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Staying Healthy While Traveling

by Dr. Sarah Cimperman

Vacations are good for us. Taking time to rest and relax can revitalize our bodies as well as our minds. Unfortunately, getting sick while traveling isn’t uncommon and it can ruin any holiday. People often blame unfamiliar and sometimes unfriendly microbes found in new environments, and they may certainly play a part, but so does our susceptibility to sickness. The stress, lack of sleep, and changes in daily routines that come with travel all take a toll on our immune systems, making us more vulnerable to illness and infection. Follow these tips to strengthen your immunity and reduce your risk of getting sick when you travel.

Manage Stress

Stress suppresses our immune systems. When we’re physically or emotionally stressed, our adrenal glands secrete stress hormones like cortisol as part of an inherent survival instinct. Cortisol prepares the body for "fight or flight" action by raising alertness, increasing heart rate and blood pressure, boosting levels of blood sugar and insulin, and suppressing bodily functions that aren’t immediately necessary, like immune surveillance, the search and destroy mission of our white blood cells that protect the body from bacteria, viruses, and cancer cells. We can’t avoid stress completely but we can minimize its effects on our immune systems by learning to manage it effectively with activities like yoga, breathing exercises, and meditation.

Get Plenty of Sleep

Sleep is like a master control switch in the body. It regulates our immune systems and makes our white blood cells more active against bacteria and viruses that can make us sick. Adults should sleep eight hours or more each night in the summer, when nights are naturally shorter, and nine hours or more each night in the winter, when nights are naturally longer. If you’ll be traveling during the hours you’re usually snoozing, bring along whatever you need to help you sleep (neck pillow, eye mask, ear plugs).

Maintain A Regular Routine

Our bodies are sensitive to our daily routines. Sleeping a different number of hours or even the same number of hours at different times can disrupt our circadian rhythm and the hormones that control immunity and metabolism. When you travel to new time zones, help your body adjust by sleeping only at night and in complete darkness, waking up as close to sunrise as possible, and getting some morning sunshine. As much as you can, keep regular hours for sleeping, waking, eating, and exercising.

Exercise Regularly

Regular exercise can improve immunity as long as you don’t overdo it. Exercise at moderate intensity and limit workouts to an hour at a time. Too much exercise or exercise that’s too intense can raise cortisol levels and suppress the immune system. When you’re away from home, be sure to have your athletic shoes along so you can exercise anywhere, even if it’s just a brisk half hour walk.

Eat Well

Eating a healthy diet is essential to maintaining a healthy immune system. Avoid sweets and fill up on veggies, especially those high in beta carotene, like carrots and green leafy vegetables. Because leafy greens are on the Environmental Working Group’s "Dirty Dozen Plus" list of foods most contaminated with pesticides, buy them organic or stick to cabbage, which is on their "Clean Fifteen" list (www.ewg.org/foodnews).

Avoid Afternoon Caffeine

Caffeine elevates cortisol levels, which keeps us awake and alert, so it’s best consumed in the morning. Drinking too much coffee and consuming caffeine in the afternoon or evening can suppress your immune system, cause problems sleeping, and make it more difficult for your body to adapt to changes in time zones. If you drink caffeinated coffee or tea, limit yourself to one cup before noon. People who experience negative side effects from caffeine, like anxiety, restlessness or insomnia, should avoid it completely.

Avoid Anti-Bacterial Products

Anti-bacterial products are popular for travel but they promote the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria (which increases the incidence of life-threatening infections) and some contain toxic chemicals like triclosan, a dioxin linked to weakened immunity. Instead of using anti-bacterial products, take other precautions. Avoid contaminated and shared surfaces when you travel and don’t touch your mouth, nose, or eyes unless you’ve washed your hands thoroughly in hot, soapy water.

Pack Smart

Put together a wellness kit to help you stay healthy when you travel. Pure lavender essential oil can be used as aromatherapy to promote relaxation and sleep. Its antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties also make it good for first aid (topical use only). Probiotics can boost immunity and reduce the risk of infection. Find a temperature-resistant probiotic for travel but keep it in the fridge whenever you can. Ginger can soothe digestive disturbances and prevent motion sickness. It also has antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory activities in the body. Elderberry can help prevent upper respiratory infections like colds and flu, which are commonly contracted in crowded and confined areas like airplanes. A 2009 study even found it effective against the H1N1 virus and compared its anti-viral activity to pharmaceutical flu medicines like Tamiflu. Melatonin can help your body adjust to changes in time zones and sleep schedules, which minimizes jet lag and enhances immunity. And it’s a good idea to travel with a multi-vitamin-mineral supplement, even if you don’t take one every day, because it can help compensate for less nutritious meals away from home and make sure that your immune system is getting the nutrients it needs for infection prevention.

References available upon request.

Dr. Sarah Cimperman is a naturopathic doctor in private practice in New York City. For more information, call 646-234-2918 or visit www.drsarahcimperman.com. Read her blogs online at adifferentkindofdoctor.blogspot.com and naturopathicgourmet.blogspot.com

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