For many people, the most uncomfortable part about flying isn’t the cramped legs, the overpriced booze or the screeching devil-child kicking the back of your seat for nine hours: It’s the constipation.
But what is it about getting on a plane that causes the rectal equivalent of the freeway during rush hour when all but one lane has been closed?
First off, it’s important to note that cabin pressure and altitude does lead to some bodily changes at 30,000 feet, primarily bloating: “As the atmospheric pressure decreases on ascent, the gas bubbles in our body get bigger in size,” Anna-Maria Carvalho, a physician and airline medical consultant, told us previously. “The gut has a lot of gas, and all that gas increases in size at altitude, which is why you feel bloated. This will be especially evident if you down a can of soda just before getting on the plane — all those tiny gas bubbles sitting in your stomach will get bigger in size on ascent.”
Still, as much as you’d like to blame physics for why it’s been three days, nine meals and four servings of beets since you last pooped, according to Robert A. Gross, a gastroenterologist in L.A., the truth is more straightforward: “If you’re an adult, you’ll probably hold your poop until you’re in a more comfortable setting than an airplane bathroom.”
In other words, you’ll happily change your daily routine and hold it in until you reach your destination. The problem with holding in your poop, though, as I’ve written about before, is that it causes it to dry out, become impacted and jam up. “Any kind of change in your routine that causes you to hold your poop can trigger constipation,” says Gross. “Plus, sitting still for hours on a plane is only going to make things worse.”
The best thing to do then is to eat high-fiber foods the day before you’re traveling. “As well as drink a lot of water,” adds Gross. “And try to stick to your usual routine as much as possible.” That means if you’re the sort of person who likes to poop at the crack of dawn, set an alarm to wake up early enough to go number two before you head to the airport.
If that sounds like a terrible recommendation, there’s the slightly less natural way to go: Stool softeners. “You can also try taking a stool softener before you travel,” explains Gross. “They work by pulling more water into your stool and making it so that your stool will pass through your body more easily.”
The good news is that stool softeners don’t start working until a day or two after you take them, so you don’t have to worry about unleashing the fecal demons until you’ve arrived atop a clean hotel toilet. Or at least a destination airport bathroom so filthy no one will notice the horrors you’re about to commit.
Still better than going on the plane, though, right?