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Why does flying make you bloated?

It’s common to experience changes in your digestion and gut symptoms during and after a long flight, particularly so for those who experience irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). But have you ever wondered why this happens?

Partly it’s due to the atmospheric pressure in the cabin. If you’ve ever seen a plastic water bottle after take-off and landing, you’ll have noticed that the air pressure between the water and the lid changes – it swells up after take-off and compresses after landing. Your gastrointestinal tract doesn’t do this in quite the same way but it is a good example of how the atmospheric pressure does affect us in ways we might not be aware of. With the change in air pressure during a flight, any gas inside your gut expands and this adds more pressure to your system. If you add to this that most people are reticent to release the wind while seated so closely to other people, you’ve got a recipe for an expanding belly. 

This process doesn’t just occur for people who have IBS so others may also experience abdominal distention and bloating with air travel, depending on what they have eaten recently and how much gas is present in the gut. It is normal for there to be some gas within the gut, however as this expands with the change in air pressure, it takes up a larger volume in the gut and therefore creates a greater stretch on the wall of the intestine. People with IBS tend to have increased sensitivity to this stretch on the intestinal wall, and experience more uncomfortable tummy pain as a result.

So, what can you do to minimise this? Dressing comfortably for the flight and avoiding tight clothing around your tummy can be helpful, as this can exacerbate bloating and associated pain. If you have IBS and are aware of certain foods and drinks that trigger or exacerbate your symptoms, avoiding or minimising these in the lead up to the flight will also help to keep symptoms more manageable.

It also pays to consider what you are consuming throughout your travels. Avoiding carbonated drinks can help, yet these are typically offered regularly throughout flights. Make still water your main drink. When it comes to food, from a mindset perspective, it can be really easy to just think “oh it’s too hard” and to eat anything that is in front of us—but if nourishment remains a priority for you, you will almost always find a way. Of course, travelling isn’t the same as cooking your own meals at home but if you use nourishment as a guide simply choose the best option available to you. If it appeals to you, you might also like to do a bit of research of the meal options ahead of time and to have some nourishing snacks on hand that you know you normally tolerate well. It can make all the difference to how your gut fares along the way. And I can’t encourage you enough to only eat when you’re hungry—so often we just eat everything that’s offered to us on planes, and overeating will put additional pressure on your gut.

For those who are nervous flyers, also remember that stress can hinder our digestive processes, so if you feel you need to distract yourself while flying, I encourage you to use strategies like reading a book, listening to music or practising meditation, rather than using food or alcohol as a distraction, or snacking mindlessly. When you are hungry, you might also like to take some long, slow breaths before your meal, to help calm your nervous system and, in turn, support better digestion.

Dr Libby Clinic
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