Constipation During Travel – My Iceland Outhouse Experience and Why I Pack Laxatives When I Travel

Recently, I wrote a blog post about the essential medicine to carry when you travel, which of course, includes the topic for today – why you should be carrying laxatives when you travel. Constipation no joke. The gassy, bloated, stomach pain caused by the changes in your routine and added travel stress (like sleep disruption and dietary changes) can leave you blocked up. Nowadays, I reluctantly carry a pack of Miralax/Restorlax as part of my essential medicine kit when I travel abroad – a hard (pun intended!) lesson learned when I found myself sitting in an Icelandic outhouse, 8 days after I started my vacation – without stool softeners or laxatives (don’t worry the post doesn’t contain graphic medical details! It is just a story to stress why I need it in my pack now!).

Disclaimer: Today’s post talks about poop and my lack of success with it in Iceland. Basically every paragraph describes bowel movements. Skip if this is something you’re just really not interested in at all!

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Table of Contents:


Before we start with the story, let’s get a few basics out of the way: What is Constipation and Why Does it Happen More Frequently When We Travel? If you want to jump straight into the story, jump on over to “Why I Pack Laxatives When I Travel – A Story of When I Couldn’t Go and Why Iceland’s Outhouses are Amazing

What is Constipation?

Disclaimer: We are not health professionals! The information provided in this article is for general travel advice and information only. Please consult with your physician to check if the information below is right for you! It is important to know how your prescription drugs may interact with any of the listed over-the-counter medication. Furthermore, this information does not replace a personal consultation with any travel specialists or other physicians.

Constipation is a symptom rather than a disease. It means your bowel movements are hard and you aren’t doing that number two as often as you normally should. While some believe that going at least once a day is considered normal, a normal bowel movement for a person can vary. I don’t remember where I read this, but somewhere it said that what’s considered ‘normal bowel movement’ falls in the 3-3 range. Your ‘normal’ can range from 3 times a day to 3 times a week. (Does it count if it checks out on WebMD?)

In general though, the longer you go without a regular bowel movement, (like after three days), the harder and more difficult it is to pass. General constipation symptoms include:

  • few bowel movements
  • straining to go
  • hard stools
  • a sense that everything didn’t come out

Why Does Constipation Happen When You Travel?

Traveler’s constipation can occur due to various factors including:

  • dietary changes (increased caffeine, decreased probiotic, etc.)
  • dehydration
  • altered sleep patterns (hello napping on flights)
  • travel anxiety and stress
  • psychological reluctance to use public washrooms

Interestingly enough, The New York Times published an article last year asking “Is There Such a Thing as Traveler’s Constipation” in which they found a 2003 report done by Spanish gastroenterologists studying 70 people traveling from Europe to the United States. TLDR? Constipation is a pretty regularly day-to-day thing. However, there’s actually a slight increase in constipation when you travel citing factors outside of travel (such as changes in diet and physical activity) that increased constipation.

In any case, all the general factors that cause constipation are greatly increased when you travel. While we might not be able to call the issue ‘traveler’s constipation’ on the premise that its the fault of the act of ‘traveling’, there’s enough correlation to indicate that factors that increase the chances of constipation are more pronounced when you travel. After all, who doesn’t like to relax our diets a little when we’re on vacation?

For most constipation issues, the symptoms can be remedied by taking steps to change your diet. While this post is about why I pack laxatives in my bag, I’m still very much an advocate for using it as a last-resort measure. Always help your bowel movements out naturally with a few dietary and lifestyle changes before reaching for that packet!

Try these when you’re constipated:

  • Drink two to four extra glasses of water a day – I always carry a refillable water bottle with me no matter where I go to ensure this happens
  • Add more fruits and vegetables to your diet
  • Eat high fiber items like bran cereal
  • Exercise majority of the week
  • Acknowledge the urge to poop – don’t hold it in or ignore it, it’ll only make things worse

Avoid these when you’re constipated:

  • Dehydrating foods and drinks: caffeine
  • Constipation-inducing foods and drinks: unripe bananas (oops didn’t know this one!), alcohol, milk, processed grains, and red meat

Why I Pack Laxatives When I Travel – A Story of When I Couldn’t Go and Why Iceland’s Outhouses are Amazing

I’ve always known that I get a major case of traveler’s constipation regardless of where I go. It doesn’t matter how carefully I manage my diet, or how well I mimic my friend’s diet when we’re on trips. For one reason or another, my bowels refuse to stay regular. Constipation during travel can hit anyone at any age and, it doesn’t matter how frequently or infrequently you’ve traveled in the past.

For some, the trigger for traveler’s constipation can be a flight and for others, it can be a change in sleep or diet patterns. For me, it is literally putting myself anywhere outside of my house. I’ve known that I have challenges staying regular as soon as I know I’m staying overnight somewhere else. I’ve been like this since I was a kid. But similarly, I’ve grown up associating laxatives with a weird stigma, that it wasn’t good to use them at all. I’d rather exhaust all other options before bowing down to the medicinal powers of laxatives (hello Metamucil, fiber gummies, and crazy amounts of water).

When I was fourteen, I was dog sledding in Algonquin Park for 7 days. I had zero success in the frigid cold outhouses. None on any of the days. Not one. It wasn’t until I was in the safety of my own home and my ‘home toilet’ was I finally able to go. I thought that was the worst of it – constipation that you can grow out of as you become an adult and become more comfortable away from home.

Since then, I’ve traveled 20+ days across Europe, 35+ days across South East Asia, 20+ days in the Philippines, and have been on countless shorter vacations around the world. It wouldn’t matter where I was or what I ate – as soon as I left home, I’d be constipated until the 3-day mark. This happened even if the trip was within Ontario (hello Thunder Bay!).

Ew this is too much information I know. Why are you still reading this?

A New Record

Fjaðrárgljúfur is a canyon in south east Iceland which is up to 100 m deep and about 2 kilometres long, with the Fjaðrá river flowing through it. The canyon has steep walls and winding water.

Two years ago, I met my match. Anson, Kent, and I were traveling in a camper van across Iceland subsisting on three bags of Costco hot dogs mixed and several pouches of instant backpacking meals (looking at you Beef Stroganoff – so delicious!).

On top of the usual flights, change in diet, and differing sleeping patterns, we were also learning how to live in a campervan. Traveler’s constipation hit me hard. Like day 8 out of our 10-day trip hard. I had finally exceeded my 7-day record launched back in my teens.

What I Tried to Do to Stay Under the Constipation Record (A Failure)

Announcing the Blockage – Day 3 in Iceland

On our third day in Iceland, I made it my point to announce my situation. They’ve traveled with me in the past, and I don’t think I’ve ever made the announcement before. This time, I felt it was my obligation to announce it so that we could work withing our camper van logistics, the less populated (and hence low-density of publicly available washrooms) country. There was no option for me to discreetly try in the middle of the night at a hotel or hostel’s washroom. Our overnight parking locations were at overlook points – with no outhouses around, and I wasn’t going to be that terrible tourist leaving a mess where there shouldn’t be one.

I had declared that they would need to wait ten to fifteen minutes at the next tourist location so that I could go ahead and try to do my business. We stopped by a visitor’s center and they waited. Alas, no luck. Some passing remarks were made about maybe increasing our vegetable intake and how the other two didn’t have any problems (lucky…) despite the same diet. Your gal was unable to shake off the traveler’s constipation.

The Period of Increasing Concern and Escalating Mitigation Attempts – Day 5 to Day 7 in Iceland

By the fifth day, I was starting to get a little desperate. Washrooms were getting sparser as we made our way around the ring round, driving deeper into the North side of Iceland. I made a second announcement over lunch – asking if we could prioritize vegetable intake in our meals. They happily complied and we drove to the nearest grocery store to stock up on additional supplements to our hot dog meals. We purchased:

  • frozen vegetables
  • canned corn
  • probiotics / yogurt
  • whole wheat bread

Note: Anson wasn’t feeling well and we ran out of medication, so we even stopped by the pharmacy aisle to purchase some pain killers. And guess what? I refused to look for laxatives or stool softeners to add into our cart. Future me is shaking her head at this absurdity.

via GIPHY

When we had dinner, my friends pointedly put more of the vegetables in my bowl. I ate a pack of yogurt and hoped that the next day would bring better days. The sixth day brought no success despite the increased intake. I doubled my sliced bread intake, and ate the bananas, despite them still being green (AVOID THIS – While researching constipation I learned that unripe bananas can increase constipation!). On day 7, I was drinking two cups of water with every meal, eating a banana every day, having two slices of whole wheat bread, and I finished two cans of corn. Still. No luck.

Whenever I brought up my issue, everyone would eventually bring up the idea of using a laxative. We’d find a visitor center with a flushing toilet, take the laxative, and just let it do its business. To be honest, I did consider the idea for a moment, but the thought of wasting everyone’s time, and the fear of having the effects hit me in the middle of a hike with nowhere to go, kept pushing the idea away. I’d much rather grin through the bloating of traveler’s constipation than have that happen to me. So I continued to ignore my problem.

Related

Finally. A Love Letter to an Iceland Outhouse – Day 8

Overcoming Constipation During Travel - Success to be had on day 8 in the Outhouse located at the start of Fjaðrárgljúfu! Definitely glad that it wasn't any longer than 8 days. Phew!
Overcoming Constipation During Travel – Success to be had on day 8 in the Outhouse located at the start of Fjaðrárgljúfu! Definitely glad that it wasn’t any longer than 8 days. Phew!

By the time our trip reached the eighth day, I was already in a low-key panicked stage. I had been dutifully trying at every restroom and outhouse we passed by in the last few days and upping my water intake. I had already broken my previous 7-day record and it was starting to dawn on me that I might complete this entire trip without once successfully doing a number two.

But success comes in unexpected moments and places. It was early into the afternoon before we arrived at Fjaðrárgljúfu Canyon. I remember the moments leading to my success clearly. We arrived at the parking lot, with a few droplets of rain clinging onto our camper van’s windshield. The rain had just stopped. There were maybe three or four other cars in the parking lot. And there, four parking lots ahead, off the side of the lot, was a light wooden cabin. I wondered if it was a tourist cabin, plastered with interesting tidbits about the beautiful canyon we were about to see. I didn’t think it would be an important moment, so I didn’t take a picture of the cabin, but if you’re curious, you can view the cabin here (photo credits go to the amazing Breathe With Us team for having the hindsight to capture this).

These ‘outhouses’ (put in quotations because I swear they are too clean, well-maintained and fresh-smelling – yes! I said it.. FRESH) had cold running water in the sink but wasn’t a flush toilet. There was no heat or air conditioning inside, but goodness, these bathrooms were immaculate. There was a slight gap between the roof and the top of the outhouse’s walls to let the fresh air circulate in. I didn’t think that public outhouses could be so well maintained (maybe I’ve been in too many crowded public locations?). Sure, the inside was dark. There weren’t any lights, and the toilet seat was twice as cold as the crisp air. Sure the toilet paper was bravely standing on its own, without a toilet paper holder in sight, damp from sitting ‘outdoors’. But, the floors? Spick spanking clean. The toilet? From what I could see, not a swipe of dirt anywhere. My mind really couldn’t fathom how it could be so well maintained. Literally, mind boggled.

Maybe my brain finally overloaded from the continual surprise of seeing clean outhouses all across Iceland, maybe it was cool air running through the cabin, whatever it was something happened. FINALLY. After persevering through the initial minute of self-warming a toilet seat through a thin layer of toilet paper squares, and another 8 minutes of pent up anxiety…. a single nugget emerged.

That was it. There wasn’t any more than one, but it was enough to get the ball rolling and I was finally regular for the rest of our trip. I was both equally excited and embarrassed to announce to Anson and Kent what had finally happened. Also, I’m not going to lie, I was scared that I’d be unsuccessful the entire trip and that I’d have some seriously painful issues in my future. Thankfully, nothing of that sort happened, but I don’t want to go through that ordeal ever again.

Final Thoughts

Since then, I’ve dutifully packed at least one pack of RestorLax with me. I haven’t had to use it yet – thankfully I’m back to my usual 3-day cycle. Laxatives are still going to be my last resort in my fight against constipation during travel – and it really should be yours as well! According to both WebMD and MedScape (you need to sign up for a free account!), the best way to treat constipation, regardless if its traveler’s constipation or not, is to focus on making dietary changes and other corrections first. Laxatives help relieve the symptoms but don’t correct the underlying problem.

Reiterating what I said earlier in the post, if you have constipation during travel, try these steps first before reaching for that packet:

Try these when you’re constipated:

  • Drink two to four extra glasses of water a day – I always carry a refillable water bottle with me no matter where I go to ensure this happens
  • Add more fruits and vegetables to your diet
  • Eat high fiber items like bran cereal
  • Exercise majority of the week
  • Acknowledge the urge to poop – don’t hold it in or ignore it, it’ll only make things worse

Avoid these when you’re constipated:

  • Dehydrating foods and drinks: caffeine
  • Constipation-inducing foods and drinks: unripe bananas (oops didn’t know this one!), alcohol, milk, processed grains, and red meat

Folks shed that pride away, constipation happens to the best of us. We need to keep wiping away the stigma against talking about poop – especially pooping when we travel. Travel health is just as important as our day-to-day health. If you think there’s even a remote chance that you won’t be regular when you travel, just tuck that packet of powdered laxatives into your travel bag, shake it up in your water, and go.

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