Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth nutrition, fitness and adventure courses, and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+..
Q: I often seem to get sick during travel. Bad timing! What can I do?
—Lorenzo J., San Antonio
A: It’s no fun getting sick when you’re on vacation, or even when you’re away on business. But it happens a lot, simply because you’re exposed to far more germs than normal when you travel—especially if you fly. Luckily, there are five simple steps you can take to bolster your immune system.
Step 1: Do These 2 Things Before You Leave
First, do your best to get enough (even extra) sleep in the week to 10 days before traveling. And take as much vitamin C as possible without getting loose stools. Start with 500 mg at bedtime and add a little more each evening to max capacity. I prefer a buffered powdered form mixed in water, which is gentler on the stomach.
For more travel tips, see 4 Best Supplements for Travel.
To create your own travel medicine chest, see Natural Remedies to Treat Travel Related Issues.
Step 2: Take Herbs for Your Blood Type
- Type A: Good old echinacea and goldenseal work great for type A blood.
- Type B: If this is your type, you will be greatly helped by elderberry extract (1 tsp. 3–4 times daily during flu season), as well as by chamomile tea (stress-relieving) and fermented foods.
- Type AB: According to Peter D’Adamo, ND, author of the groundbreaking book Eat Right 4 Your Type, people with type AB blood are the most vulnerable to degradation of NK (natural killer) cells, key components of immunity. Irregular eating habits, low vegetable intake, inadequate protein intake, excessive wheat intake, and high-fat diets can all contribute to NK cell degradation. If you have type AB blood, take care to avoid toxic chemicals and “green” up your personal care and home cleaning products.
- Type O: Your best immune tonics include larch powder, astragalus, and eleuthero (Siberian ginseng).
Step 3: Protect Against Germs with Essential Oils
Wash your hands frequently while traveling, and try not to rub any part of your face. Avoid hand sanitizers that contain alcohol (very drying to the skin) or Triclosan. Instead, choose sanitizers made with essential oils such as thyme, oregano, frankincense (Boswellia serrata), or tea tree, all of which are effective antimicrobials. As a bonus, they also smell nice (unlike alcohol-based products), and confer no unwanted side effects. You can even make your own blend. Just make sure to put it in a 3.5 oz. or smaller bottle for travel.
Step 4: Stay Regular
Constipation is very common during air travel, which is extremely dehydrating. It’s best to keep sipping water all day rather than gulping a whole bottle, which will irritate your bladder. Sometimes, putting electrolytes or a pinch of complex salt (Celtic, Himalayan) in the water will help keep it in your cells longer. Try senna, either in capsules or tea, for stubborn constipation. I always travel with some Smooth Move tea bags, but be warned—they’re potent. Don’t steep for longer than 10 minutes.
Sometimes, bowel function can go in the other direction if you’re exposed to a bug, usually food-borne, that your intestines try to push out in a big hurry. Let the loose stools run their course for 24–48 hours. Stay hydrated. Take electrolytes. If you’re still stuck in the bathroom after a day or two, consider my favorite gastrointestinal remedy, berberine. This naturally yellow pigment is found in goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), Oregon grape, and bearberry. Tincture or glycerite forms are usually better absorbed than capsules, but trickier for travel.
Step 5: Use Enzymes & Herbs for Digestive Issues
Indulging in rich food and drink on vacation can leave you feeling heavy, bloated, and hung-over. In this case, you need to take digestive enzymes (a mix of protease, amylase, and lipase) or an herbal formula to ease digestion. I like a classic Chinese herbal formulation called Jia Wei Kang Ning Wan. “Wan” means pill, or tablet, form. You can also use digestive bitters, sometimes called Swedish bitters, which typically contain digestion-easing herbs including gentian, anise, ginger, and/or cumin. If you know you’ll be eating a more complex meal, or indulging in more fat or sugar than usual, do yourself a favor and take digestive enzymes or a digestion-easing herbal formula before your meal. Both will stimulate your own digestive process and allow for smooth transit the whole way down.
Pack Ahead of Time
Believe it or not, taking a little time ahead to prepare your packing can help you stay well when you’re traveling. Being prepared helps reduce stress, and thus protects your immune capacity to ward off new bugs and exotic food.
Start with deciding on shoes, since they’re bulky and take up a lot of room. Then try to pack as lightly as possible. Plot out what you plan to wear each day away. Pack a suitcase where pieces can mix and match. And if you’re traveling from a cold, wet climate to somewhere sunny and warm, make sure to leave enough space in your bag to pack a coat and heavier shoes for your return.