Travel Health – Part 2

Of course, there are many reasons why we travel. Some of us long for the excitement and "newness" of a country other than our own, some decide to leave behind their every day lives for a while, others want to learn a new language, take cooking or dance classes abroad, while others go in search of higher meaning or life fulfillment. Regardless of what your specific goals are, one thing's for sure. You've got to take care of yourself while on the road so your experience can be as problem-free as possible.

While on the Road

One of my previous articles, Eating Around the World, was about trying the local fare at food stands abroad, specifically in Oaxaca, Mexico. I described the fun and cultural benefits of eating local food in that setting. When deciding to indulge, however, one fact remains true: You must take certain precautions when deciding to "dig in" to avoid later health consequences, some of these prior to your departure (see: Healthy Travels – Part 1). That was just one example of where you should heed caution. There are an infinite number of other ways to take care of your health upon arrival in your adopted country:

1. Jet Lag
According to According to Aviation-Health, most passengers experience jet lag after trips of over 3 hours either East or West. The main cause of jet lag is the disruption of the body's internal clock. What happens is that your body is thrown out of sync because it experiences light and dark at different times in the new location. Another contributing factor is the lack of oxygen in the pressurized cabin of an aircraft. Symptoms vary from person to person and can include: Extreme fatigue, insomnia, upset stomach, aches/pains, irritability and disorientation.

One way to lessen the effects of jet lag, according to SleepDisorderChannel, is to get plenty of sleep prior to your flight and avoid alcohol, caffeine and nicotine, all of which are associated with restless sleep. Also, by trying to adapt to the new time zone by setting your watch to that time as soon as you leave home, you may try to minimize the effects of jet lag.

Another useful strategy for easier eastbound travel, according to SleepDisorderChannel, is to take a daytime flight.

"If a traveler flies eastward by several time zones during the day, they may arrive at their destination in the middle of the afternoon (home time) and in the middle of the evening (local time). For example, if they leave Boston at 10am on a flight to London, they will arrive in London at 9:30pm, GMT. However, their body clock tells them it's only 4:30 EST. They should try to go to sleep at a normal time in the new time zone. If a traveler needs to take an evening eastbound flight, they will arrive in the middle of the night (home time). In this case, immediate rest helps. They should try to sleep for a few hours when they arrive and then try to stay up until bedtime. For most people, westward travel is easier to adapt to than eastward travel. This is probably because it is generally easier to elongate one's day by staying up later, than to try to shorten one's day by going to sleep earlier."

You may find this and more information on the subject at SleepDisorderChannel.

2. Altitude Acclimatization
Even healthy travelers can experience altitude sickness when quickly ascending to altitudes above 8,000 – 9,000 feet. Some common less serious symptoms include: nausea, poor concentration, headache and difficulty sleeping. More information about this phenomenon can be found at FamilyDoctor.

3. Emotional Health
No matter how old you are, sometimes you feel homesickness upon arrival at your destination. It doesn't usually happen right away. First you might feel lots of euphoria and excitement about your surroundings however, as you settle in, you might experience "culture shock", including feelings of depression, anxiety, loneliness, lack of confidence or insecurity. Please be aware that this can happen even if you have traveled extensively and are a well-seasoned traveler.

Some ways to help with those sometimes-intense feelings of displacement include:

  • Write your feelings in a journal to help with perspective and as a cathartic exercise of acknowledgement and honor.
  • Be gentle, understanding and patient with yourself while you adjust to your new environment. It's going to take time, more for some than others.
  • Write about your travels and send them as email diary entries to your friends/family.
  • Get more involved in your new surroundings to keep busy.
  • Eat well, sleep lots and relax often, perhaps more than normal.
  • Reflect on your reasons for travel.

It might also be helpful if you bring along a small photo album with pictures of your family, friends and pets. Or how about bringing along some favorite, inspiring greeting cards or letters that others have given you that you can place around your room? They are easy to pack, light to carry, and seem to help quite a bit to take the edge off of uneasy feelings from being outside of your comfort zone. And as Julia Kalish, Certified Nutritionist and Health Coach, in the article Ten Secrets to Healthy Traveling recommends, indulge in primary food.

"Primary food is the food that feeds the soul! It doesn't come on a plate, but comes in the form of hugs, touch, kisses, warmth, massage, meditation, fun, nature, hot baths, close friends, and anything else you can think of that feeds your hunger for living. The more primary food you receive, the less you need to depend on secondary food (the food that comes on a plate)."

Okay, I don't necessarily recommend going out and touching and kissing strangers but maybe in the travel scene, that "touch" or "kiss" can come from emailing or receiving email (or a letter) from a loved one!

4. Drinking The Water
I would definitely recommend bottled water even to brush your teeth at least until getting the okay from local school staff that you can drink the water. According to the ISEP, carbonated bottled water and soft drinks, beer, wine, tea and coffee are usually uncontaminated. Furthermore, where water is contaminated, ice is also contaminated. Alcohol in a drink does not sterilize water or ice cubes.

While in Antigua, Guatemala, I initially used bottled water to brush my teeth for a couple of days until learning that it is considered safe in Antigua because of the large amount of chlorine! Then, I rinsed my mouth with tap water, still not drinking it (because I usually don't like the taste of tap water, anyway, even at home). In smaller, more remote towns unless you hear otherwise, definitely drink bottled water with an unbroken seal. You can never be too careful!

5. Your Diet
This is always a challenging self-care issue on the road where food products that you are used to at home are not readily available. Some people need to avoid certain foods because of high blood pressure, diabetes or other medical conditions while others keep a more rigid approach to eating in a daily attempt to stay healthy.

However, there are those of us who are continuously in the “diet” mode, even subconsciously, and are used to unknowingly labeling foods as either "good" or "bad". This type of thinking might make it harder to adjust to the different types of foods available on the road. You may not see the plethora of fat-free, sugar-free and salt-free options that we have at home, especially when you travel outside of the larger cities to rural areas.

Certified Nutritionist, Julia Kalish, recommends that you enjoy the food that you decide to eat.

"No matter what foods you decide to eat while on vacation, eat without fear, worry, or guilt. The anxiety produced over "bad" food choices can be more damaging than the food itself. Express gratitude for the food you eat and eat it with joy! Remember too that if you are visiting friends or family while on vacation, it may be healthier overall to dig into whatever is being served rather than make people feel bad that you won't enjoy the food they've prepared for you."

This extends to those possible situations where you find yourself invited to a local's house for a dinner celebration of a national holiday. Sometimes it's liberating to give yourself permission to indulge, giving up your previous eating restrictions, if only temporarily or once in a while, in order to connect with locals and enjoy their home-cooked meals!

One more piece of advice regarding food intake comes from Dr Kathi Head, N.D., from the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians:

"You can begin to boost your immune system several weeks before you plan to travel. Try taking Vitamin C or increase your dose to 3-5 grams daily if you already take it. Increase vitamin C gradually and take in divided doses with meals. Consume a little less if you experience digestive disturbances. You may also want to take an herb called Echinacea, available in most health food stores. Begin taking it a week or so before your expected date of departure and continue taking it throughout the trip."

As always, check with your own physician about this advice and for other daily diet tips!

6. Personal Hygiene/Cleanliness
When you are in a new environment with new germs, you are susceptible to diseases. You can prevent trouble by washing your hands often.

  • Use hand sanitizer when you can't get to water, or if there's no soap around.
  • NEVER use a bar of soap in public places or towel provided!
  • Try not to rub your eyes because this is an entrance for microscopic organisms.
  • Bring travel-sized rolls of toilet paper in case you unexpectedly find yourself in a stall (or outhouse) without it and are in need.
  • In many countries around Latin America, it is strongly requested that you throw used toilet paper into the trashcan rather than throwing it down the toilet to save the plumbing. The only thing I can recommend is to get over it. It's gross no matter how you look at it; however, it's part of being a conscientious and sensitive traveler : )
  • Always wear some type of foot covering even at the beach or hot springs. You wouldn't want to step on a rusty nail or pick up a virus or fungus!

7. Sun Safety
Make sure to bring along sunglasses, facial lotion and makeup with SPF, suntan lotion (don't forget your ears, nose, lips and scalp!) and hat, preferably one shading your ears and neck. The higher the altitude, the greater your risk for sunburn. More information about care in the sun can be found here.

Remember: UV rays reach you on cloudy and hazy days, as well as on bright, sunny days. UV rays will also reflect off any surface like water, cement, sand, and snow.

If you do get burned, I have found that one of the best remedies for your burn is 100% pure aloe gel. I once fell asleep on the beach in Cancun, Mexico for only 45 minutes and woke up to find a nasty burn from my knees down. My legs were so badly burned that I could not bend my knees nor walk up curbs for days because of the intense swelling and pain. As a kind offer of generosity, my roommate had given me pure aloe gel. After using it for a number of nights, I was amazed that my skin had healed without blistering or even peeling AT ALL! The aloe spray tends to provide only momentary relief of the pain however, the gel, when applied liberally and frequently, provides a fantastic cooling effect as well as promotes quicker healing.

8. Miscellaneous Travel Tips

  • Make sure to drink plenty of water to stay well-hydrated even in the winter. According to the medical field, at the point when you become thirsty, you're already dehydrated.
  • Make time to move your muscles even if it's just by staying busy or walking while window-shopping. When in a plane, bus or train, try to get up several times to stretch your legs to avoid circulation problems.
  • Bring along healthy snacks for when you just don't feel like eating anything else.
  • A sense of humor and unlimited patience will help you keep your sense of balance and good attitude while traveling. Remember that a missed meeting or a night spent at the airport in a storm won't be the end of the world, but will make a good story.
  • Approach your trip with a positive attitude, a sense of curiosity and willingness to be delighted by new experiences.
  • More travel-related advice for the road can be found here and here.

And lastly, let your trip be a growing experience…be willing to be pushed beyond your day-to-day comfort zone; however…be smart!

By Sue Lavene

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