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Expert tips on how to keep your gut healthy when travelling

Expert tips

Your gut microbiome is an important health factor to consider whilst travelling. Putting your body through the stress of taking an airplane, as well as eating unknown foods, the change in water, climate and time zone, microbes and viruses from other travellers – all can produce unwanted effects in the stomach. Dr. Dmitry Alexeev, Head of Microbiome Research at the personalised health company Atlas Biomed, reveals few principles to follow to help your existing microbes thrive whilst on holiday.

Problem 1: Lack of sleep and jet lag 

Expert advice: 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.

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. 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).

Dr. Alexeev says: “Lack of sleep during a night flight or a major shift in time zones is a big influence on your digestive system as it is accustomed to a daily routine of 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”.

Problem 2: Airplane/airport food

Expert advice: Bring your own food on board. 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 to drink plenty of water.

The combination of airport dining, airplane food, and jet lag creates dramatic combo, perfect for bloating and digestive problems. Most of the food available to buy at the airport will contain a lot of simple sugars which may cause digestive issues. Sugars allow opportunistic detrimental flora to grow rapidly, producing gases and changing your body’s water consumption with the potential for diarrhoea. You may not be able to determine the sugar content of foods offered in flights, at airports and in a foreign country, 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.

Problem 3: Bacteria and viruses around you

Being surrounded by so many people when you travel can increase your risk of catching colds, flu and other contagious viruses. Some travellers even wear face masks to protect themselves from infections. There really is no need to wear a mask if there are no flu epidemics or unless you are known to be susceptible to the germs. A few precautions could be taken though: be sure to wash your hands thoroughly. You might also choose to use essential oils such as tea tree oil on your skin whilst on an airplane as they are known to stop bacterial growth. It’s also important to be well rested and stay away from abrupt temperature changes. Avoid using air conditioning and try to put on a jacket when exiting from a warm airplane into the cold air.

Problem 4: Water balance

Expert advice: Move as much as possible. To get your trip off the ground with maximum pleasure upon landing, eat a proper meal with lots of fibre in the morning, and avoid alcohol (at least until you reach your destination).

Hydration is so important when it comes to travel and supporting your immune system. Furthermore, changes in the air pressure can change water balance between tissues in the body. An example of this is swelling after a flight. Similarly, the gut medium may become more watery. A decent amount of fibre in your breakfast such as porridge could be helpful to absorb extra water and therefore avoiding excessive bowel movements in the gut. Alcohol may also upset the water balance during flights so if you can, avoid it.

The amount of motion can move water in the lymphatic system too. Therefore, stretching and walking, especially on the flights longer than two hours, is essential. If you can, make the choice to use stairs instead of escalators and walking instead of the travellators at airports.

Problem 5: Stress

Expert advice: 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.

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.

Travel light: it’s not just about your suitcase, but it also means having a light meal before a flight. It’s advisable to have a portion smaller than normal and avoid rich food like meat and fat.

Arriving early is a great idea not only in case of traffic jams or long queues for security checks, but also to avoid stress. High cortisol levels are not something our beneficial lactic bacteria is fond of, and they’re important guardians of your overall health.

Dr. Dmitry Alexeev
Dr. Dmitry Alexeev
Guest Author

Dmitry Alexeev is a highly qualified researcher in the areas of gut microbiome, molecular biology, bioinformatics and nutrition with a passion for the translation from scientific laboratories into clinics. His main focus at Atlas Biomed Group is to develop internal and external scientific projects, which currently include nutrition, neurodegenerative, anti-inflammatory and cancer microbiome solutions as well as MHRA certification. In addition to his integral role at Atlas Biomed Group, Dmitry is currently an Assistant Professor at ITMO University in Saint-Petersburg developing algorithms for personalised health and will soon be joining UMCG in Groningen, devoting his time to ageing research.

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