I like to give myself a “cocoon of comfort and safety” when I’m traveling by plane. Although we don’t give it a lot of thought, flying at 600 mph 30,000 feet above the earth’s surface is very unnatural and one of the more stressful things we do to our bodies. Although our bodies can adapt to many stressors such as radiation, pollution and viruses, they haven’t had a lot of time to develop strategies for adapting to jet travel.
The lack of oxygen, poor air quality, toxic chemicals, levels of radiation, immobility and the fact that cabin air is dryer than a desert are a few factors that can generate health hazards beyond “jet lag.” Each one alone and certainly all combined, these hazards can make you much more vulnerable to being ill.
Let me share some of the statistics here. After flying, you have an increased risk of catching a cold—over 100 times higher than if you had not flown, according to a study in the Journal of Environmental Health Research. Statistics say you are 40 percent more likely to experience deep vein thrombosis (DVT) after a flight than if you did not fly at all. I could quote more such references, but let me just say that the longer the flight, the more potential for these stressors to affect you negatively.
So I’ve written a short book on how to mitigate the unhealthy effects of air travel. In this article, I’m going to share a few of these strategies with you. I would like you to be a happy and healthy jet-setter. You may adopt some or all of these suggestions. Take what works for you and leave the rest.
Katharine Clark’s Air Travel Health Tips for Healthier Jet-Setting
1. Be prepared! Allow plenty of time. Adding extra stress by rushing or being late is not helpful! Get yourself packed ahead of time. Be conservative and bring as little as possible. I travel frequently, so I keep a roll-on ready to go with my travel essentials. Smaller sizes of items that will fit into the little quart-sized zip-lock baggies that the TSA allows through security are available at health food markets. You can ask at your nearest health food store for sample sizes. Often they have them behind the counter.
The last flight I took, there was a child behind me with an ear-piercing scream. In reality, just the roar of the jet engines can reach ear-damaging levels. I was so glad I had my small noise-canceling headset with me. It connects me to the movies, my audiobooks or beautiful music.
2. Stay hydrated. I think getting and staying hydrated is the single most important action you can take before and during your flight to prevent negative health impacts.
Flying is dehydrating, so you must load up on water before taking off. It’s good to start the day before you fly, making sure you get plenty of fresh pure water to drink. I’ve found that loading up with about 64 ounces of water in the hour before I go through security will keep me pretty hydrated through a four-hour flight. I try to drink so much water before the flight that I can make it through the flight without needing to drink more. Some airports offer filtered water, but I don’t like to drink water from plastic.
Fatigue is the first sign of dehydration. Headaches, light-headedness, brain fog, rapid heart beat, strong hunger, muscle cramps, dark and/or frequent urination, constipation and dry mouth and skin are all symptoms of dehydration! If you experience any of these, try drinking more water and see if it helps.
Some people think that if they are drinking liquids, they are hydrating, but this is not true. Black tea, coffee, soft drinks, milk and bottled drinks are more dehydrating than hydrating. They are likely to be full of sugar and are acidifying to the body. If that’s all you can get, you might choose to drink some, but it’s best to drink even tap water over water with sugar and caffeine or artificial ingredients.
If you pack your toiletries in your checked bag, you can get eight 3-ounce bottles in the baggie for your carry-on. So for a long flight, you can pack water in those bottles. I suggest adding a few pinches of the Ancient Scalar Salt from HealthGems.com to each bottle of the water to help your body absorb and retain the water. I also like to add powdered high-vitamin C berry powder and some Wild AFA.
There are small portable water filters that can be carried on board. Look for one that exceeds NSF standards for removal of giardia, bacteria, viruses, cryptosporidium, chlorine, heavy metals, radioactive substances, waterborne chemicals and more.
Dry lips, eyes, nose and mouth are more than unpleasant; the cracked membranes can’t protect you from bacteria and viruses. You want to keep your skin and mucus membranes intact. If you’re well-hydrated this should come naturally, but if you’re naturally dry or have a long flight, here are some tips:
- Keep the nose moist. Dry nasal passages can be more vulnerable to bacteria than moist ones. ZylaClear is excellent and comes in a small travel size. You can also use coconut oil to coat the nostrils.
- Protect your skin. If you have tendency to dry skin on your face or body, be sure to apply a good lubricating sealer to yourself before flying.
- Don’t eat. The digestive system is slowed during the flight, so it is best to refrain from eating food just before or during the flight. I like to bring those little packets of organic instant miso soup. You can easily add these to water for a tasty, mineral-rich, probiotic treat if you feel hungry. I also travel with packets from Wild-Superfood.com. These satisfy hunger, nourish and have research showing they support your immune system, too.
If you must eat, bring or buy something juicy such as apples, oranges or an avocado along with sprouts and nori sheets. If you’re flying internationally, you may have to precut the fruits and vegetables and carry them in a baggie rather than whole. Dried food is not the best choice because it is also dehydrating when you eat it. You could bring dried berries and soak them in your water before eating them. They are antioxidant-rich and tasty.
3. Beware air quality. All passengers are breathing the air on the plane, so you’re getting exposed to whatever they might exhale in terms of viruses or germs. Of course, there’s the dreaded exhaust that inevitably enters the cabin before you take off. Insecticide is sprayed in the cabin before landing on international flights. So be proactive and wear a mini personal air purifier. I also wear a particle mask with a carbon filter. This will protect you from bugs, viruses and chemicals. (Have you ever smelled jet fuel fumes in the cabin? Well, incidence rates of aerotoxic syndrome is increasing from the exposure of frequent fliers to these and other toxins aboard flights.) The air filter is about $79, and the mask is about $20.
4. Prepare for pathogens. Research shows that E. coli is everywhere on the plane, including in water, coffee and tea. MRSA is found in the seat back pockets and on tray tables. By the way, MRSA can live as long as six days outside the body on the surfaces you may be touching.
Keep your hands away from your face. I like to wear a hoodie to keep my hair off the seat back. The corners of the aisle seats are very “dirty.” Even the hand washing water in lavatories has been found to be contaminated with E. coli.
I do not stress about the exposure to pathogens because I keep my immune system strong. If you have a compromised immune system, you’ll want to read my book for more ways to travel safely.
There are also nonchemical hand sanitizers with either essential oils or probiotics available now. I like Thieves wipes and spray. This old combination of essential oils will kill viruses, bacteria, mold and fungus.
5. Enhance your circulation on the flight. Deep vein thrombosis is a threat to your health while traveling. Clots can occur up to 30 days after the flight. This is so common that the airline magazine usually has a section about exercising. (Don’t touch the magazine as it’s one of the dirtiest things on the plane. It is there for a month, and so many people touch it.)
Before the flight and after the flight, keep moving. Walk when you can instead of riding.
Once aboard, get some circulation going while in your seat by clenching the muscles in your legs and buttocks and flexing your legs for a few moments, every once in awhile. Frequently rotate and flex your ankles. Point your toes, flex your feet and wiggle your toes. Get up and walk around a few times, breathing deeply. You can even do some squats if there’s room! I like to do little leg lifts in the seat and keep wiggling my toes.
If you have poor circulation in your legs already, you might want to wear compression socks fitted by a professional. I found some organic bamboo ones online. Bamboo is naturally anti-bacterial, but don’t buy them if they have added antibacterial chemicals.
6. Boost your comfort level. Of course, wear loose-fitting, comfortable clothing that is washable. Wear comfy shoes, too.
When sleeping on the flight, use a very good neck and back support. I use a foam cervical support collar. This helps me keep my neck straight and unstressed and my mouth closed. Using black-out eye covers and a noise-canceling headset is a good idea if you want to really feel rested.
7. Adjust your body’s clock to avoid jet lag. Make a plan to get on local time and honor your home time. For instance, recently I flew from the East Coast to spend a week on the West Coast. On the East Coast, I sleep from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. So on the West Coast, I slept from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. This minimized the variation for my body.
If you are going around the world and will be there awhile, then get on the local time as soon as possible. If you arrive and it’s night, try to sleep then. If you arrive and it’s mid-day, stay up until a reasonable bedtime.
When flying around the world, it is helpful to have a night layover somewhere to give your body a chance to adjust. If this isn’t possible, it might be worth the extra money to get first class. I try to save up my miles to use for upgrades on flights longer than five to six hours.
A superfood combination that I use is Wild Earth. I find it is a wonderful aid for preventing jet lag. Take before, during and after your flight. Wild Earth should not interfere with rest or sleep.
8. Protect yourself from radiation. I’m keeping this to the strategies I use to stay healthy, rather than describing the hazards of air travel, so I’ll just say there are a few types of radiation you will be exposed to or immersed in.
When going through security, “opt out” of the big scanner that you stand inside with your arms up. Just tell the TSA agent that you want to “opt out.” They will then pat you down. Be sure to allow extra time for the “pat down.”
You’ll be exposed to UV radiation and solar radiation (if you fly in the sun), and the jet stream is the happy home to a great deal more radiation since Fukushima. Since planes are usually flying in the jet stream, you’re getting a lot more radiation exposure. Of course, if you are flying during the day, try to sit in the aisle seat. If you are by the window, close the shade. Sitting farther back in the plane is better in terms of radiation exposure.
Taking red-eye or night flights will help avoid solar radiation but not the nuclear radiation. I am using Biodine from HealthGems.com daily.
Be sure to change into fresh clothes and bathe with soap and hot water after the flight as soon as possible. Wash your clothes before wearing them again.
9. Consider using supplements and products. I use some supplements and other products while flying and list them on KatharineClarkRN.com. For nutrition and radiation protection, I take the nutrient-dense, antioxidant-rich superfoods from Wild-Superfood.com. The Mind, Body and Water are all radioprotective. Wild Earth helps me reduce jet lag. The packets are convenient, and the superfoods are of the highest quality. You can buy the whole set or singles. I’ve eaten Wild-Superfood.com every day for the past 30 years.
I take Energy Biodine to protect my thyroid and Rad Clear to clear me of radiation, both of which are available on HealthGems.com. I also use their Ancient 5 Scalar Salt in my water and food. I use their Clinoptilolite for removing heavy metals. And I use their Extreme O2 in my water to superoxygenate my system before each flight.
In addition, I like to use a mixed-berry Vitamin C-rich powder such as camu, rose hips or hibiscus from Health Force or Synergy. Use probiotics. Flying is likely to kill much of your “friendly flora.” Buy and eat sauerkraut, kvass or other fermented foods. Use a good probiotics product. I like Spectrabiotics.
For air quality, I use an AirTamer from FilterStream.com. I also wear a Cambridge Particle Filter Mask with a Carbon Filter. For portable water purification, I use a Survivor filter from SurvivorFilter.com.
10. Steps to take after your flight. Get rehydrated after flying. Drink plenty and/or eat juicy foods such as sprouts, celery, apples or citrus.
Get grounded after the flight by walking on the earth barefoot or bring a grounding mat to use on your bed.
I have more information on my website, KatharineClarkRN.com, and soon my book, Flying Safely: The Jetsetters Health Handbook, will be available.
- Gavish I. Brenner B. Air Travel and the Risk of Thromboembolism, Intern Emerg Med 2011 Apr:6(2):113-6.
- Blood Clots and Travel: What You Need to Know. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.