Stress and sickness shouldn’t be part of your “reason for the season.” From home to your destination, you can bring some healthy travel habits with you during this busy time of year.
By Bevin Clare
When we think about holiday travel, it may seem like there are more reasons to stay home than to have an adventure. For many of us, the potential stress and possibility of getting sick during a time of year when we want to celebrate can give us pause in our planning. Don’t despair — the joys and excitement of holiday travel outweigh the negatives! While we can’t do much about the challenges of family dynamics or the busyness of airports and train stations, there are many things we can do to keep ourselves steady, thriving, and healthy while traveling during the busiest weeks of the year.
Photo by Queren King-Orozco
There are two main reasons we tend to fall under the weather when we travel during the holidays. The first is the impact of cumulative and ongoing stress. Where do we see this? While there’s often a lot of joy and fun this time of year, it can be accompanied with an increase in sugar and alcohol, a change in schedule with more late nights, and increased personal interactions, especially if your holidays include family visits. The holidays can also create complex feelings for people who have mixed associations with the season, or those who find the financial aspects of gift-giving overwhelming. If you add travel on top of this, you’re looking at a reasonably high amount of holiday stress, even if everything goes perfectly.
The second reason for sickness is exposure to a greater variety of pathogens. It doesn’t take a science degree to know that sitting in close proximity to a large number of people and breathing recycled air for a long period of time can increase chances of exposure to organisms and pathogens. Our immune systems are readily prepared to deal with them, and general exposure for healthy individuals typically isn’t a problem. On an airplane, however, we might be exposed to something in greater concentration and for a longer duration, which can increase susceptibility. In a 2007 paper, one research group found that, on average, about 40 percent of airline passengers carried a pathogen after their flights. The majority of discovered pathogens were viral, and the most common were influenza and parainfluenza, followed by adenoviruses. Although this number is concerning, it’s worth noting that while 40 percent of these individuals were carriers, this study doesn't indicate that they became ill, as being an asymptomatic carrier isn't uncommon with respiratory infections.
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Another study emphasized how likely you are to get sick based on your proximity to someone who is ill with a viral pathogen. A 2018 study found that one of the most important factors in staying well during air travel is the passengers sitting closest to you. If you’re sitting in front of or behind a passenger who’s ill, you can have up to an 80 percent chance of acquiring their virus. But once you’re at least three rows away, the likelihood drops dramatically.
Stress and exposure to pathogens are interrelated, as stress creates a greater susceptibility to them. Their relationship creates the perfect storm for illness. If you haven’t been sick yourself during a holiday season, I’m sure you’re familiar with many who have been, and the impact this had on their families and their travel plans.
Fortunately, there are ways to combat sickness amid your busy holiday plans. Staying healthy while traveling begins at the start of the holiday season as well as the times you find yourself wearing down. Of course, within these moments there are indulgences that are part of the holiday fun, so it’s important to make merry while thoughtfully pacing yourself. Supporting yourself around the holidays in preparation for travel is about economizing energy and being intentional with your health resources.
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So, it’s time for your trip, and you’re ready to go. Often, travel days involve early mornings or late nights and a lot of rushing around — and alternately, waiting around. When you’re on the road, there are two areas of health you’ll want to focus on: The first is your internal health, and the second is limiting your exposure to pathogens in your environment.
Here are some tips and tricks to create an optimal internal environment, and to stay as balanced as possible before and on the days of travel:
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Photo by Stocksy/Daring Wanderer
During both your active travel days and those spent at your destination, you can adopt some practices to help maintain your holiday health. Here are some favorite ideas and strategies for both staying well and minimizing the accumulating holiday stress burden that may bring you down during your traveling time:
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Even when you take the time to practice as many thoughtful behaviors and precautions as possible, things can go wrong and you can end up sick on your holiday. When this happens, the most important thing is to take a break if you can, and to support your body and its own healing processes. If you take a day to convalesce, curl up in bed and sleep, hydrate, and eat nourishing foods (such as soups), you might find you are ready to go the next day. If you do get sick, see if you can obtain some garlicky food, and be ready with larger doses of your elderberry and echinacea.
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Above all, keep a sense of humor and adventure about your travels. It’s easy to feel that travel these days is too mundane, but there’s always an adventure to be had, always something new to discover, and even those disastrous inconveniences can create new opportunities. As a seasoned traveler, my rule of thumb is if it’s not something I can change, the best thing I can do is change my expectations, reframe the situation, and try to have a little bit of fun! After all, memories can be made in all sorts of ways.
Bevin Clare is a clinical herbalist, nutritionist, mother, plant lover, and a professor at the Maryland University of Integrative Health. She is also a board member of United Plant Savers, a group working to protect at-risk medicinal plants in North America, and the president of the American Herbalists Guild.
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