Travel and the rhythm in digestion: “Gut lag”
Blog post by Canadian Sport Institute Calgary Performance Dietitian Kelly Drager
We commonly hear about strategies to reduce travel illness and/or diarrhea when planning for international trips. Less commonly talked about but can be quite disruptive for an athlete’s mental well-being and performance plan is traveling constipation. Jetlag occurs due to circadian desynchronization from long haul travel across multiple time zones. Just like the body works on a timeclock, there are many other human physiological and psychological components that alter rhythmically around a 24-hour time frame. While not a scientific term, “gut lag” is a common gastrointestinal side-effect reported by our jet setting athletes. Athletes often report having delayed bathroom times or not going for days upon arrival. It’s like the gut is lagging behind the regular routine, and for some feels like digestion is totally out of whack! The changes in travel bowel habits is likely a combination of lack of movement, change in size and timing of food intake, type of food eaten, lower fibre content of food, stress related to travel, limited access to bathroom options or inability to respond to bathroom urges AND all the other various symptoms as a results of jetlag that play a role in the normal digestion rhythm (i.e. modification in blood flow, appetite and satiety hormones, sleep cycle). If you find that this is you, here are four simple strategies to consider for gut lag:
- Pre-plan for the meals and snacks that you require while traveling
Even down to pre-ordering the inflight meals that might be more suitable for your needs, particularly if you have dietary restrictions...or if you just want a better meal...These pre-ordered meals seem to have come from another land, they are more colorful, have a variety of nutrients and often seem more appealing than the regular options. I often look over to those that thought ahead and think, “I’ll have what she’s having, please.”
- At the very least, stick to your regular hydration plan
Take an empty fluid container on the plane so you can fill up when needed. Have a pre-set idea of an amount that you feel you should be achieving and set out to match that.
- Have some stress relieving strategies for the duration of travel
Whether this includes mindfulness apps that focus on breathing or organizing some exercise throughout the travel. Have a few options to alleviate your travel stress.
- Focus on the other adjustments to improve jetlag symptoms such as behavioral (light/dark exposure) and pharmacological (as deemed appropriate by your medical/support staff) interventions
There is limited research to support that modifying meal timing combats symptoms of jetlag. The best solution for athletes struggling with gut lag is to work off personal experiences and start developing a plan that is individual and effective. Working with a Sport RD who can pinpoint areas in your habits / routines and food choices may bring you closer to that individual solution!
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Halson S and Burke L. Nutrition and Travel: From jetlag to catering. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism 2018; 29(2): 1-24. DOI: 10.1123/ijsnem.2018-0278
Reilly T. et al. Nutrition for travel. Journal of Sport Sciences 2007; 25(S1): S125-S134.
Roach G. and Sargent C. Interventions to minimize jet lag after westward and eastward flight. Frontiers in Physiology 2019; 10(927): doi: 10.3389/fphys.2019.00927