To All the Loos I've Ever Loved: Travelling with IBS

That’s right, y’all. Another poop post on Shut-Up-and-Go-dot-Travel. We all poop, and we all write about it. As for me, I wanted my contribution to the brown crowd to be for my people, the chronic crampers, the gassy masses – we who fear our own guts on the daily, as much as we fear Montezuma’s revenge on a weekend away.

Sure, food poisoning is always a risk when you’re gobbling down all the local fare you can, but what if there’s no telling what your intestines will do, whether it’s street meat or a slice of white bread?  What if exactly one apple can make you spend half an hour in the bathrooms behind the French Panthéon? It’s a rough world for weak stomachs.

Buckle in, and clutch your lactose pills. We’re talking about irritable bowel syndrome.

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For those of y’all who do not know the joy of IBS, I typically describe it a blanket medical term for unruly digestion. It’s chronic, meaning we can treat the symptoms but never be totally free of it, and the symptoms vary per person. Some are more on the IBS-D side, others on the IBS-C side – D for diarrhea and C for constipation.  

Which side am I on? Oh, hush. A lady never tells.

Regardless, there’s always going to be a bit of both, a touch of C one day and some spectacular D on another. As you can imagine, nobody wants this D.

Do keep in mind that this has nothing on inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis. Comparing IBS to one of these is like comparing the sniffles to Mono. These diseases we should treat with a little respect.

Irritable bowel syndrome, on the other hand, can be treated with potty humor. So bring on the fart jokes.

You’d think that living a life of intestinal turmoil would lessen our fear of food poisoning and travelers diarrhea because we’re used to it, right? We must see the crisis that comes after some bad fish and chips like any other Tuesday night.

On the one hand, yes, I’m certainly familiar with that rumbly-tummy sensation that’s sweeping the nation, and that could make me more prepared to deal with it than your average steel-stomached individual.

On the other hand, like most health conditions, IBS symptoms worsen when we’re in unfamiliar, stressful situations. So when I’m in my comfort zone, my gut is pretty manageable. I eat mostly plants, maintain my morning bathroom routine, and roll along. Outside of my comfort zone, it’s the wild wild west in my colon.

Plus, no matter how much we’re used to our bubbly bellies, that doesn’t make it any easier when having to choose between a decadent raclette dinner or an evening free of stomach cramps.

You’ve just got to learn how to manage it, something I’m still figuring out. Until recently, I would fast whenever there was no guaranteed bathroom access. As I said, everyone’s condition is different, and mine only acts up in reaction to food, no matter the food. It doesn’t come out of nowhere. So I just wouldn’t eat, problem solved.

Because of this, I missed out on a week of delicious New Orleans food when a friend and I spent a week there in high school, plus countless other regional cuisines. It didn’t even work all the time, the worst instance being when I went on a 12-hour road trip without eating and then nearly passed out of dehydration in the hotel bathroom at the end of the day. Not a good look.

So I’ve developed some new techniques to manage my symptoms, and while they certainly don’t fix everything, they at least allow me to eat. Most of the time. Maybe they can help some of y’all too.

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    Be up-front about it. Don’t hide your symptoms. Sure, it can be embarrassing to tell your travel crew about your bathroom needs, but it’ll be worse if you get sick or are too nervous to enjoy your night out.

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    Test out treatments before you go. If you want to experiment with fiber pills, probiotics, lactose pills, or various diets, do it at home when you know your body’s response is resulting from the treatment and no other variables. Don’t add that kind of analysis and stress to your travel plans.

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    Wear comfortable clothing. Gut-constricting jeans or body-con dresses may be cute, but not if they screw with your digestion. I divide my closet into clothes I can eat in and clothes I can’t. Travelling is for the clothes you can eat in.

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    Have an emergency plan. Like a robber scopes out a bank, you’ve gotta scope out those bathrooms. Are you going to need a 50 cent coin handy? Can you go to the Starbucks around the corner, or is it customers-only? Where can you dig a hole in the forest? Be prepared, so there’s no panic if your stomach goes rogue.

Most of all, you’ll have to roll with it. I still have to modify my eating when facing a day light on the bathrooms, but sometimes I just throw caution to the wind and eat that whole, greasy, cheesy pizza, because I’m in Italy, doing as the Italians do.

Worst case scenario? I’ll say it. Pooping my pants.

It hasn’t happened yet, but I know it’s coming for me like a freight train careening off its tracks. My hope is that on that day, when my emergency plan fails, I can accept it, with a belly full of such a wonderful meal that there’s no room for regret. And that there are no cameras around.


Anybody out there feeling my pain? Let’s commiserate in the comments below.


Happy travels, y’all!

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