Vacations are all about ease and relaxation … but there’s a catch. It’s not always easy to protect the 3,000-square-foot surface of your digestive tract—an area larger than the tennis court at your favorite resort—while you travel.
That enormous gut surface is coated with bacteria, archaea, fungi, and viruses: a community known as your gut microbiome. Scientists have described the gut microbiome as the body’s “interface with the external world of the traveler,” as gut microbes appears to ebb and flow depending on where you go, what you eat, and what you do.
In other words, whether or not you usually live with digestive symptoms such as bloating, gas, abdominal pain, or abnormal stool consistency, the likelihood of having to deal with them is greater when venturing away from home, as many of us will do this summer.
Research shows that even a perfectly healthy traveler can experience a gut microbiome shift—sometimes called a “dysbiosis”—that can increase their susceptibility to infection from diarrhea-causing bacteria. With an estimated 15 million travelers annually experiencing an episode of infectious diarrhea, you can expect the unexpected with your gut while you travel.
Fortunately, science has yielded clues about how to protect our gut health while we’re away from home, keeping our collection of gut microorganisms working for us rather than against us.
1. Pop a probiotic
Evidence supports the use of the probiotic Lactobacillus plantarum and some other species (or mixtures of species) for improving gastrointestinal symptoms, while the yeast species Saccharomyces boulardii may be able to treat traveler’s diarrhea specifically. Evidence also shows that taking certain probiotics as a preventive measure in advance of your trip may help stave off the dreaded bout of diarrhea.
2. Respect mealtimes
A recent mouse study suggested the microbiome bears the mark of even short-term dietary changes associated with travel; this could affect the movement of food through the digestive tract and plausibly affect bowel habits.
Another study found that jet-lagged mice ate at irregular times, leading to gut microbiome dysbiosis. In both mice and humans, this jet-lag-associated dysbiosis increased glucose intolerance and obesity.
If you’re shifting time zones during your trip, set your clock to the local hour and stick as closely as possible to regular mealtimes to avoid messing with your digestion and metabolism.
3. Choose the safest foods
Wherever in the world you find yourself, foods served fresh and hot generally carry less risk of harboring pathogenic bacteria compared to fruits and vegetables that you wash and peel yourself. Keep a stash of your go-to energy bars in your suitcase for times when you’re unsure about the safety of the food on offer.
4. Slumber soundly
In one study, just two days of partial sleep deprivation was enough to induce a gut microbiome dysbiosis and change metabolism in healthy young adults. Use your vacation time to give your gut bugs the sleep they need!
5. Focus on fiber
Evidence shows dietary fiber may reduce infection-related problems by boosting levels of short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs)—immune-supportive molecules produced by bacteria—in your gut.
Your microbiome creates SCFAs out of nondigestible carbohydrates, so make sure you seek out sources of fiber at every meal: Foods such as plantains, cashews, barley, and muesli are good sources. Or, bring along a prebiotic supplement for serious fiber power.
6. Stick to your supplements and medications
Since it’s well documented that certain medications and supplements affect your gut microbiome, changing your intake while traveling could potentially induce even greater shifts in the bacterial community.
Make sure you pack a good supply of the supplements and medicines you normally take, and label them clearly.
7. Cultivate calm
Stress may increase the severity of gastrointestinal symptoms, perhaps because it triggers changes in the gut microbiome (via the gut-brain axis) that disrupt normal intestinal function.
At the end of each travel day, let any anxieties and adrenaline subside by doing a calming activity, such as watching the sunset, taking a walk on the beach, or practicing a quiet meditation.
Whether you’re set to relax in rugged mountains or with an azure ocean view, you don’t want an accidental itinerary of a different kind—Mission: Find the Nearest Washroom Immediately. By taking just a few measures for gut health, you can focus 100 percent on your trip.