When I worked for the New Jersey Nets, I traveled 17 days out of each month for the 2000 NBA season.
The job was great, but I felt the travel took years off my life.
I remember waking up in hotel rooms swollen. My eyes were puffy, the ring on my finger was tight and my feet were still swollen from the plane ride.
I remember looking in the mirror and saying, I think I have aged 10 years in just a few months.
I was highly motivated to figure out why this was happening to me, and how to mitigate the insidious stress of air travel.
You may be surprised to learn the many health risks associated with air travel. The good news is, I’ve compiled some effective strategies to buffer these risks. Adding just a few simple tips to your air travel routine will help lessen the impact of flying, and help you feel more vibrant during and after your trips.
If you enter a plane at sea level, the cabin quickly pressurizes to 8,000 feet above sea level. If you are flying over the Rocky Mountains, the cabin will pressurize to 10,000 feet.
I live in Colorado at 5000 feet, and when people drive to the nearby mountain towns, which average about 8000 feet above sea level, it is extremely common for them to get altitude sickness, which can be life-threatening. Even the most fit athletes who train at altitude can tell the difference when they climb to 10,000 feet.
In a plane, this altitude change happens in just a couple of minutes. Ever wonder why it is so easy to fall asleep in a plane? It is likely because the oxygen has been literally sucked out of your brain as the cabin is being pressurized.
The most instant effect of altitude shock is dehydration. Normally, the average person loses 2.5 quarts of water per day, and this rises significantly with air travel.
I remember treating an airline pilot who complained of dry skin. I thought, How bad could it be? He showed me his skin, and when he would rub it, a white cloud of dry skin would literally fall to the floor.
When the body is repeatedly subjected to such drastic altitude changes, the effects become chronic.
Chronic sub-clinical dehydration will first dry out the outer skin and then dry out the skin associated lymph beneath the skin.
When this dries out, it affects the flow of the lymphatic system, compromising its function of draining toxins and circulating white blood cells around the body for immunity.
Air Travel Survival Tools
For one to two days before you fly, make every effort to drink half your ideal body weight in ounces of water per day (for example, if you weigh 140 pounds, make an effort to drink 70 ounces of water per day). The day of the flight, sip hot water every ten minutes throughout the day. If you are really affected by air travel, you can also do this for a few days before the flight.
The Sherpas of the Himalayas ate this herb regularly to support the blood’s ability to carry oxygen more efficiently. Now, its active ingredient, called Fulvic acid, has been found by scientists to support oxygen and energy transport. Consider taking this herb around travel days. You can read more about its effects and benefits in my article, “Researchers Rediscover Longevity Herb.”
The Journal of Environmental Health Research reported that air travel increases the risk of catching a cold by 100 times because of the recycled air. The way recycled air operates, if someone in row 48 is sick and you are in first class, you might as well be sitting next to that person with them coughing on you.
So, why doesn’t everyone who travels get sick?
There are two pieces to this puzzle: exposure and susceptibility. While exposure is unavoidable, susceptibility is the piece we can do something about.
Recycled air is both dry and inefficiently purified. When the sinuses are exposed to dry air, the cilia of the respiratory tract dry out. Because they are responsible for immunity, this increases our susceptibility to infection.
I remember once I was flying to Russia to teach. After getting regular headaches during air travel, I decided to try an Ayurvedic technique called “nasya,” which involves lubricating the nasal passages with an herbalized sesame oil formula. During this flight, I snorted the “nasya” oil every hour or so to test it out.
Not only did I not get a headache, I was so focused that I was able to write on my computer nonstop for the entire 6-hour flight. I remember the little Russian women next to me commenting on how hard I was working! Prior to that flight, my headaches would have prevented me from working while flying. I was truly blown away at how good I felt.
Air Travel Survival Tools:
Sniff 5-10 drops of nasya oil into both nostrils before and during each flight. As you do so, tilt your head back and sniff the oil all the way back to make sure it lubricates the entire nasal passages.
This trusted Ayurvedic herb is known as an adaptogen to support the nervous system and immunity. This is a classic remedy for supporting frequent travelers and mitigating your risk of catching a cold during a flight.
Jet lag, medically known as desynchronosis, is defined as a temporary disruption of the body’s circadian rhythms after air travel across time zones.
In a meta-analysis of more than 500 studies, air travel showed consistent disruption of body rhythms.
Air travel can cause fatigue and lead to cognitive decline, sleep issues, and even psychotic or mood disorders. Anyone who has traveled cross country or internationally has experience some jet lag.
To get a better idea of how jet lag happens, imagine air-lifting a whale from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean in just 4 hours. Then, after a quick layover, air-lift that same whale to somewhere off the coast of China. Would you expect that whale to ever re-establish normal migration patterns? If so, how long do you think it might take?
For humans, too, this disruption of the body’s normal biological rhythms is very real.
Air Travel Survival Tools:
Considered by many to be one of the most potent adaptogens, this above-mentioned herb seems to support the body’s ability to adapt to such stress without the crippling impact.
2. Daily Ayurvedic Massage
According to Ayurveda, applying herbalized oil to the body will calm the nervous system. Every square inch of the body’s skin is innervated by sensory neurons. When the skin becomes dehydrated, these neurons may become irritated and over-stimulated. Applying oil to the skin in this way may soothe the nervous system, providing support for travel stress.
Radiation from Cosmic Rays
Radiation from space that concentrates at high altitudes is referred to as cosmic rays.
One international flight will supply a hit of radiation equivalent to one chest x-ray. If you are taking plane trips monthly, this can become an issue.
Air Travel Survival Tool:
Iodine provides natural support for radiation exposure. In one study I reported on in my article, Protect Your Breasts, research indicated that just three to six mg of iodine a day supports optimal cellular replication, a process that can be potentially compromised by radiation exposure. As iodine has once again become a common nutritional deficiency, it may be prudent for frequent travelers to add an iodine supplement and/or make seaweeds a regular addition to their diet.
Many travelers are unaware of the risk of deep vein thrombosis (DVT), or blood clots, during and shortly after air travel. One small study in New Zealand reported by The Lancet in 2003 found that one percent of travelers develop clots. With two billion travelers annually, this calculates to 20 million sufferers of DVT a year.
While there are other studies that report less, all agree that air travel presents such a risk.
The risk factors seem to be a combination of sitting still for hours in a pressurized cabin, lymph congestion, and dehydration, but it is still unclear to what extent each of these factors on their own cause clots.
Air Travel Survival Tools:
1. Get up and move regularly during long flights.
Try to get an aisle seat and stretch and move your legs often, and take trips to the bathroom even if you don’t have to go.
2. Stay hydrated.
3. Follow all of the tools discussed above to optimize lymph flow.
Some planes are louder than others, and the roar of the engines could be exceeding safe levels for your ears.
Airline cabins range from 75 decibels in the front of the plane to 85 to 100 in the back. A loud nightclub, for example, roars at about 100 decibels. The Institute for Occupational Safety and Health limits safe noise levels to 88 decibels for four hours. This suggests that there is potential risk of permanent hearing damage during frequent flights that last longer than four hours.
Air Travel Survival Tools:
1. Noise Reduction Headphones
If you are a frequent traveler, consider a set of noise reduction headphones, which reduce noise by about 40 decibels.
2. Nasya in the Ears
Put a couple of drops of nasya oil in your ears before flying. Gently rub the oil into the ear by closing the flap and massaging the ear.
Perhaps the most common complaint I hear regarding air travel is resultant constipation. Most likely, this is due to a combination of:
• Jet lag affecting our natural rhythms.
• Altitude shock: Gaining 8,000 feet of elevation in minutes may affect cellular pressure.
• Dehydration: Dehydration and breathing high-altitude recycled air for hours will pull excess water off the body through an accelerated evaporation process.
The most common cause of swelling during air travel is a congested lymphatic system. Factors that could cause lymph congestion are almost all of the items discussed above, particularly:
• Constipation dries out the lymph concentration on the outside of the gut wall.
• Altitude shock affects cellular pressure, which is responsible for lymph movement.
• Sitting still for hours may congest the lymph, as movement pumps the lymph and takes pressure off the circulatory system. Lymph congestion could be a factor in elevated rates of blood clots.
• Dehydration directly affects lymph flow.
• Jet lag adds unprecedented stress to the body, and stress is a major cause of lymph congestion.
Air Travel Survival Tools:
Triphala is a natural bowel toner that supports regular bowel movements. It can be used for short periods of time around travels without dependency.
Manjistha supports lymphatic flow.
3. Follow dehydration and altitude shock tips, above.
While travel has become a way of life for many of us, if you travel a lot it is a good idea to be aware of some of the possible risks. Please use these Air Travel Survival Tools to help offset such travel stress.
PMID: 21057984 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]
Intern Emerg Med. 2011 Apr;6(2):113-6. Epub 2010 Nov 6.
Ed: Kate B.