Helen Bond, Registered Dietitian and nutrition consultant to VSL#3 gives her top tips to help you navigate the holidays without upsetting your gut health…
Yes, it’s holiday season at last! But a combo of pre-holiday stress, inactivity travelling and change to our eating and drinking habits can all play havoc with our digestive systems. Add to this over-indulgence on the hotel buffet, late nights drinking and a possible holiday tummy bug, and it’s pretty easy to see why, just when we want to relax on our sun lounger on the beach, by the pool or in the garden, our guts often start to play up - and our bellies begin to bloat. Not exactly what we need during swimsuit season!
‘Look after your gut in the run up to your holiday and whilst you’re away, and in return it will take good care of you!
But, don’t let those annoying grumbles spoil your holiday this year! After months of lockdown and travel bans, we’re all looking forward to getting away – and whether you’re having a staycation within the UK or managing to travel abroad, the good news is there are some simple steps you can take to help get your gut health in good shape - and it starts by treating your gut and the trillions of microbes that live inside you (aka your gut microbiota) to a little pre-holiday preparation. And of course, then keeping an eye on what you eat and drink while you’re away. Here’s how to help travel-proof your digestive system and get you through the holidays healthier and happier than ever before…
Before you go away…
In the busy run-up to a holiday when we’re stressed out and every minute is accounted for, we’re more likely to indulge in diet and lifestyle habits that are bad for our gut health. Yet it’s at this time that we most benefit from keeping our gut healthy, so that we’ll feel great from day one of our holiday – not day seven or fourteen. Use these simple tips to help your gut thrive, not just survive the holidays…
Take advantage of your freezer. Hands-up if your usual gut healthy diet has already been abandoned in favour of ticking yet more items off your holiday to do list? If you’re super busy before you go away you may not have much time or lack motivation to cook – but eating unhealthily and relying on nutrient poor ready meals and takeaways isn’t going to do your gut health community or immunity any favours – as around 70% of our immune system is found in our gut . You don’t want to get sick as soon as you stop and are able to switch off - that’s the modern-day phenomenon known as ‘leisure sickness’.
Instead, get prepared early by filling your freezer with homemade ready meals brimming full of your gut microbes favourite plant foods. Every time you cook, double the quantities you make and freeze the remainder in individual servings for speedy and balanced midweek meals before you go, and when you return. Great choices include chickpea curry, bolognaise, veggie lasagna and chilli, and moussaka.
Make time for exercise. With so much to get done and to think about, life can get very hectic as you try to cram everything in before your holiday – so schedule your 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise into your weekly diary now. You could do a full two-and-a-half-hour workout all at once, but it’s better spaced out over the course of the week in bouts of 10 minutes of activity or more.
Exercise is a wonderful antidote to stress and anxiety, as it releases those happy hormones endorphins - making you feel calmer in the run-up to the holidays. And, if you’re laid-back, odds are your gut will be, too – it all comes down to the gut-brain connection. Plus, moving more also increases the richness and diversity of your gut microbes – which as we now know is a good thing!
Being physically active also helps to build muscle and boosts your metabolism so you’ll burn fat faster, with the added benefit that you’ll feel more confident sporting your new swimwear when you first step out into the beach.
Plan your holiday food. A little planning can go a long way when it comes to looking after your gut health while you’re away. If you’re staying in a hotel or an all-inclusive resort, don’t make your choice until you’ve checked they can be flexible about food. If you’ve already booked, call and ask if they’re used to dealing with any special dietary requirements such as gluten free, low lactose, high fibre, vegetarian or vegan. The same goes if you’re flying with an airline that serves a meal as part of the ticket.
Get enough sleep. Being tired before you go on holiday means you’ll be even more frazzled when you get to your destination. Try to get enough sleep before you head off – as poor quality sleep can impact your gut microbes, as well as increase inflammation and stress hormones, which is why not enough sleep is associated with increased gut symptoms, especially if you suffer with IBS.
Too little sleep also affects our appetite hormones - levels of leptin, which tells the brain when we’re full, drop and trigger hunger; while levels of ghrelin increase, telling the brain we need to eat. We’ve all heard of the sleep munchies, right? Aim for seven to nine hours of sleep a night. Good ZZZ’s tips include, avoid eating large meals late in the evening, having a cool, quiet bedroom and getting some natural sunlight first thing in the morning to help support your circadian rhythm and reset your body clock to local time, if you’ve travelled abroad.
Don’t fall for fad diets. With holidays on the horizon, it can be tempting to turn to severely restricted and unbalanced diets in an effort to slim down quickly. But forget about following the latest ‘quick fix’ diet. By definition, ‘going on a diet’ assumes there’s a start and stop date - meaning you only change what you eat in the run up to your trip. When you’re away or back home and you’ve ‘finish your diet’, you’ll return to the same eating habits that made you pile on the pounds in the first place.
Most faddy diets aren’t a long-term solution to losing weight and keeping it off because they’re hard to stick to. Worse still, they often deprive your body and your ‘good’ gut microbes of essential nutrients that they need to function well. So ditch the diet mentality and focus on eating healthier, rather than just how you look in your new bikini or swimming trunks. Focus too, on how you can pack in more nutrient-rich foods into every meal, rather than those you need to remove from your diet – your gut and its friendly helpers living inside will thank you!
Take a probiotic. Probiotics are supplements or foods (e.g. live yogurt and some fermented foods, such as kefir and kimchi), which contain live bacteria (and yeasts, too) and once consumed can add to your gut microbial diversity. Making sure your digestive system is in tip-top order and packed with ‘good’ gut bugs can help support your immune system to fight off bacteria, viruses or parasites that can trigger food poisoning whilst you’re away. Plus, improving your gut health can help you cope better with any pre-holiday stress, and the diet and lifestyle changes that often go hand-in-hand with a vacation.
What’s more, if you’re travelling abroad to a less developed country they’re also useful for preventing traveller’s diarrhoea, (defined as three or more loose stools in the space of 24 hours, often with abdominal cramps, nausea, sickness and fever), which is estimated to affect up to 60% of us Westerners . To prep your digestive system and give your gut microbiota a little helping hand, it’s worth considering taking a short course of probiotics - a week before your first day of travel and a week after. Particularly beneficial bacterial species include Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium bifidum and the probiotic yeast Saccharomyces boulardii, although other strains may also be useful .
Prebiotics. Prebiotics are non-digestible food ingredients (mostly types of fibre!) that act as a fertiliser for our friendly gut bacteria - enabling them to grow, thrive and multiply. You need BOTH probiotics and prebiotics for a healthy gut, so don’t forget to feed your gut microbes by eating plenty of fibre rich foods and prebiotics found in vegetables such as onions, garlic, chicory, asparagus, Brussel sprouts, artichokes and leeks.
Top tip for air travel. If you’re considering upping your fibre and prebiotic intake, don’t rush into it just before you travel. As this can make you bloat and a little windy, which may be made worse when you fly. Instead, build up on these foods gradually in the weeks before you head off on your hols and ease off a day or two before you travel so your gut bugs have time to fully digest them! Why? It’s simply physics - the atmospheric pressure drops in the cabin and the air trapped inside your gut must expand to fill the space. Now you know why people fart more on planes!
First-aid pack for your gut. Just in case you do get gut troubles when you’re away, it’s a good idea to pack some anti-diarrhoeal tablets such as Loperamide (e.g. Imodium) and senna laxatives (e.g. Senokot) to treat constipated, in your first aid pack. It can also be quite useful to carry oral rehydration salts (e.g. Dioralyte) in case you get a tummy bug and are vomiting, or you have diarrhoea and lose water and important minerals. The salts will help replace what you’ve lost.
On the move…
There’s no one-size-fits-all gut health advice for travellers, but if you find your gut bothersome when you travel due to nerves or changes to your daily routine, follow these tips and tricks to help minimise any issues while you’re on the go…
Pack your own food for the journey. Having familiar foods to hand helps to keep things as normal as possible for your digestive system and can help nourish your beneficial gut microbes, too. Why not pack easy-to-carry dried fruits like dates, raisins or figs, wholegrain crackers, mixed seeds, unsalted nuts and popcorn in your hand luggage to snack on if you get stuck in traffic or your flight is delayed.
Eat as little as possible. If you’re travelling by plane, choose the lighter vegetable and fruit based options on the in-flight menu, as the fatty meals will be harder to digest and can cause discomfort and indigestion. Better still, eat a meal before you travel – you’ll be less hungry en route, which will help you to avoid the temptation of eating your way through a long flight or car journey – remember your gut bugs need some time off work, too.
Go to the loo. Don’t ignore the urge to go to the loo when your travelling – just because it’s tricky to get out of your seat on the plane, you don’t like the toilet on the coach or you don’t want to stop at the service station. This will simply aggravate your gut symptoms and make you feel worse.
Keep moving. Whether you’re travelling by coach, car, train or plane, your gut doesn’t like it when you’re stationary for long periods, as activity helps with keeping your gut moving. Make frequent stops or walk about as much as possible. It'll also help you to combat any feelings of tiredness and grogginess, so you can start enjoying your trip as soon as you arrive.
Stay well hydrated. Drink plenty of water before, during and after your flight, as your digestive system needs lots of water to keep things in good working order and it’ll help avoid ‘gut lag’ symptoms like constipation, too. Choose your other drinks wisely, as too many caffeinated drinks such as tea, coffee and even fizzy soft or sports drinks can trigger gut symptoms in some sensitive people and can stop you having a restful snooze. It’s a good idea to take an herbal tea bag with you and ask for a cup of hot water, especially if you find flights unsettling. Chamomile tea is a calming choice, while peppermint can help soothe the gut in the air.
Go easy on the alcohol. Drinking too much can leave you dehydrated and the extra calories will do little for your holiday waistline! Alcohol can also irritate your gut and affect your mood – which if your already anxious about flying, will leave you feeling more tense and tight– both of which will simply add to your gut troubles and will make you feel worse.
Suffer with travel sickness? Some people find nibbling on dry crackers (pick wholemeal varieties to boost fibre intake!) can help ease motion sickness. Others advocate ginger flavoured foods and drinks. Whether ginger helps prevent or relieves your symptoms - or not, your gut microbes will love its plant–based goodness, so it may be worth packing homemade gingernut biscuits, a flask of ginger tea, bottle of ginger beer or kombucha.
When you get there…
Healthy eating and exercise habits can easily slip when you’re on holiday and any change in routine can knock your gut microbiota out of balance. But don’t worry, there’s no need to miss out on all the fun in the sun – a few tweaks here and there to what you’re eating and doing could be all you need to keep your gut health on track. So let’s get this gut happy holiday started!
Diversify your diet. We’re creatures of habit but our gut microbes love a diverse range of foods - so being on holiday is the perfect time to mix up what you’re eating and try as many new plant-based foods and ingredients as you can. If your holidaying abroad, try to take advantage of all of the delicious local, fresh produce on offer and dip into unusual varieties of veggies, fruits, nuts, seeds and whole grains. It’s the best holiday gift you can give to your gut microbes!
To BBQ or not to BBQ? We all love a summer BBQ but eating too much red meat and processed meat can not only be hard to digest, but can also increase our risk of bowel cancer . UK health guidelines recommend we eat no more than 500g cooked red meat a week, but having a steak, burger, lamb kebab and a couple of sausages at an all day barbie means you’ll easily consumer this entire weekly limit in one day. So look out for gut healthier options – and tuck into more grilled veg such as sliced aubergines, peppers and courgettes, red onion wedges and large flat mushrooms, or chicken skewers, fish koftas and fruit kebabs.
Get more fibre into your holiday diet. Your usual high fibre breakfast cereals such as porridge, brown rice, wholemeal bread and wholewheat pasta may not feature on the B & B or hotel buffet menu. So get your gut microbes favourite food in the form of fruit, veg, legumes and pulses, nuts and seeds instead.
Embrace holiday exercise. Staying active is a cornerstone of keeping your gut happy. So if you view exercise as a chore rather than a pleasure, let warmer, summer days encourage you to turn this around. Simply think about moving more, moving more often and moving in any way you can – it could be going for a walk to take in the sights, a gentle swim in the pool or playing Frisbee or ball on the beach with the kids.
Drink bottled water - and drink regularly throughout the day. If it’s not safe to drink the tap water abroad, stick to bottled water and ask for drinks without ice cubes. Plus use it to clean your teeth, too. Even if the locals drink it without any problems, it doesn’t mean that it won’t upset your digestion and make you sick!
And, don’t skimp on drinking water either - especially if you’re drinking alcohol or keeping up with your high fibre diet, as your gut needs water to work its magic. Remember, when on holiday and the weather is a lot warmer, your fluid intake needs to be more. If you don’t drink enough water, you risk getting dehydrated - which is a sure-fire way to get constipated.
It’s difficult to say exactly how much each of us needs to drink to stay hydrated - as this depends on the weather, our body size, the food we eat and our activity levels, but a good rule of thumb is about 2 litres (six to eight glasses) a day. If you’re drinking plenty, your urine should be pale and straw-coloured and won’t smell!
Say hello to exciting summery salads. Don’t just stick to iceberg lettuce, with a few tomato and cucumber slices on top. It’s a good place to start – but diversifying the types, colours and number of your salad fruit and veg is one of the best ways to keep your gut microbe population performing at their best this summer – as you’ll be catering for all of their different plant-based food preferences and tastes .
So get creative with big summer salads - throw in a few darker leaves such as rocket, watercress or baby spinach, add brightly coloured extras such as baked sweet potato chunks or sweet corn, or zingy mango or watermelon, and combine with roasted seeds and nuts, pulses and fresh herbs. And then top with a drizzle of gut-loving extra virgin olive oil. Perfect for al fresco dining – either as centerpiece or a barbeque side.
A glass of red wine? Oh, go on then… Your gut might thank you for the odd glass of red wine - as it contains lots of polyphenols, which feed our ‘good’ gut microbes. But stick to sensible drinking guidelines (no more than 14 units of alcohol per week) as too many alcoholic drinks will dehydrate you, and cloud your judgement on what you eat, too.
Fortunately, there are plenty of other non-alcoholic drinks you can enjoy without damping your holiday spirit. For a fruity, calorie free alternative that will boost your intake of plant foods and is kinder to your gut and waistline, try sparkling water with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice or a few slices of cucumber and strawberries. If you’re self-catering, using frozen fruits is also a great way to get more plant-based goodness into your diet and it cools it down, too. How about a refreshing fusion of frozen pineapple with lime and mint?
Don’t upsize your portions. Part of the enjoyment of being on holiday is eating out. However, portions sizes in restaurants, bars and cafés tend to be larger than we’d serve ourselves at home - and the quality and scope of menus can vary widely, with many choices deep-fried, swimming in creamy sauces or butter, which can slow digestion and trigger heartburn.
So if you’re dining out – first off, eat in popular eateries that follow basic food hygiene regulations and where food is likely to be fresh. And then try to keep meals similar in size to those you’d usually have at home, so you don’t overload your digestive system. Why not consider sharing a main course and ordering an extra side salad or vegetables?
Cook from scratch where possible. Holiday relaxation and unfamiliar kitchens in rentals can mean we rely on shop bought lunches, restaurant and ‘ultra’ processed foods, which don’t pack in the plant foods and aren’t good for our gut microbes.
But self-catering doesn’t have to be a chore and is almost always better for your gut health than eating out – as you have control over what you’re eating. Why not read up on local specialties, so you know what’s in them, and then try out some new recipes with lots of fresh plant-based ingredients from nearby markets. Simple whole foods that will make you and your gut happy!
Offset sweet treats with gut healthy foods. If you fancy an ice cream at the seaside –ENJOY, you’re on holiday, after all. Just have a small cone and make sure you have a piece of fibre-filled fruit, too.
Take it easy. If you’re lucky to be on holiday somewhere in Europe, then meals are often taken at a more leisurely pace - so sit down, relax, and eat slowly. Digestion starts in the mouth, so chewing your food well not only helps you get maximum pleasure from all of the wonderful flavours on offer, but also helps your body maximise the nutrients you get from your food. Bon appétit.
When you’re back home…
Hope that you’ve returned home looking relaxed, sun-kissed and feeling healthier and happier for your holiday. But don’t think of this as the end, but as the start of a healthier gut and a healthier you this summer – and beyond.
The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your GP, Pharmacist or other health professional if you’re still struggling with gut symptoms a couple of weeks after returning from your holiday; you have low immunity; you’re pregnant; on medication or you have a medical condition that means you’re immune suppressed and wanting to boost specific strains of bacteria in your gut with VSL#3 poly-biotic food supplement.
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