Herbal First Aid

Herbs for the Road

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Take along chamomile to thwart insomnia, nervousness, stomach upset, and diarrhea.

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For many of us, home is more than a castle—it’s also a health-care center. The bathroom cabinet contains antiseptics, bandages, and ointments; the refrigerator holds medicinal foods and vitamin supplements; kitchen cupboards are filled with such remedies as baking soda, teas, and herbal tinctures. Some people even have medicinal herbs growing in pots on their windowsills.

These items help us treat common afflictions ranging from bee stings to cold symptoms. But when we travel, whether for an extended vacation or a brief business trip, most of us leave this nurturing environment behind. Perhaps this is why traveling is rated nearly as stressful as moving to a new house or fighting with one’s boss, according to a scale developed by sociologists. Unfamiliar foods, strange beds, new noises, foreign languages, and crazy schedules also contribute to stress and the potential for stress-related illnesses. Not to mention that, if we need treatment for an illness or injury while away from home, our health is at the mercy of any health-care practitioner we can find.

But you can take some nurturing with you on your next trip—in the form of a carefully planned herbal travel kit assembled with the help of some experts in the medicinal herb field.

Pre-travel Planning

Your trip begins before you ever leave home: buying tickets, finding a hotel, arranging for a petsitter. To help you through this time and build up your resistance, it’s a good idea to take herbs to boost your immune system for several days before your trip, according to Rob McCaleb, Herbs for Health editorial adviser and president of the Herb Research Foundation. McCaleb takes echinacea (Echinacea spp.) and astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus), basing his choices on the large body of research showing these herbs’ effectiveness at fortifying the immune system.

Medical herbalist Daniel Gagnon agrees that building the immune system is important. To do this, his herb of choice is Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus), also known as eleuthero. He begins taking it a couple of weeks before he travels, using a capsule or dropperful twice a day.

“Siberian ginseng is an adaptogen, a substance that helps you face more stress with fewer effects on the body,” Gagnon says. Moreover, different people have ­different susceptibilities to illness, so eleuthero—which doesn’t target specific organs but bolsters the body as a whole—is perfect for general, gentle support, he says.

Gagnon, who is something of a globetrotter, has another travel trick up his sleeve: He takes acidophilus for two weeks before traveling to strengthen his digestive system’s ability to fight foreign orga­nisms in food or water. A normal, healthy digestive system depends on the three pounds of healthy bacteria that help fight off foreign bacteria and parasites, which can upset the digestive tract and cause diarrhea, improper digestion, nausea, and general discomfort. Gagnon says acidophilus helps fortify the body’s supply of beneficial bacteria.

On the Road

Once your trip begins, you may encounter a variety of health hurdles, so it’s best to be prepared. Use the suggestions below, which address the most common travel problems, to customize your travel kit to your needs.

Airplane travel: Airplane air is dry and full of other people’s germs, a sure-fire recipe for a cold or flu. Hopefully, your pre-travel immune-system boosting will fight illness. If not and you arrive at your destination with an unwanted viral guest, take echinacea (follow instructions on the label) and resist the temptation to see the sights nonstop—give yourself time to rest so that you don’t land flat on your back for the entire trip.

When traveling by air, take a bottle of purified water to keep yourself hydrated, and request a special meal when you buy your ticket—many airlines now serve kosher, vegetarian, low-fat, low-sodium, or high-protein meals, but you must ask for them when you book your ticket.

Jet lag: If you cross more than four time zones in your travels, you may find that your internal clock needs some re­adjusting. The first rule in re-establishing sleep patterns is to stay awake until night-fall in your new locale; a strong cup of green tea, which contains caffeine (although one cup of green tea contains less caffeine than one cup of coffee), may help you stay awake.

Once it’s time to sleep, several herbs can help, including valerian (Valeriana officinalis), passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), and German chamomile (Matricaria recutita). Gagnon’s personal favorite is California poppy (Eschscholzia californica); he takes 30 drops of the tincture an hour before bedtime and 30 drops right before falling asleep. Unlike its cousin, the opium poppy, California poppy isn’t a source of a narcotic; instead, E. californica tends to provide a balancing effect—if you’re anxious, it will calm you; if you’re lethargic, it will provide a bit more energy, Gagnon says.

Motion sickness, nausea: Ginger is the quintessential herb for motion sickness, highly recommended by many herbalists and proven effective in many animal and human studies. Gagnon suggests taking 30 to 60 drops of a tincture or 2 capsules an hour before stepping on a boat or plane; if the ride continues for two or more hours, take half that dosage again. One of ginger’s advantages is that it’s easy to find all over the world; you can make yourself a tea by thinly slicing the root, putting a teaspoon or so in hot water, and letting it steep for ten minutes.

Digestive problems: Traveler’s digestive problems can range from mild constipation to chronic diarrhea resulting from intestinal parasites or unfamiliar foods. A similarly broad range of available herbal remedies often can help treat them.

For constipation, McCaleb recommends the short-term use of stimulant laxatives such as senna (Senna alexandrina) and cascara sagrada (Rhamnus purshiana). For heartburn or indigestion from unfamiliar or rich foods, he suggests using ginger. You might also try drinking a strong cup of black tea or eating a papaya, a traditional remedy in the tropics for upset stomachs.

Gagnon strongly recommends quassia, (Picrasma excelsa), a plant that can be used as a digestive bitter to increase gastric juices (10 drops of an extract, twenty minutes before meals). In larger doses (40 to 50 drops every three or four hours), Gagnon says quassia is effective in fighting some intestinal “bugs,” including amoebas and giardia, a protozoan spread in contaminated food and water and by ­direct contact that can cause symptoms ranging from mild gastrointestinal discomfort to serious diarrhea and nausea.

Herbalist Mindy Green recommends umeboshi plums (Prunus mume)—either the paste, whole plums, or tablets—which effectively fight gastrointestinal amoebas. Follow package directions for tablets, or incorporate the paste or plums into one of your meals.

Herbalist and Herbs for Health editorial adviser Christopher Hobbs uses a homemade blend of quassia bark, wormwood, black walnut, Oregon grape root, and Artemisia annua (sweet Annie), which he takes in doses of 1 teaspoon twice daily as a preventive for “traveler’s diarrhea.”

When diarrhea does hit, he increases the dose to 1 teaspoon three to five times a day.

Sprains and bruises: For treating bumps and bruises, a little tube of arnica gel or salve is an invaluable addition to your travel kit. Look for commercial products that contain up to 15 percent arnica oil and follow package directions. Arnica can also be used to treat bunions and swelling. Don’t take it internally or apply to broken skin.

Skin problems: For dry skin and to help heal burns, cuts, or wounds, carry a tube of aloe vera gel or calendula cream. Tea tree oil—an excellent antiseptic and fungicide—is another good choice to carry for cuts and for fungal infections such as athlete’s foot, although you may want to dilute it before putting on open wounds.

For sunburn, you can’t beat the gel of a fresh aloe leaf, Hobbs says. For a trip of ten days or less, he suggests snipping a big leaf off your aloe plant and taking it along in a plastic bag.

Insect bites: Take along an Echinacea angustifolia extract, too. Mary Hardy, a medical doctor and Herbs for Health edito­rial adviser, says applying this extract to bites will numb the sting (alcohol extracts may burn a little). She also recommends using herbal insect repellents with a citronella base, particularly good for repelling flies.

Altitude sickness: When your plans include traveling to a much higher altitude, you may want to absorb more oxygen into your bloodstream. Altitude sickness is caused by entering an atmosphere with less oxygen than you’re used to. Its symptoms include headaches and shortness of breath. Gagnon recommends taking chlorophyll two to three days before traveling to a higher altitude. One of the theories, he says, is that chlorophyll has a structure similar to human hemoglobin and provides building blocks for more of this oxygen-carrying pigment. Chlorophyll may also increase oxygen-binding ability in lungs, he says.

Dr. Hardy also recommends taking a diuretic, such as nettles or dandelion leaf or root. And Evelyn Leigh of the Herb Research Foundation suggests that you drink a lot of water to avoid dehydration.

International Travel

A word to the wise: Don’t bring loose herbs if you’ll be passing through customs. A perfectly legal herb stored in a plastic bag could cause a customs agent to call out the drug-sniffing dogs. Gagnon, who has traveled to Nepal, Morocco, Germany, England, Mexico, and Canada, advises carrying along only commercial herbal remedies and keeping those in their original packaging with the manufacturer’s name clearly visible.

Finding an herbalist abroad: If you’re traveling to France or Germany, count yourself lucky. Both countries have health-food stores and pharmacies that carry herbs, and a pharmacist will be glad to help. Where herbalists and herbal remedies are hard to find, Gagnon recommends seeking out a Chinese herbalist. The advantage, he says, is that their method doesn’t require a conversation (or a translator)—they take your pulse, look at your tongue, and prescribe remedies based on your physical symptoms.

Prevention is the best medicine: Talk with your health-care practitioner about which immunizations are necessary for your destination country or contact the Travelers’ Health Section at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia (1-888-232-3299). And be prepared to protect yourself from malaria, if necessary. Dr. Hardy suggests sticking with drugs such as doxycycline because little is known about a potential herbal malaria-figher, Artemisia spp., although it is currently being studied in clinical trials.

In locations where sanitation is questionable, avoid raw foods and unpurified water. Eat food that has been well-cooked, peel your own fruit, and make up for an ­irregular diet by taking vitamin supplements. Bottled carbonated beverages, beer, wine, and teas made with boiled water are your best bets for safe drinks—and don’t drink them over ice.

Bon Voyage

Finally, while you’re preparing your body for travel, don’t forget to pack nonherbal basics in your first-aid travel kit. Depending on your destination and length of stay, you may want to pack bandages, gauze, tape, scissors, tweezers, blister tape, a thermometer (mercury thermometers are prohibited by airlines), water purification tablets/iodine drops, aspirin, and an extra pair of eyeglasses or contact lenses. And don’t forget lip balm, sunscreen, vitamins, and insect repellent.


Erika Lenz, Herbs for Health assistant editor, fantasizes regularly about traveling abroad.

Additional reading

Chevallier, Andrew. The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants. New York: Dorling Kindersley, 1996.

Duke, James A. The Green Pharmacy. Emmaus, Penn.: Rodale, 1997.

Gagnon, Daniel. Liquid Herbal Drops in Everyday Use. Santa Fe, N.M.: Botanical Research and Education Institute, 1996.

Hobbs, Christopher. Foundations of Health. Capitola, Calif.: Botanica Press, 1992.

Hoffmann, David. The Herbal Handbook: A User’s Guide to Medical Herbalism. Rochester, Vt.: Healing Arts Press, 1987.

McCaleb, Rob. “The Herbally Aware Traveler.” Published on the Herb Research Foundation Web site at www.herbs.org.