Travel is a beautiful experience. Seeing new parts of the world, visiting friends and family, experiencing new cultures; there is so much to gain from travel. When travelling by air, sea, or land you are exposed to many new sights, foods, people, and places, and this can pose health risks, such as:
- Food-borne illnesses,
- Traveller’s diarrhea, and
- Airborne illnesses
I will touch on these three routes of infection, the health tips you can take as precautions, and the tools you can use to prepare your immunity and body while travelling abroad.
We can’t always control the microbes that surround us, so it’s best to be prepared for travel and armed with an arsenal of natural immune boosters. As a digestive-health focused naturopathic doctor, I see patients who have severe gastrointestinal distress related to recent (or not) travel. There are some diagnosable conditions, such as post-infectious IBS, and bacterial dysbiosis that I work with, which are related to travel and microbial exposure.
After exposure to a variety of new (to you) bacteria, parasites or viruses the gastrointestinal system is afflicted with symptoms of:
- Loose/soft stools
- Undigested foods
Here are my top recommendations to prep your body for travel related illnesses, especially those affecting the gastrointestinal system.
- Shelf stable multistrain probiotic capsules
- Activated charcoal
- Liquid anti-microbial herbs such as goldenseal, pau d’arco, oregon grape, or echinacea
- Saccromyces boulardii capsules
- Vitamin C powder packets
- Cod liver oil capsules
- Hand washing and hygiene – travel soap, water purification products, hand sanitizer.
1. Food-borne Illness
Food-borne illnesses, or “Food poisoning”, are a major cause of concern. Food that is undercooked, spoiled or ill-prepared might be contaminated with pathogenic bacteria, such as E.coli, Salmonella spp., Listeria spp. Pathogenic bacteria make toxins that cause a lot of distress and inflammation to the digestive system and cause severe episodes of vomiting and diarrhea.
Although the symptoms are unpleasant, it is best to let food poisoning run its course. However unpleasant, this is your body’s way of eliminating (purging) the bacterial toxins which are causing the major distress. Avoid using medications such as imodium as this will actually keep the bacteria within the GI tract and allow further damage. An antibiotic may be needed in some cases.
- Multistrain probiotic (shelf stable)
- Hand washing and hygiene
- Avoid raw, undercooked foods, and/or rare meats
- Activated charcoal
- Anti-microbial herbs
A probiotic high in bifidobacterium and lactobacillus strains should be started 2-3 weeks before travel, and continued throughout the duration of travel. Probiotics supply “good” bacteria into the intestines, and improve intestinal immunity making your intestines more resilient to foreign invaders. Additionally, after the episode of food poisoning, probiotics help to reduce any lingering symptoms of diarrhea, or nausea.
Hand washing and hygiene
This is imperative to safe travel. Cultural variations in hygiene practises are common. In some countries handwashing is not mandatory to employees, and in some cases clean running water access is very limited. These factors increase likelihood of exposure and, unfortunately, may not been avoidable. Only consume food from establishments that you can trust are using safe hygiene practises, even if that means a few more dollars for the meal. Bring snacks from home, such as protein bars, energy or granola bars, dehydrated fruits or vegetable snacks, or even in some cases water purification tablets or products may be necessary.
Always be sure to wash your own hands thoroughly before each meal, and before touching mouth, nose, eyes or open wounds.
Consuming only well cooked foods, and avoiding raw fruits and vegetables and/or rare meats, is also a good idea to help reduce your exposure to pathogenic bacteria.
Activated charcoal powder binds up organisms in the gastrointestinal tract assisting in elimination. This is a good intervention to be used for a short term only, as charcoal does not discriminate between the good, and the bad substances; it can bind up good substances such as minerals, medications, good flora/bacteria and vitamins. Only use activated charcoal away from medications, foods, and supplements, for safe consumption.
Anti-microbial herbs can be used during and after food-borne illnesses to help the body recover and to reduce any further effect from lingering bacteria, parasites, or microbes in the gastrointestinal tract. Some examples are pau d’arco, goldenseal, and artemisia. These plants should NEVER be taken long term or in high doses as they can be toxic. Do not use with children without speaking to a health professional, such as a naturopath or nutritionist.
A common concern for travellers.Traveller’s diarrhea occurs because the body is exposed to many new bacteria and viruses than what you are used to in your home environment. Warmer climates are particularly concerning as they have a more ideal climate for microbial growth (than colder/arctic climates). Bacteria, fungi, and viruses can all cause problems for travellers, and symptoms can be bloating, gas, diarrhea, abdominal pain and fatigue.
- Saccromyces boulardii
- Travellers probiotics – shelf stable
S. boulardii is a microbial organism that has received much research attention for its positive results for traveller’s diarrhea. This is a yeast that increases intestinal immunity. This means that saccromyces helps to get your immune system primed for fighting the new microbes you can anticipate in a new area of the world. It helps reduce diarrhea and shortens duration of sickness.
Traveller’s Probiotics – Shelf Stable
Taking a probiotic before and during travel reduces the likelihood of traveller’s diarrea, espeically in combination with S. Boulardii (above). You should plan to take a shelf-stable probiotic with you, so that the bacterial content of the capsules (or powder) does not degrade without refrigeration, as some hotels, and accomodations may not have access to refrigeration. Plan to start taking the supplement at least 2 weeks before travel, and throughout the entire trip.
Some airborne illness cause gastrointestinal concerns too. Most commonly, colds, influenza, pertussis (whooping cough), Legionnaire’s disease, and tuberculosis. Additionally, measles, diptheria, meningitis are airborne diseases, but do not often affect the gastrointestinal system. We cannot control our environment, but we can be prepared.
Crowded places, endemic regions, planes and cruise ships increase chances of exposure to airborne illnesses, as you are in close proximity to your neighbours; people from all over the world.
- Cod liver capsules
- Probiotics – Traveller’s – shelf stable
- Vitamin C powder packs
- Anti-microbial herbal tincture
Cod liver oil capsules
Cod liver oil contains vitamin A and vitamin D, both of which are essential for the function of our immune system. Cod liver oil is a great source of vitamin D from food. The other way to get vitamin D is sunlight, but here’s the thing: sunlight depresses immunity (short term). So plan on boosting your immune system before heading into the tropics, for better immunity. Starting a routine of cod liver oil before travel can be very helpful for ensuring your immune system is primed and healthy. Capsules are a convenient way to consume cod liver oil while on the go, but liquids may be more cost effective. It’s best to keep cod liver oil refrigerated.
Probiotics – see above
Vitamin C Powder Packets
Most companies are making vitamin C powder packs in 1000mg per pack, which can conveniently be added to water, and consumed throughout the day, or all at once, if needed. Taking 1000mg is quite safe and is a known immune stimulator. Remember to ensure water is safe for drinking before adding your powder. Take vitamin C on a long term basis is safe. During travel or illness, take at least one pack per day, but up to three is best.
Most common colds and flu are caused by viruses. Viruses replicate quickly, and are sneaky bugs. We want to help our immune system fight, so adding an anti-microbial plant based product is a good way to speed up the recovery and reduce symptoms. Remember that in some cases an antibiotic may be indicated, in which case you would need to stop taking anti-microbial herbal remedies.
Stay Gut Healthy With These Travel Savvy Tips!
By preparing in advance, we can equip our immune system and digestive system with the tools required to stave off illness. Plus, we can pack our luggage with effective solutions to the most common travel bugs, should we have the unfortunate experience of becoming ill while travelling. Wishing you safe and happy travels!
Important note: If you experience extreme symptoms or a worsening of symptoms like a bloody cough, rashes, or fever you should always see a medical professional as you may have contracted a serious disease that requires treatment (antibiotics in some cases). If you are elderly, immunocompromised, or travelling with the very young it is a good idea to visit a travel medical clinic to be advised about your risks, and to get medications needed for endemic regions.