"What will my food options be? What if we’re stuck on the tarmac and my symptoms flare? How long will it take me to find a restroom after I land?"
These were some of the questions that fueled Heather Weiss’s anxiety the first time she traveled after her doctor told her she has ulcerative colitis.
Like many people who have UC, Weiss has successfully taken on the healthy habits needed to manage her condition. But it’s harder when you’re away from home.
“The main issues with ulcerative colitis center around bowel habits,” says Jessica Philpott, MD, PhD, a Cleveland Clinic gastroenterologist. “And when you’re on the road, you’re not always in control of things.”
But Weiss loves to travel. She splits her time between Sebastopol, CA, and New York, and often visits her family in Texas. Whether she’s away for the night or for a month, her strategy comes down to this: Plan ahead and stay positive.
“I won’t say the travel anxiety is gone. I still have it every single time I travel,” she says. “But becoming comfortable with what I can eat, preparing for a trip, and taking care of myself once I land allows me to feel safe and secure in my travels.”
Use these tips, and you can, too.
1. Know your body.
Take into account your symptoms and plan accordingly. For instance, “if you’re more symptomatic in the morning, schedule your flight for the afternoon,” Philpott says.
Is exercise is a trigger for you? Skip that walking tour of your favorite city and hop on a tour bus instead.
2. Give yourself plenty of time to prepare.
Even if it’s a short trip, Weiss packs a day or two in advance to avoid the stress of making wardrobe decisions on the fly. It also lets her devote more time and attention to prepping and packing the foods she likes to take with her.
“I get anxious if I haven’t prepared my foods, because I know if I were to eat anything in the airport, it won’t sit well with me,” she says. Weiss has been in remission since she started to follow a special diet that limits grains, dairy, starchy vegetables, and processed foods.
3. Share your “Safe to Eat” list.
Let your friends and family know the staples of your eating plan.
And if you travel on business and are locked into this client lunch or that awards dinner, check the menu in advance.
“I always go online and look at the options beforehand,” Weiss says. “The first thing I check are the side dishes. They tend to be more simply prepared and less aggravating to my system.”
4. Keep an emergency kit in your carry-on.
Depending on your symptoms, pack a zip-close bag with anti-diarrhea medicine, tissues, wipes, hand sanitizer, and a change of underwear. You may not need it, but you’ll feel confident knowing that it’s there, just in case.
5. Ditto for your meds.
Always carry your doctor’s contact information with you and a list of the medications you’re on or might need.
Traveling out of the U.S.? You may want to take an extra step. “If you’re going overseas, it’s important to have a letter from your doctor explaining what you have, what the medicines are, and why you’re on them,” Philpott says.
"Having documentation is helpful when you go through international customs and [they] ask, ‘What’s this bag of pills?’ ”
6. Carry a water bottle.
You can’t get through airport security with a full water bottle, of course. But you can fill up an empty one before you board the plane.
If water itself is a trigger for you, prepare a stash of foods that are naturally loaded with H2O -- watermelon, cucumbers, squash, and zucchini, for instance -- and pack it in your carry-on bag. “Peel and de-seed them in advance so your body doesn’t have to work to digest them,” Weiss says.
7. Stay calm.
Stress doesn’t cause ulcerative colitis, but it can be a trigger. “Whenever I’ve had a flare, anxiety was always the catalyst,” Weiss says.
Try a proven way to de-stress: meditate. For about 20 minutes before takeoff and 20 minutes before landing, Weiss calms the chatter in her head by focusing on her breath and positive thoughts. “I love layovers, because it means I can meditate four times that day,” she says, only half-joking.
If you’re in a hurry and don’t have that kind of time, do what you can. Even a few moments of mindfulness may help you relax.