April 30, 2022 6 min read
Each day millions of people across the United States head to the airport to travel for work, school, leisure, and athletic related events. Regardless of the reason for travel, you want to arrive at your destination feeling your best.
Travel is known to impact the structure and function of your gut microbiome. Taking proactive steps to care for the health of your gut when you travel can help you enjoy your trip and reduce your risk of gastrointestinal distress.
When you travel, changes to dietary patterns and the introduction of new cuisines can impact your gut health. Research has shown that dietary changes can rapidly lead to alterations in the gut microbiome.
Changes in both the number and types of bacteria in your gastrointestinal tract are seen within days of the introduction of new cuisines with new types of foods, which can potentially have long-lasting impacts on gut health and gut functions.
Disruptions to circadian rhythms, or jet lag, is a well-known concern when traveling across time zones. Interestingly, the circadian rhythms also play a role in regulating the function and activity of gut microbiome.
Disruptions to the circadian rhythms, including those related to jet lag, have been found to cause gut dysbiosis, alter an individual’s response to gastro-intestinal (GI) pathogens, and potentially increase the risk for travel related GI distress.
Taking steps to reduce the effects of jet lag, such as going into the trip well rested, minimizing your intake of alcohol and caffeine during travel, getting sleep on the flight, and switching to the new time zone schedule once arriving at your destination, may help your body adjust more quickly and decrease the impacts on your well-being and the microbe friends in your gut.
Travelers’ diarrhea is another concern associated with gut health and travel, particularly when traveling to developing countries. Travelers’ diarrhea is typically the result of eating food or drinking water contaminated with bacteria, parasites, or viruses. Although most individuals recover from travelers’ diarrhea without the need for medical treatments, it can leave you feeling miserable while traveling.
Research looking at the impact of travel on the gut microbiome has examined how an individual’s microbiome prior to travel may increase one’s susceptibility of developing traveler’s diarrhea. Although research is limited, it appears that the health of your gut microbiota may influence an individual’s resistance or susceptibility to some types of bacterial infection.
It has also been noted that that gut dysbiosis may occur during travel, even when the individual does not develop traveler’s diarrhea or other gastrointestinal related symptoms.
There are several proactive steps you can take to support the health of your gut when traveling.
You can support your gut health by eating foods that are rich in prebiotic fiber, which promotes the growth of beneficial bacteria in your gut. Examples of prebiotic foods include: garlic, onions, whole grains, asparagus, artichokes, almonds, flax seeds, and other plant foods that are rich in soluble fibers and non-digestible carbohydrates.
Prebiotics such as galacto-oligosaccharide (GOS), and human milk oligosaccharides (HMO), are associated with preventing the occurrence and severity of symptoms associated with travelers’ diarrhea. Eating a diet that contains a variety of prebiotic and probiotics sources before, during, and after travel can help support the ongoing health of your gastrointestinal system.
You can help keep your gut healthy by consuming foods that contain beneficial bacteria, called probiotics. Foods that contain probiotics include: yogurt, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, fermented foods, buttermilk, and aged cheeses.
Specific strains of probiotics are associated with helping to prevent traveler’s diarrhea, reducing the incidence of upper respiratory tract infections, and supporting the function of your immune system. The probiotics Lactobacillus GG andSaccharomyces boulardii are bothassociated with reducing the incidence of travelers’ diarrhea, particularly when traveling to developing countries.
Although omega-3s are well known for their role in cardiovascular health, cognitive health, and their anti-inflammatory properties, new research is looking into the role of omega-3 fatty acids and gut health. Omega-3s play a role in the function and structure of all cells in the body, and are an integral part of the cell membrane.
Research in animal models have demonstrated the role of omega-3s in maintaining the integrity of the intestinal wall, reducing gut permeability, and supporting immune health. In addition, intake of omega-3 fatty acids is associated with higher gut microbiome diversity and increased abundance of bacteria belonging to the Lachnospiraceae family.
Bacteria within the Lachnospiraceae family play a key role in producing short-chain fatty acids, which help reduce inflammation in the body and support the health of the immune system.
Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids include cold-water fatty fish, such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, and herring, as well as plant sources such as walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds, seaweed, plant oils (soybean oil, flaxseed oil), and leafy greens. Aiming to include omega-3 foods into your diet on a regular basis, including during travel, is an easy way to support your gut microbiome and overall health.
Water is an essential nutrient with many critical roles in the body. Water helps transport nutrients throughout the body, helps regulate body temperature produces salvia, and helps remove waste from the body through the urine.
Water also plays a key role in digestive health and the functions of the gastrointestinal tract. Dehydration results in slowed gastrointestinal transit time and is a contributing factor to constipation. Dehydration also reduces the production of saliva. Saliva serves as the body’s first defense against microbial species and serves an important role in immune health.
When you travel, pack an empty water bottle to take with you. Once you pass through the security check-point, fill it up so you have water with you on the flight. If you are traveling to a location at a higher altitude, pay particular attention to your hydration needs, as altitude increases fluid requirements.
Be prepared for flight delays, travel by bus, and breakfast on-the-go by packing healthy snacks that support gut health. Consider packing high fiber snacks to take with you, such as whole grain crackers, dry cereal, granola bars, oatmeal packets, and fresh or freeze-dried fruits. An easy on-the-go snack that travels well is homemade trail mix – containing whole grain cereal, pretzels, dried fruit, and mixed nuts.
With travel it is important to be mindful of food safety practices that can help prevent the risk of getting a foodborne illness or travelers’ diarrhea.
When traveling to a new location, make sure the water is safe to drink, use caution purchasing food from street vendors, avoid consuming food that has been held without temperature control, and avoid any type of unpasteurized milk, juice, or dairy product.
Also make sure to practice good personal hygiene, such as washing hands prior to eating or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and running water is not available.
Given the impact travel can have on the gut microbiome, focusing on practices to support gut health when traveling is important.
Consuming foods that can have a beneficial impact on gut health, being mindful of staying hydrated, and remaining cautious of food safety risks are all key steps you can take to care for your gut during travel.
Mandy Tyler — Registered and Licensed Dietitian, Board-Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics, Licensed Athletic Trainer, and Certified Exercise Physiologist.
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