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General Travel

Getting around digestive issues while traveling

Took a trip to Tel Aviv, Israel where I managed to eat something that completely disrupted my digestive process. I had only eaten from common clean restaurants and some frozen prepackaged commercial grocery store stuff, so no idea what the culprit was. The effect was intense though. Everything I ate for nearly a week started to hurt my stomach to the point that I eventually could not handle putting anything in my mouth without feeling like I was going to vomit. The gassiness, bloating and all the toilet perching that went along with it really made that a miserable week.

Visited a pharmacy, got some BioCare live probiotics and downed them with some Jarrow Ideal Bowel Support 299v caps (pill form of GoodBelly) I just happened to have with me. 48 hours later I was less miserable, but the ache was still there and could tell something still was not right with my digestive tract in general. I'm used to being ultra-regular and healthy in that area, so I may be sensitive to disruptions

A friend of mine that travels regularly recommended I go vegetarian, or even vegan, while I am traveling abroad.

Does this have merit and why?

Other than the common recommendations such as not drinking the water, what are some suggestions for keeping digestion as healthy as possible while traveling?

How about best ways to mitigate damage when you realize that last meal you ate might have been tainted?

10 Answers

top answer by
Sean from Hudson Valley

Hi Joshua,

I usually behave like a locust when I'm traveling, and rarely do I have digestive problems; which is not to say it's never happened.  However, I usually take several precautions where this issue is concerned.

I don't know about the vegetarian idea.  On the surface it sounds like a good idea, but when you scratch past that surface you see several major flaws in the idea.  Beside, I'm an omnivore, and that seems to work for me. 

The truth might be not so much that you had something tainted, but rather that you ate something your system was unaccustomed to.  Your body is simply used to the bacteria, and microbes of your particular local, as are all our systems.  Every now and then you introduce something new into your system and it just can't handle it.  This even happens to me in the US.

What I do is this; I try to get my system accustomed to its new local as soon as I can.  I've found that a good way to do this is to treat yourself to some local yogurt.   Locally made yogurt has several benefits.  The local cows have been feasting on the local flora in order produce the milk it's made from.  Also, some of the enzymes and bacillus that turn the milk into yogurt  are unique to that local.  These help slowly acclimate you system to its new surroundings. Besides, it tastes so damn good!

Water is a hot button issue.  Local tap water contains all sort of microbial guests that hundreds of thousands of people drink every day with no ill effect.  That doesn't mean it ain't bend you in half, though!  Seriously, water-borne parasites are the cause of more illness in the world than just about anything else.  Again, for the average traveler it's not that the water's bad, it's just that your system isn't use to it. I usually drink spring water, juices and tea. 

Keep this in mind too; from the middle ages and through colonial America almost everybody drank beer (or Ale) in large quantities.  This was because the quality water was always suspect.  There are dioramas at Harvard University's library showing the development of the area through the years.  With the science of bacteriology still two centuries away, many a barn was built right next the family well.  If you were able to successfully brew beer it meant the water was safe to drink.  Still, without a working knowledge of bacteriology, they just drank the beer.  This is another strategy that has worked for me, too!  ; )

Finally, eat cooked food.  Although I hesitate to give this advice, I have to admit that ignoring it has made pay, dearly!  The worst thing about it is, I love fruit, I love raw veggies, and you better not stand in my way if that's sushi I see! 

The big culprit is salad,  The soil can be host to billions of different microbial villains. Probably more if natural fertilizers are used. The obvious solution it to wash the greens, but this is bone using tap water.  Now you've removed the soil only to increase the amount of microbial parasites.  It was only a few years ago that right here in the United States we had a country wide tomato scare.  In the end it turned out to be peppers, not tomatoes, that were tainted during the irrigation process.

If your best efforts fail you, you can still help with your own recovery.  First of all, as unpleasant is it is, you're going to have to eat.  Fasting only makes the problem linger.  Believe me Josh, I've been there!  I know there are time you'd rather stick needles in you eyes than eat something.  You just need to bite the bullet (no pun intended, really!) and eat.  Dry toast, white rice and bananas are all good ideas.  The first two because they're bland and binding.   Bananas have both these qualities, plus help replenish the potassium you've lost through, shall we say, unexpected dietary discharging.  Oatmeal is also a good at getting you back to an even keel. Also, drink plenty of hot tea. 

Probiotics can help, or at least they won't hurt.  Again get them as local as possible, to help acclimate your system to its new surroundings.  Other than that, I avoid most non-prescription medicines for stomach problems.  I haven't known one that hasn't exacerbated the problem.

Most of all, don't let the fear of this deter you from traveling.  I've experienced these problems right here in the USA, and the worst cases were from right in my own back yard.

4 thankscomments (1)

answered by
Janelle from Charleston

Israel is a first-world country with similar (or perhaps even stricter) regulations about food hygiene as the USA, so you most likely had an isolated incident of food poisoning because someone didn't wash their hands after they went poo-poo.  I had a similar incident in Canada...I had breakfast at Taunte Maria's Mennonite Restaurant in Saskatoon and by nightfall I was in hospital with salmonella poisoning.

If you're going to a third world country, then it's a given that local food hygiene standards will not be up to what you and your innards are used to.  Going vegan won't solve the problem, so it makes sense to follow certain precautions:

1. Carry a small container of hand sanitiser everywhere you go, and use it before you eat and after you go #2.  If you're going to a country where most food is eaten with the hands, bring a box of hospital gloves with you and keep a few in your pocket for when you eat.

2. Don't eat fresh fruit or veg that can't be peeled, e.g. bananas and oranges good, lettuce and strawberries bad.

3. Order all your meat well done.

4. If you're into street food, only eat at the stalls that are crowded and full of locals - if the place is crowded it means that food is mostly cooked to order and is less likely to be left sitting out for too long.

5. Avoid buffets and cafeteria-style restaurants where food is left sitting out for long periods of time.

6. Don't drink milk and don't eat fresh cheese - they're probably unpasteurised.

7. Avoid smoothies or blended drinks, and never get your drinks with ice.

8. Drink bottled water and use it for brushing your teeth and gargling.  And make sure the seal on the bottle hasn't been tampered with.

9. Let your nose do the thinking for you - if your food smells bad or if the restaurant smells like feces or rotting corpses then leave.

10. If the muddy brown river starts a flowin', don't take immodium or anything else that stops the process.  Your body needs to get rid of the pathogens - better to spend all day on the throne and let it run its course if you have to.

Mentioned in this answer:

  1. Taunte Maria's Mennonite Restaurant (restaurant)
3 thankscomments (1)

answered by
Rasto from Edmonton

I think another problem is how we are trying to be "overprotective" when it comes to hygiene and food in western world and not letting to build immunity to many things on its own. Then when being exposed to foreign environment we get sick easily.

I was so far very lucky on my travels and never got seriously sick except maybe diarrhea or cold which lasted only few days. And I usually try all sorts of local dishes, street food and many times eat in not so fancy restaurants.

We have in the city (Edmonton, Canada) Travel & Immunization Clinic where I always go before any big trip and give them info about where I will be staying and for how long. They would tell me exactly what I need for that country/region and I load on necessary pills or keep my vaccinations current. There are different pills for different regions, they know that and are experts on that subject.

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answered by
Kat from Brooklyn

This is a very thorny question and the answer, more or less, is that It Depends. 

For instance, going vegan or vegetarian might be a surefire way to avoid GI problems in the developed world, but it could be the most immediate way to get GI problems in parts of the developing world.  In Sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, a lot of crops are fertilized using human excrement (ew) and washed with tap water, which can lead to all manner of aggressive GI problems.  Here's what my doctor told me when I lived in Africa:  If you can not cook it or peel it, you're taking a major chance on whether or not you're going to get sick.

Having said that, with a few precautions you should be fine.  I don't deal with probiotics (in my travels around Asia they seemed to make things worse for most people who were not seasoned travelers), but I would strongly recommend that you get vaccinated against Typhoid if you're traveling to a developing country and are an "adventurous" eater. 

Second, if you're in a place with unsafe tap water, either use spring/bottled water or boil water before you even think about using it for anything other than bathing.  This means all kinds of small things you might not even consider, such as opening your mouth in the shower or brushing your teeth.  While perhaps local people can handle the tap water (since their systems are used to it), it doesn't mean that you will be able to handle it. 

Third, while immodium is great in a pinch and you can get it anywhere, don't use it often as it can contribute to feeling worse and worse.  I would reserve it for emergencies only (such as having to get on a plane), otherwise let your body flush your system on its own.

Fourth, instead of using hand sanitizer (which is questionably useful at best), simply wash your hands thoroughly before eating or preparing food.

Fifth, make sure you are hydrated and drink plenty of (clean) water.  If you're going to a tropical or very hot climate, make sure you bring some dehydration salts just in case you dehydrate.  Sometimes when you're traveling you don't even realize that this is happening until it's too late.  Having rehydration salts will usually prevent a trip to the clinic/hospital for an IV bag.  Speaking of IVs, depending on how remote you're going, it may be worth it to bring a few clean needles with you too.  I always throw a first aid kit in my pack if we're off adventuring and it helps to have stuff on hand when you need it instead of trying to explain it in another language that is not your own.

Hope this helps a bit.  It's never fun to get sick while traveling and while it's not 100% preventable, there are a few things you can do to try to avoid it.

2 thanks

answered by
Scott from Fort Worth

Advice from a physician friend, a specialist in travel medicine: To build up healthy gut bacteria before you go overseas, take an OTC probiotic (CVS or Walgreens brand is fine) for two weeks before your trip. She recommends including foods like yogurt, kombucha, and unpasteurized beer in your diet all the time. If you do, the bad bacteria you ingest will feel like gang members who've walked into a nice neighborhood; they'll be way too outnumbered by good guys and your system will be able to deal with them. Also, pack some Pepto Bismol tablets for when you can't avoid eating something suspect. Taken thirty minutes before you go for those street tacos in Mexico, these little pink tablets will coat your stomach and prevent bad bacteria from causing the harm they otherwise would.

2 thankscomments (1)

answered by
Hazel from Port St. Lucie

My son just travelled to Mexico City and remote Mexico. He too came home sick from what you describe. He is 30. I watched him go through tamponade. He developed severe pericarditis. It was hard to get ER to do labs and EKG. He also had a heart attack. He has been all over. He ignores my suggestions. You have to be your own pharmacy. You need to travel with lomotil, finnergan, and antibiotics. Take a filtered water bottle. Meats have little to do with water as they are cooked. Learn to make a survival kit on youtube.

2 thanks

answered first by
Sabine from Amsterdam

Going vegetarian or vegan won't help you. They (non western countries mostly) wash the vegetables in water which can give you the same problem. Got reeeaally sick in Egypt from a tomato salad :-S. Don't have a solution for you I'm afraid, I just accept the fact that I will get sick at least once every holiday, haha. Always bring different kind of pills and vitamins with you to get better soon. I vomited once in a pharmacy, so I try to avoid having to go outside the door when I'm sick, so I bring stuff with me just in case :-). 

2 thankscomments (1)

answered by
Jacqui from London

I picked up a terrible bug (I think) while we were in Egypt. I was chronically ill for about four months and it totally messed up my whole digestive system. It took about 12 months until I could start eating certain types of food again. 

When I travel, I now always take something small and plain with me that I know I can eat if I get terrible hungry and I'm worried about the food. Sometimes I take plain crackers and a small can of tuna. 

Work out which foods might trigger an episode. You can do this by following the FODMAP diet for 6-8 weeks and then start gradually adding food one-by-one to your diet for three days to work out if you have a reaction to it. Sometimes I follow the FODMAP diet when I travel as it means that I won't eat any trigger foods (gluten, garlic, mushrooms, honey, some fruits, etc). 

Sometimes I only order vegetarian food and avoid meat and alcohol, which can be triggers. I also avoid gluten if I can. 

I found it very easy to be vegetarian in Amsterdam, Spain, Turkey, Germany and the UK. Most restaurants will understand vegetarian better than "no gluten". 

Good luck! 

1 thanks

answered by
Richard from Costa Rica

Interesting question and one with so many factors and variables it will hard to find a useful tip but heres a few that could possibly help.

  1. Going vegan or vegetarian is certainly worthy but also not a guarantee but very clean hands and surfaces can help. ie. menus can contaminate!
  2. Prophylactical pepto bismol tablets have been said to prevent this disorder when taken in the morning before eating
  3. Activated charcoal can help in the case of feeling ill as it can absorb bacteria and toxins
  4. Ginger root made into tea or drinks as well as ginger ales can also be effective against pain and nauseas 
  5. Drink more water and eat less foods that are cooked in oil
  6. Be aware that many types of electronics and stress from other people can also silently infect you
  7. Avoid alcholic beverages and strong coffees as these dehydrate and cause hypertensions resulting in digestive issues too
  8. Cucumber, Mint, Parsley, celery and lime juices can also be soothing as well drinks made from sesame seeds or even oatmeal

Good Luck on your travels.

1 thanks

answered by
Hazel from Port St. Lucie

Study the FBI AND FOREIGN travel site warnings and problems for each place you intend on being. Research medical situations and problems encountered.

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