by Dr. Bill Rawls
Updated 12/14/18

Tis the season for travel, and this year is looking particularly hectic. If Christmas is anything like Thanksgiving — when an estimated 54 million Americans took to the roads and skies — many of us are in for wild ride.

It’s worth the trek to connect with family and friends, but travel can also be stressful and even hazardous, especially for individuals dealing with a chronic illness like Lyme disease and fibromyalgia. It can precipitate relapses and cause significant setbacks.

To help you mitigate common stress factors and reduce your risk of relapse so that you can enjoy the holiday fully, we’ve pulled together our best advice for navigating the four primary modes of modern travel — planes, trains, automobiles, and ships. We’ve also included tips for making healthy food choices, supplement and herbs that can keep your body strong, and a list essential items for a traveler’s first aid kit to help you be prepared wherever you’re headed!

If you’re traveling by plane

Air travel is the fastest and possibly the safest mode of travel. But the hustle and bustle of getting to the airport, congested waiting lines, security, and last-minute altered schedules can heighten stress hormones even before you get on the plane. Once you’re on board, altitude changes, toxins in cabin air, increased radiation from the sun and space, noise, and exposure to microbes can place an extra burden on your body. To decrease the taxing travel experience, consider the following tips for a smoother flight:

  • Try to plan daytime flights whenever possible. Early morning and evening flights can disrupt your sleep cycles.
  • Plan plenty of time between connecting flights to avoid having to rush from one point to another. Sitting in the airport for an extra hour or two with a good book is much more relaxing than racing through it to get to your next gate before the doors close.
  • If it’s an extended journey, plan an extra day to get to your destination and another one coming home. This takes the pressure off if you encounter delays and cancellations.
  • Pack light and, if possible, avoid checking bags. This will allow you to go directly to your gate and might help you avoid some of the long lines.
  • Be sure to obtain your boarding passes online the night before flying. It’s another easy way to avoid lines.
  • Herbs like ashwagandha, l-theanine, and passion flower can help control stress hormone elevations associated with air travel. Take them an hour before the flight.
  • To make the security process as smooth as possible, have the necessary items ready for airport screeners. Even better, register for TSA PreCheck for less wait time and less hassle. It also allows you to avoid being x-rayed.
  • While waiting to board, find a quiet corner of the airport to conserve your energy and avoid crowds as much as possible.
  • If you aren’t sure what types of food will be available in the airport, bring your own food.
  • If you get airsick easily, take an over-the-counter medication before the flight.
  • Wear a mask if your health is very vulnerable. Commercial airplanes are well-known for bad air. Toxins from the engine, along with germs from the guy coughing four rows back, are circulated throughout the entire cabin.
  • If you are a flight attendant, pilot, or fly frequently, learn about aerotoxic syndrome and how you can protect yourself.

If you’re traveling by car

Automobiles are a slightly less stressful mode of transportation because you can set your own your pace, and having some measure of control over your schedule reduces anxiety. Being able to stop frequently and choosing the best routes for your trip are two primary advantages of traveling by car. Driving can also be much more affordable, and it allows you to pack more of what you might need (without paying extra baggage fees).

The biggest disadvantage? Time. Being cooped up inside a car is uncomfortable, and automobile travel takes seven to 10 times longer than air travel. For a long trip, air travel often wins out for both cost and stress reduction. However, there are perfectly good reasons to choose to drive rather than fly, and the following tips can make driving less stressful and more comfortable for you.

  • Pace the trip, and stop frequently. To reduce pain and stiffness, get out and stretch your legs at rest stops every hour or two.
  • If possible, have a partner along and rotate driving.
  • Do most of your driving early in the day, and try to be somewhere comfortable to relax by the afternoon — avoid driving at night.
  • Don’t drive if you are sleepy.
  • Interstate highways are safer and will get you to your destination quicker, but it doesn’t mean you have to drive 10-15 mph over the speed limit like everyone else. A slower speed and maintaining plenty of distance between you and the car in front of you makes for safer and more relaxed driving.
  • Avoid road rage. If you’re in a state of anger, it’s probably best to forgo driving until you feel more at ease.
  • Listening to music intermittently is okay, but continual music may begin to irritate your brain after a while. You might also consider trying audiobooks, which are a great way to pass the time pleasurably (unless it’s a Stephen King novel — it’s wise to steer clear of suspense and thriller stories for now).

If you’re traveling by train

Train travel can be more comfortable than car or plane because of the ability to move about. This is especially true if you reserve a sleeper car. The motion of a train, however, can be very uncomfortable for individuals with chronic illness of any sort. Additionally, sleep can be a challenge on a train because of the constant irregular motion.

Possibly the biggest disadvantage of train travel in America is time. A long trip can take two to three times longer than travel by car. But if you genuinely enjoy the nostalgia of train travel, it can be a great way to get somewhere. Keep the following tips in mind to make the trip stress-free.

  • Spending extra for a sleeper car is worth the money if the trip is longer than a day.
  • Trains can be more likely to induce motion sickness than automobile and plane travel. Take something before and during the trip if you are susceptible.
  • Sedatives, either natural or pharmaceutical, may be necessary for sleep.
  • Get up every one to two hours to stretch your legs and lessen stiffness.

If you’re traveling by ship

When someone chooses to travel by ship, it’s usually as a vacation cruise. Otherwise, ship travel is the least common way for people to get from point A to point B. The greatest perils associated with ship travel include motion sickness (but it’s rare on large ships and tends to strike only if the sea is very rough), overeating, contaminated food, and exposure to infectious microbes from other guests. The best advice for avoiding setbacks associated with ship travel is choosing another form of travel or an alternative vacation.

General tips for stress-free travel

Once you’ve decided on your mode of transportation, then it’s time to prepare for other concerns like ensuring healthy eating, maintaining your sleep schedule, remaining active, and taking your supplements and herbal therapies. These strategies can help.

  • Learn a basic yoga routine and practice it on the trip or in the airport. You may find that others join in, and some major U.S. airports even have dedicated yoga rooms, including:
    • San Francisco International Airport
    • Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport
    • Chicago O’Hare International Airport
    • Chicago Midway Airport
    • Burlington International Airport (Vermont)
    • JFK Airport (New York City)
    • Miami International Airport
    • Sioux Falls Regional Airport (South Dakota)
    • Denver International Airport

Make (or purchase) simple flash cards to remind you of poses. Plus, yoga classes are almost everywhere, so take advantage of them to move your body whenever possible.

  • Airplanes are great places to practice breathing or relaxation exercises. Use your smartphone to listen to guided imagery or relaxing music during the flight.
  • Create a home-like atmosphere wherever you are; stress is lessened by familiarity.
  • Avoid crowds. Being crowded is stressful and increases the risk of infections.
  • Stay in one place. It generally takes a day or two to acclimate to new surroundings. This is especially true of sleep. If possible, stay in one location once you arrive at your destination.
  • Walk in open air whenever possible, especially forests and beaches.

Smart herbal and supplemental support

When scheduling a big trip with a chronic illness, it can be easy to forget about details, such as the supplements and herbs you should pack just in case your body goes haywire. Sleep, energy, mood, and immune function are four areas to consider when making travel plans, and the following supplements and herbs can help you on all four fronts:

  • For stress support: A combination of herbs like ashwagandha, Chinese tree bark, and l-theanine can balance and restore your body in the face of stress.
  • For calm: If you’re anxious about taking a trip, herbs such as bacopa, passion flower, and motherwort have sedative properties; they can enhance sleep and induce feelings of calm.
  • For antimicrobial support: To defend against foreign pathogens, herbs like andrographis, berberine, cat’s claw, Japanese knotweed, garlic, and sarsaparilla have antimicrobial activity against bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa. A daily dose of these herbs may save you a trip to the infirmary for treatment of traveler’s diarrhea.
  • For microbiome balance: A daily dose of gut-balancing herbs like slippery elm bark, berberine, and dandelion can help stabilize your microbiome and promote healthy gut function while you’re on the go.
  • Essential oils: Lavender and frankincense essential oils can be used to calm your nervous system during travel. Also, these essential oils may offer some antimicrobial protection.

How to eat when you’re away from home

Food is often the centerpiece of experiencing new places and cultures, but food prepared anywhere other than your own kitchen has the potential to be threatening. This is especially true when traveling in a foreign country. Of course, opportunistic stealth microbes are present in every environment, but if you pick up a stealth microbe that is very foreign to you, it can become a part of your microbiome and make you miserable for a very long time!

Travel in developed countries is generally no more threatening than traveling in the US. Less developed or third-world countries, however, can be much more perilous. Contaminated food and water, lack of adequate sanitation, and exposure to new and foreign microbes can quickly bring a trip or vacation to an unpleasant halt.

No matter where you go, being mindful about your food choices is an important way to minimize exposure to new stealth microbes. Smart ways to eat when you’re traveling, and especially if you’re visiting a third-world country, include:

  • Bring food with you. Purchase a soft-sided cooler to transport items that might spoil.
  • Make a visit to a health-food or grocery store when you arrive at your final destination. Stock up on simple foods that keep well, such as hummus and cut vegetables, smoked salmon, nuts, and dried fruit.
  • When eating out, choose restaurants with healthful menus. Fortunately today, you can check out the menu online before you set foot in the door.
  • Avoid or minimize alcohol and caffeine.
  • Eat only foods that have been freshly prepared; avoid those that have been sitting out.
  • Eat only cooked foods; avoid salads or fruits (unless they can be peeled).
  • Drink only bottled beverages or filtered water.
  • Indulge in foreign foods carefully.
  • Avoid eating late in the evening.
  • Avoid overeating to minimize digestive upset.

Tips to sleep soundly

Travel of any sort can disrupt sleep. The motion of travel in a vehicle, being cooped up for long periods of time, and not being physically active all increase adrenaline and cortisol during the day, which generally translates into poor sleep at night. Sleep disruption is further compounded by sleeping in unfamiliar places. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to ensure a better night’s sleep.

  • Try to plan your travel such that you arrive at your destination by afternoon or early evening. Take a walk to wind down. Relax and get used to your new surroundings.
  • Your brain stays in alert mode for the first night at any new location. If you travel a lot or will be staying at different locations, try and stay in similar hotels or hotels of the same chain — it will help ease your brain with surroundings that seem more familiar.
  • Online home or apartment rentals can sometimes work out well, especially for extended stays. But as much as possible, find out what you’re getting ahead of time. Unfamiliar smells, surroundings, and noises can turn a vacation into a nightmare.
  • If you have a bedtime ritual that you follow at home, try to keep it intact. Go to bed at the same time each evening, even if you crossed time zones. Rise with the sun in the morning.
  • If you’re traveling across time zones, magnesium glycinate and tart cherry extract are must-have supplements for promoting quality sleep. Take 400-800 mg of magnesium and 480-960 mg of tart cherry extract at least an hour before bedtime.
  • Get a device that generates white noise to drown out unfamiliar noise and promote restful sleep through the night. You can buy a white noise generator or download a program on your smartphone.
  • The same calming herbs you take for stress during travel (bacopa, passion flower, motherwort) can also be taken again before bedtime to help you wind down and bring on sleep.

Stock your first aid kit

Depending on where you’re going, it might be wise to bring along some essential items to create a travel first aid kit. Here are some ideas of what to pack, in case you won’t have immediate access to a doctor, clinic, or health supplies:

  • Bandaids
  • 4 x 4 gauze
  • Waterproof tape
  • Full-spectrum CBD rub (for sore muscles)
  • Full-spectrum CBD oil (for pain)
  • Tweezers and scissors
  • Moleskin (for blisters)
  • Ace wrap
  • Cortisone cream
  • Triple antibiotic ointment
  • Latex or vinyl gloves
  • Povidone iodine solution (for cleansing wounds)
  • Steristrips (for simple wound closure)
  • Anesthetic gel or spray
  • Burn cream
  • Pepto Bismol (for indigestion and/or traveler’s diarrhea)
  • Imodium (for traveler’s diarrhea)
  • Benadryl (antihistamine for allergies or a sedative)
  • Dramamine (for motion sickness)
  • Natural laxatives
  • Sunscreen

One last note

Being prepared for travel is always worth the effort. By following a few simple guidelines and packing wisely with the right supplements, first aid needs, and other necessities, you can better protect your body from the rigors of travel. Most importantly, you’ll feel rested and ready to focus on the joy of seeing the world and spending time with loved ones.

Dr. Rawls is a physician who overcame Lyme disease through natural herbal therapy. You can learn more about Lyme disease in Dr. Rawls’ new best selling book, Unlocking Lyme.
You can also learn about Dr. Rawls’ personal journey in overcoming Lyme disease and fibromyalgia in his popular blog post, My Chronic Lyme Journey.

REFERENCES 1. Garg K, Meriläinen L, Franz O, et al. Evaluating polymicrobial immune responses in patients suffering from tick-borne diseases. Scientific Reports. 2018 Oct 29; 8(1): 15932. doi: 10.1038/s41598-018-34393-9