Can’t go when you’ve gone away? You’re not alone. Naomii Seah talked to an expert to discover why it happens, and what you can do about it.
Picture this: you’ve just clocked off work for the foreseeable future. You’re stress free and cruising, baby. Maybe you’re off on a roadie, or overseas to an exciting new place (hey, we can dream, can’t we?). Either way, you’ve got a summer cocktail in hand, togs packed, and sunnies on your face. You get to your destination, fling your bags in your room, and pop to the bathroom. You sit there for three minutes… five minutes… 15 minutes… but your bowels remain firmly shut. Your travel companion knocks on the door and asks when you’ll be ready to leave. Ah crap, you think. Your fists and nose are scrunched, your knees are raised, and still your poopy pantomime is unsuccessful. Never mind. You get up – you have better things to do, after all.
Days pass. Maybe you’ve forgotten all about it for a while. But eventually, you start to bloat, your tummy hurts, and you realise you’re in the shit. Or more accurately, the shit is in you.
If this sounds familiar, don’t worry, you’re not alone. It’s a common phenomenon known as “vacation constipation” and registered nutritionist Nikki Hart says it happens for a number of reasons.
Firstly, holidays usually happen in summer, which for us in Aotearoa coincides with Christmas and New Year. This means chicken and chippies, Christmas ham, pavlova and ice cream and… a distinct lack of fibre.
“We often know fibre intake drops off [on holiday],” says Hart, “because we’re having treats and nice food, and we’re often dehydrated. So if you’re dehydrated and you’re not eating a high-fibre diet, the [bowel] contents can dry out and then it’s difficult to pass a motion.”
Another factor Hart cites is pooping anxiety. She points out that holidays may mean communal bathrooms, and a lot of people are (understandably) shy poopers. “There’s all these reasons why people then think ‘oh, I’ll just hold on,’ and then you get anxious because you haven’t gone to the toilet, [which] exacerbates the problem,” Hart laughs. “You want to go, and then you don’t want to go. It just sounds terrible!”
Increased alcohol consumption could also be a culprit, says Hart, so maybe rethink that sixth tequila shot by the pool.
But Hart also notes that everyone’s toilet habits are different, with some people going many times a day, some going once a day and some only a few times a week. “It’s about understanding what your normal pattern is,” says Hart, who adds that you should only be concerned if that pattern has been broken for about three or four days.
The good news is, there are a number of ways to push your train out the tunnel, if you catch my drift. It may be as simple as finding a private bathroom to do your business, or changing your diet. But if you’ve encountered vacation constipation in the past, Hart also recommends taking Metamucil, a fibre supplement available at your local pharmacy, or a high-fibre food like chia seeds away with you on holiday. “You can stir [these] into a smoothie, or add [them] into a breakfast cereal, whatever, and it can often mitigate constipation before you experience it,” says Hart. “Sometimes getting ahead of the problem can be a solution as well.”
If you’re lactose intolerant, drinking a big ol’ glass of milk can also do the trick. Hart says she once told a lactose intolerant client on holiday in Fiji who “texted me in a right state” to do just that, and “sure enough, it worked!”. But if you’re not lactose intolerant, Hart doesn’t recommend “licking raw chicken or anything”, she laughs. “Let’s not give you gastroenteritis with dodgy food.”
Hart also notes that being able to identify what a “normal poo” actually is can be helpful for gut health in general. “Bowel motions should be easy to pass, there should be no pain or pushing, and it should be a complete bowel motion,” explains Hart. She recommends looking at the Bristol stool chart (below). “Basically, we’re looking for your number two to be a number four,” she says.
Once you do go, Hart notes it’s normal to have a bout of the runs after. Your bowels are dried out, but regular food and water intake is being put through the other end, therefore “there’s no way for that waste to go until – for want of a better term – the plug has been dislodged,” Hart laughs.
“It’s a delicate balance,” says Hart, who notes that overindulging in the summer season of stone fruit – plums, peaches and nectarines – can lead to the opposite problem.
But a varied diet, with whole fruits and vegetables and whole grains, should sort you right out. “New Zealanders are encouraged to eat more than 25 to 30 grams of fibre a day, and we’re not very good at it,” notes Hart. Personally, she eats whole grains at breakfast and lunch and vegetables with their skins on.
That’s because there’s more fibre in the skins of vegetables, and they contain different types of fibre too. “Fibre isn’t a generic term,” Hart notes. There’s soluble and insoluble fibre, which are both important for achieving that number four poop.
As most of us know, being constipated can be really unpleasant, and doubly frustrating when all you want is a relaxing time away.
“It’s a funny topic,” Hart laughs, “but it’s really important. When [you’re constipated] you can feel really unwell, so it’s nice if we can fix that [and] you can get on with having a nice holiday, really.”