Expert tips: How to avoid Delhi belly and stomach upsets on holiday

Expert tips: How to avoid Delhi belly and stomach upsets on holiday

Our Director of Microbiome Research, Dimitry Alexeev, shares his top tips to avoid tummy upsets, stomach cramps and Delhi belly on holiday.

Holidays are fun, but getting there and getting settled in can be quite the challenge, especially if you’re prone to digestive issues. It’s not surprising: the body loves routine, but the brain craves adventure. And herein lies the clash.

What is Delhi belly? Also known as traveller’s diarrhoea, this term refers to unfortunate intestinal effusions of liquid stool as a result of travelling, accompanied by cramps and abdominal discomfort.

We asked our microbiome expert-in-chief, Dimitry Alexeev, how to handle it. He should know, he’s a well-travelled scientist with a penchant for adventures in the wilderness. He also takes the train a lot, a hotspot for coughing, sneezing, germs, bad food, and loud music.

Jet lag and lack of sleep

When it comes to Delhi belly, prevention starts before you step foot outside the door. If you are travelling long distances, overnight, or both, then you are going to disrupt your circadian rhythm.

The circadian rhythm is your body’s natural clock. It instructs every process in your body, switching on and off every function in your body at specific times. Your microbiome also follows this clock.


Photo by Haiqal Osman / Unsplash

Your circadian rhythm controls your body’s metabolism so you have gastric juices and insulin to digest your food and manage your energy storage and usage. It also schedules maintenance and repairs, not to mention, it turns on and off the cascade of hormones that make you sleep and wake.

Your circadian rhythm runs on a 24-hour clock that is based on the rising (and setting) of the sun, and your everyday routine (assuming you work daytime hours).

So when you travel long distances, across time zones, or at night, you are disrupting your body’s usual processes, as well as those managed by your gut microbes.

What our expert says

"Lack of sleep on a night flight or major shift in time zones has a great influence on your digestive system because it’s accustomed to the daily grind of digesting certain foods at specific times, and relaxing while you are sleeping."

"Gut microbes also work shifts based on your usual diet: if you usually eat oatmeal with fruit and nuts for breakfast at 8 A.M., then that’s what your bacteria are expecting. Then suddenly, you’re at an airport eating a fry-up at 5 A.M. - it’s no wonder your gut and microbiome are confused."

"It has been shown that night shift workers have greater problems with body weight and metabolism that are, in part, caused by the microbiome’s circadian rhythm being out of whack. That’s why travelling between time zones can also be disruptive."

☝️SOLVE IT☝️ Stick to your usual routine for eating and sleeping. If your destination only has a few hours difference, choose tickets that don’t disrupt your circadian rhythm. If you’re travelling longer distances, avoiding long layovers and multiple stops can help.

Airport and airplane food

Woohoo, holidays! Your first inclination will likely be to celebrate this great moment as soon as you get to the airport. That is, if you haven’t already started on the way there (we’ve all done it).

Sadly, booze, junk food, and poor quality dining experience are guaranteed in airports. And while we totally get wanting to let it all hang loose, it’s really not the ideal way to get your body on your side.

And if you’re not travelling low-cost, there’s airplane food to contend with too. These sad, frozen, reheated food-like substances are high in salt, fat, and sugar.

The trays of sustenance are served at times that suit the plane’s schedule, not your body, accompanied by just enough booze to pacify passengers during the flight.

What our expert says

"The combination of airport dining, airplane food, and jet lag creates dramatic combo, perfect for bloating and digestive problems. Most of the food available contains a lot of refined sugars that are very attractive to opportunistic microbes (beneficial bacteria prefer dietary fiber)."

"You’ll never know the sugar content of the foods on offer, and they can easily exceed the recommended limit after which gut bacteria will throw a big party in your gut, chowing down on the simple sugars and multiplying."

"As they party and make babies, they produce gases and modify the water absorption parameters of your gut. This may cause diarrhoea as your body responds to the unusual overgrowth of microbes."

☝️SOLVE IT☝️ Make sensible choices. Be a nerd and bring your own food along: your aim here is fiber. If you must eat at the airport, or on the plane, choose a salad. Make sure to pack wholesome snacks, like fresh fruit and nuts. And don’t forget the water: PLENTY OF WATER.

Bacteria and viruses around you

Travelling is guaranteed to expose you to germs. Think about it: airports are designed to accommodate thousands of passengers every day. Like you, these people cough, scratch, and then - icing on the cake - they touch everything around them.

When you finally board the plane, you’re a sitting duck in an airtight canister that blows recycled farts, particles, and viruses in your face for hours on end.

This may seem crass, but it's true. Flying makes people gassy because decreased pressure in the plane causes gases to expand. Let the crop dusting begin.

In addition to that, your fellow passengers are probably not as sensible as you. They ate airport food and drank lots of liquid courage, feeding those opportunistic microbes that make gas, and also bad smells. Lovely, right?

What our expert says

"When you travel, you are exposed to lots of people from different nations and regions. You might even see some wearing face masks to prevent infections, but you don’t need to unless you are particularly susceptible to germs, or there’s a flu epidemic."

"Good hygiene is important when travelling. Make sure to wash your hands frequently. You can also bring some essential oils (like tea tree oil) to put on your skin. These oils have antimicrobial properties that can stop bacterial growth."

"Make sure to get as much quality rest as you can, and avoid abrupt temperature changes. This means avoiding AC and putting on a jacket when you leave the comfort of the plane for the cold nighttime air."

☝️SOLVE IT☝️ If you tend to catch every passing illness, you are a prime target in airplanes. Bring a saline solution nasal spray (not medicated) and use it regularly. The air on planes is very dry: it dries out the mucous membranes in your mouth and nose that are part of your body’s first line of defense against airborne pathogens like infections and viruses.

Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate

Travelling is great, but it also makes you a prime candidate for dehydration. You can’t bring liquids through security. Fortunately, there are plenty of shops on the other side willing to charge you an arm and a leg for 0.5L of glorified tap water.

But you’ve decided to save your small change and buy some hooch because a pint of beer is a better deal. It’s your holiday after all. Perhaps you’re with some friends who would also enjoy a little tipple.


Photo by Sébastien Jermer / Unsplash

And there you have it, the perfect storm for dehydration, followed by bloating, because alcohol dehydrates by making you pee. So you’re one mile high in a shoebox, boldly named “toilet”, every 30 minutes, climbing over passengers as they pass wind and share germs. Living the dream.

While you are doing you, the gases inside your body are expanding, attracting water into the spaces between your cells. Your body is also now worrying about the dehydration, so it starts to hoard whatever liquid is left. Voila, now you’re bloated. Bummer.

What our expert says

"Hydration is important when it comes to travel and supporting your immune system. At the same time, changes in the air pressure modify the water balance between tissues. This can leave you bloated, and may also result in watery stools."

"Make sure to get enough fiber at breakfast (oatmeal is a good option), because fiber can absorb extra water in the gut. By doing so, it creates beautiful, smooth stools, thus avoiding any potential liquid stools upon arrival."

"Also good to know that alcohol works against us when it comes to the body’s water balance during flights. Motion is a good way to get lymph (the liquid in your lymphatic system that helps remove toxins and waste products) and water moving around, so try stretching and walking on flights (especially those over 2 hours long). When you’re in the airport, choose walking and stairs instead of escalators and travelators."

☝️SOLVE IT☝️ Like our expert-in-chief says, move as much as possible. To get your trip off the ground with maximum pleasure upon landing, eat a proper meal with lots of fiber in the morning, and avoid alcohol (at least until you reach your destination).

Travel light and arrive early

Packing, planning for the unknown, catering to any possible head or gut aches, and what shoes to bring. There's an astounding amount of planning that goes into having fun abroad.

As soon as you step out of your personal mode of transport, you’re confronted with heaving masses, wheeling awkward suitcases through a maze of corridors, checks, and stairs.

Going on holidays is stressful. It’s one of those times when the destination is hopefully far sweeter than the journey, because stress is bad. It affects the beneficial bacteria in your gut, slows your digestion, and perturbs your mood.

That’s why it’s essential to minimise all potential risks of stress during your transit. It includes the basics: getting plenty of dietary fibre, drinking water, staying away from alcohol, but also finding ways to center yourself when surrounded by Jeremy Clarkson wannabes.

What our expert says

"Travel light: it’s not just about your suitcase. Travelling light means having light meals before the flight: you might want to have a portion smaller than usual, and avoid heavier food like meat and fat."

"Arrive early. Getting to the airport with time on your side is not only a great way to mitigate the risk of traffic and airport security queues, but also to avoid stress."

"High cortisol levels are not good for the beneficial lactic acid bacteria in your gut, and they’re important guardians of your overall health."

☝️SOLVE IT☝️ Bring headphones, a good book, or a meditation app - whatever floats your boat to escape the pressure of travel. Get your hands on some yoghurt, kefir, or probiotic supplements at the pharmacy to help maintain your gut microbiome and lactic acid bacteria to bolster your stress resilience.

Getting to your destination

Congratulations. You’ve made it through the minefield of air travel and landed at your destination.

Naturally, you can’t hide the slight smug smile tugging on your lips as you watch everyone else guzzling fizzy drinks and booze while inhaling edible food-like trays of reheated airplane food. You’re a rockstar.

Now it’s time to let it all hang loose. Or is it? If you take away anything from this article, it will hopefully be these good points of common sense, because they’re also useful when you’re on holiday.

Drink water Lots of it, and then some
Eat real food Fresh, and mostly from plants.
Get moving Go walking, swimming, or climbing.
Avoid stress It’s your holiday, enjoy it!
Leigh Stewart
Leigh Stewart Head of Atlas Biomed content, trained chef and avid fermenter of edible bacteria.

Featured topics

Microbiome
38 articles
Health
25 articles
Nutrition
23 articles
Guide
19 articles
Lifestyle
18 articles
News
17 articles
Food
15 articles
Digestive Health
14 articles
DNA
11 articles
Probiotics
7 articles
Sports
6 articles
Disease Protection
6 articles
Beat The Bloat
5 articles
How To
3 articles
Love and sex
2 articles
Science Bites
1 article