing the amount of fibre in your diet can help move things along. Fibre can be found in fruit, vegetables, oats, wholegrain bread and pulses, and government guidelines recommend that we should aim to eat 30g of dietary fibre a day, as part of a healthy, balanced diet.

It can also help you feel more like yourself when post-flight energy levels flag. “When levels dwindle, it’s easy to turn to sugary snacks and grab a chocolate bar,” says Vicky. “While sugary foods release their energy quickly, they also cause dramatic fluctuations in blood-sugar levels and we soon feel low again.

“It’s better to go for snacks based on fruit, vegetables and wholegrains instead. Wholemeal bread, wholegrain cereals – especially oats – brown rice, wholewheat pasta, vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds are all better choices for keeping energy levels on an even keel.”

Need a little extra support if you’re feeling backed up? Help take some of the pressure off by allowing for plenty of time to go to the toilet and resting your feet on a low stool to get into the best position.

Boots Good Gut Daily Fibre

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Finding it tricky to get your daily quota of fibre when on holiday? For those times, stir one of these sachets into a small glass of cold water or juice, before or after a meal. If required, two sachets can be taken per day. This will provide 20% of the recommended daily intake of fibre, however, avoid increasing fibre intake in the diet too rapidly, as it can lead to excess gas and bloating.

5. Bloated? Eat smaller, more frequent meals

If you suffer from bloating on flights, there are helpful ways to hack your high altitude meal plan to make things less uncomfortable.

“On the day you travel, and during the flight, avoid big meals,” recommends Dr Rossi. “This helps reduce pressure on the gut. Instead, try dividing your usual amount of food across five or six meals.”

Other de-bloating tips include chewing with your mouth closed and drinking plenty of water. It can also be a good idea to avoid gas-inducing ingredients such as beans, lentils and cabbage, as well as too many high-sugar, high-fat, processed and spicy foods. “I tend to avoid rich, heavy meals and stick to packed snacks, such as veggie sticks and wholegrain crackers,” says Dr Rossi.

You can also try massaging your stomach from right to left (the direction of the lower intestine) to help ease trapped wind – a tip you may feel more comfortable deploying in the privacy of the plane’s bathroom. Incidentally, stretching and walking around the cabin regularly can also be useful for helping reduce the effects of jet lag, as well as any potential post-massage embarrassment.

For more gut health tips, check out our Boots Live Well Panel with Dr Megan Rossi below.