If the holidays tend to leave your stomach feeling like a big, bloated bowl of jelly, you're not alone.
While holiday goodies are often to blame, gastroenterologists at the University of Michigan Health System say that holiday travel, along with stress and poor eating habits, can create a recipe for tummy trouble too.
"Traveling can be very stressful and it can be particularly hard on your gut," says Sandra Hoogerwerf, M.D., assistant professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at the U-M Medical School. "People tend to experience abdominal pain, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, or a combination of any of those problems during travel."
The key to a happy, healthy tummy while traveling this holiday season: Understanding your gut's internal rhythm and watching what you eat when you travel. And, when all else fails, there's always over-the-counter remedies at a nearby convenience store.
A jet-lagged gut
Just like a person's sleep cycle can be interrupted by travel, your gut's natural rhythm - the internal clock that regulates hunger and bowel movements - can be thrown out-of-sync.
"The gut's rhythm gets thrown off when you travel, especially across time zones. So suddenly you're awake when you should be sleeping, and you're eating when you're supposed to be sleeping. Essentially, your gut is jetlagged, and that can cause a lot of gastrointestinal problems," says Hoogerwerf.
Even traveling by car for a couple of days can disrupt your gut's natural rhythm.
Hoogerwerf's advice is to give your gut time to catch up to your new schedule. It may take a few days for your East Coast gut to sync with West Coast living, but your gut will eventually find its new rhythm.
"If you respect your biological rhythms, you're going to feel less irritated, less tired, less fatigued, and your gut is going to feel a lot better," she notes.
Big eats, big tummy trouble
Whether traveling over the holidays or at any time of the year, we tend to indulge in high-fat and high-caloric foods.
"When people travel, they drink lots of carbonated drinks, snack in between meals, and often gulp down their meals because they're in a hurry to catch a plane," says Hoogerwerf. "This eating behavior only worsens the gastrointestinal problems that we already experience due to travel."
While traveling, Hoogerwerf recommends eating light, and also cautions against drinking lots of caffeinated drinks. "People often pump themselves full of caffeine to stay awake on long trips. But caffeine can have a lot of negative side effects on the stomach - heartburn, indigestion, and it can worsen diarrhea."
Alcohol also should be avoided while traveling, she says. Like caffeine, alcohol only perpetuates gastrointestinal problems, and can leave you feeling bloated and exhausted at the end of a long day of travel.
Over-the-counter gut relief
Watching what you eat, and respecting your gut's internal clock will help resolve some tummy issues, but they may not bring complete or immediate relief.
If you experience diarrhea or constipation while traveling, Hoogerwerf recommends using over-the-counter medications. For constipation, she suggests an osmotic laxative, like milk of magnesia. But, don't overdo it, she says. One cup should be enough. For diarrhea, Hoogerwerf says over-the-counter medications like Imodium will help with symptoms.
But if abdominal pain, bloating, constipation or diarrhea become more of a regular problem, Hoogerwerf advises making an appointment with your health care provider or a gastrointestinal physician to find ways to help manage symptoms.
For more information, visit Centers for Disease Control & Prevention: Traveler's health
Written by Krista Hopson