Exactly How This Functional Medicine Expert Avoids Getting Sick When He Travels
While working at an urgent care clinic early in my career, I noticed that a surprising number of my patients with respiratory infections had just returned from a trip.
You would think a vacation would help your immune system, as it's typically a break from daily stressors, and we know that chronic stress lowers your immune function. But even the most relaxing vacations can end with you getting sick if you're not careful.
Why do you get sick when you travel?
The increased odds of falling ill during or after travel are a result of many different factors, including the following:
- Increased exposure to microbes in highly populated areas like airports, airplanes, and hotels.
- Physiological stressors of flying, changing time zones, and losing sleep.
- Exposure to potential pathogens in water and food in areas with poor sanitation standards.
How to avoid getting sick when you travel.
The good news is you can significantly increase your odds of staying healthy by taking some simple precautions. Here are some things I do when I travel to avoid getting sick:
Prepare for time zone changes.
Jet lag can wreck your sleep. Because sleep has been found to improve your immune function, it's imperative to optimize sleep when traveling, which begins before you even start packing your bags.
Prior to traveling to a different time zone, it's best to slowly acclimate your body to the new time. This can be done by going to bed 30 minutes earlier or later every day, depending on whether you're traveling eastward or westward, respectively, leading up until travel.
For instance, if you were traveling three time zones eastward, you would want to start six days prior to travel going to bed 30 minutes earlier each day.
For those who don't want to do this type of math, there's a great app called Timeshifter to help you out.
Do a 24-hour water fast.
Have you ever noticed that when you're sick you aren't as hungry? This is because your body mounts a stronger immunological response when in a fasted state short term. We can use this knowledge to our advantage by fasting for 24 hours prior to travel, which can help trigger your immune system.
Take astragalus and quercetin.
Thieves essential oil.
Thieves is a blend of five different essential oils and is well-known for its immune stimulation properties2. Placing a drop of thieves on the acupuncture point for the stomach (found on the inner part of the ear but not in the ear canal) is believed to help stimulate the immune response in the stomach. While there isn't a ton of great research on this, at the very least you'll smell delicious.
Acclimate to your new time zone.
The quicker you can adjust to the new time, the better. To do this, get out in the sun first thing in the morning to set your circadian rhythm, and be sure to touch the earth with your bare feet. This practice, called earthing3, has been shown to help regulate cortisol, which works antagonistically with melatonin to regulate your circadian rhythm.
You should also abstain from caffeine after 2 p.m. and alcohol three hours prior to bedtime.
If jet lag is hitting you hard and you're having trouble falling asleep at the right time, supplementing with melatonin isn't a bad option. Taking melatonin an hour or so prior to your desired bedtime can help your body transition to the new time zone. And, of course, get off your phone before bed and wear blue-light-blocking glasses4.
Overhaul your hotel room.
Let's be honest: You have little control over much of what goes on in a hotel, but let's focus on what we can control. As soon as I walk into a hotel room I like to clean all surfaces with a potent antimicrobial solution of equal parts 70% isopropyl alcohol and clear ammonia (careful, it's a strong smell!), as most hotel rooms are covered in potentially harmful germs. If you are traveling by airplane, I also suggest packing some of this solution in a carry-on friendly 3-ounce bottle.
Unplug all devices you aren't using in the room, especially anything that produces light since even small amounts of light at night can impair melatonin5 release and sleep quality. Other ways to limit light exposure in your hotel room are placing a towel under your door at night to block the light from the hallway and clipping your curtains closed. To do this, you can either travel with some clips or use the pants hangers commonly found in the closet.
Pro tip: Do not use the hotel comforter. They are almost never cleaned. Instead, check for a spare blanket in the closet.
I prefer to get my nutrients through food and run an advanced nutrient profile on myself regularly to test for deficiencies. However, nutrients that can help boost the immune system include vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D, selenium, and zinc.
Watch out for the water.
Jon Mitchell, PA-C, M.S. is a certified physician assistant turned functional medicine health consultant. He received his master’s from the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, and he currently works virtually with highly driven individuals to resolve their chronic health issues for good so that they can design the life they love.