If you’re traveling and managing a busier schedule during the upcoming cold and flu season, getting sick may feel inevitable. While holidays and end of year events crowd the calendar, this could mean you’re constantly:
- Changing your sleep, live, and working environments
- Adjusting/forgoing your daily healthy routines and eating habits
- In physical contact with far more objects that many others have touched
While we have a few tried and true routines that help us protect against a cold in the home or office, it’s less common to have such protection during travel, which can be even more hazardous to your immune system.
Falling ill have to be your fate! Here are a few best practices and precautions you can work into your travel plans that may be able to help you dodge the sniffles that can drag you down.
10 Ways to Protect Your Immunity While Traveling
1. Practice good hand washing hygiene.
Hand washing after touching surfaces may be the most powerful immunity booster that you can easily incorporate. Common touch points while traveling include:
- Bins at TSA (people’s shoes go in there…)
- Armrests while waiting in the terminal
- The hand rail on a moving sidewalk
- Anything on the airplane seat including tray table, buttons, touch screens, overhead bins
- Gas station pumps, credit card touch screens and buttons.
Pro tip: Using hand sanitizer is not a substitute for washing your hands; hand sanitizer has been shown to be less effective than soap and water. However, carrying sanitizer can be useful in situations where hand washing is not an option.
2. Clean all your devices regularly.
Your phone, laptop, tablet, cameras, e-reader, gaming consoles, headphones, and any other electronic devices you use regularly will come in contact with other contaminated surfaces such as TSA bins and belts, seats and countertops.
Get in the habit of cleaning your device – front and back – with an alcohol-based wipe.
Pro tip: Try to wash your hands after using your phone, especially if you’re going to eat a meal or snack.
3. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
Germs have to find a way inside before they can start wreaking havoc on the body. We touch such openings on our faces many times per day, so what we do with our hands significantly impacts our immunity.
Pro tip: Simply being mindful of which hands are doing what can help you lessen your chance of picking up germs between hand washings and device cleanings. One option is to assign one hand for doing everyday tasks (i.e. opening doors, giving high fives, pushing elevator buttons, putting change in the parking meter). This leaves the other for the personal side of things, like the unconscious nose scratch or eye rub.
4. Skip the sugar and processed foods/drinks found in terminal kiosks and roadside stores.
It’s tempting to opt for convenience by grabbing crackers, muffins, or other packaged products you can eat on the go. Unfortunately, these items typically contain high amounts of processed sugar.
Sugar, most popularly known to lead to insulin resistance, weight gain in the body, and contribute to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, also results in inflammation.
WellnessFX practitioners Karen Graham and Dr. Ross Pelton both warn that a moderate dose of sugar suppresses the immune system for 5 to 6 hours, lowering the body’s ability to fight infection.
5. Commit to incorporating fresh, whole foods at mealtimes.
It’s highly recommended to get your micronutrients from eating whole, fresh foods, because of the greater nutritional value, fiber, and phytochemicals, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Micronutrient-dense foods support your immune system, because they contain important vitamins and minerals, such as:
- Magnesium, which plays an important role in mitochondrial function. Involved in many biochemical reactions in the body, helping maintain normal heart rhythm, immune system, and muscle function. Low magnesium levels are linked with a variety of conditions, including hypertension, heart disease, osteoporosis, and poorly controlled diabetes. Foods that contain magnesium are dark, leafy greens like spinach and swiss chard, nuts and seeds, mackerel, and lima beans.
- Vitamin D, which controls the expression of over 1,000 genes in the body, and is linked to cardiovascular disease, cancer, and immune system problems. Foods that have this fat-soluble vitamin include eggs, fatty fish such as sockeye salmon, mackerel, and sardines, and fortified dairy, such as milk and yogurt.
- Vitamin A is a nutrient important to vision, growth, cell division, reproduction and immunity. It can be found in foods like spinach, carrots, and cantaloupe.
- Vitamin C, which is needed by the body to form collagen in bones, cartilage, muscle, and blood vessels. Foods that have the highest amount of vitamin C are bell peppers, guavas, dark and leafy green vegetables, kiwi, and broccoli, to name a few.
- Zinc, which has antioxidant properties and plays an essential role in the immune system. It also helps regulate appetite, stress level, and sense of taste and smell. Foods high in zinc include beef and lamb, liver, spinach, pumpkin and squash seeds, pork, and chicken.
Eating fiber – found in fruits and vegetables like the ones listed above – keeps digestion moving.
6. Prioritize sleep.
Make a concerted effort to use rest as a primary defense tactic against colds.
Power down pre-bedtime by limiting your phone/laptop/TV/social media use, to prepare your body for sleep. Factor sleep into your schedule and don’t be afraid to bow out of activities just a little earlier to get much-needed slumber.
Pro Tip: If you’re tired all the time or suffering from poor quality sleep, check out 4 reasons that could explain why.
7. Limit alcohol intake
There are a few reasons limiting alcohol intake can help your immune system.
- The average holiday cocktail with juices and mixers is high in sugar. We know from above (Tip 4!) that sugar suppresses the immune system 5-6 hours.
- Alcohol lacks the micronutrients that make your immune system strong and can have adverse immune-related health effects. Susceptibility to pneumonia is one of them among the list.
- Alcohol disrupts sleep. Negatively impacting the quality of your sleep will prevent much needed rest your body needs to defend against colds.
- Alcohol is dehydrating. Don’t prevent your body from getting the fluids it needs for healthy organ function and digestion.
Pro tip: Swap out a beer or two for sparkling water and lime, bring a case of your favorite flavored seltzer to the potluck, or even ask the bartender to turn a favorite cocktail on the menu into a mocktail, sans alcohol.
8. Manage your stress. Seriously.
Cortisol is commonly referred to as the “stress hormone.”
While a little spike of cortisol is good – and natural – in response to short-term stressors, it starts to become a problem when the body starts making too much, too often, including a lower immune response.
Getting adequate sleep and avoid caffeinated products can help lower cortisol levels. You can work to further decrease any holiday stressors, and increase relaxation, with practices such as meditation in the morning, when cortisol levels are highest.
Don’t underestimate the power of a moment alone. Taking 10 minutes to yourself can help hit the “reset” on all the troubles of the day. Check out 6 Ways Busy People Who Have No Time Can Unwind & Relax.
9. Walk or fit in exercise where you can.
WellnessFX Medical Director, Dr. Khaleghi, details in his book The Everything Guide to Boosting Your Immunity that “the single most effective thing you can do for your immune system is engage in various types of regular exercise. This stimulates expression of various immune factors and can substantially decrease your risk of all types of infections.”
Every little bit helps, whether it’s an outdoor hike or walking laps around the terminal during a flight delay.
Pro tip: Short on time? In some ways, short, intense workouts can be more beneficial than longer ones. High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), for example, is a strategy of alternating high-intensity with low-intensity.
A 10 to 20-minute workout can feel as taxing as a whole hour – and as beneficial, too. The short, intense workouts of HIIT provide improved athletic capacity and condition, improved glucose metabolism, and improved fat burning.
10. Consider supplementing probiotics
Probiotics are the beneficial bacteria that exist naturally in your gut – the live bacteria and yeasts aka “the good” microorganisms.
Dr. Khaleghi also mentions in his book that “the supplement gaining the most popularity for increasing your immune defense is probiotics, which is increasingly supported in the literature and people’s experiences. These bacteria stimulate the lymphoid (immune tissue) in your gut, where actually a majority of this immune tissue resides in your body.”
From our friends at Onegevity, “Since probiotic health benefits are strain-specific, and not all strains are necessarily useful you may want to consult a practitioner familiar with probiotics to discuss your options and to be sure supplementing is right for you.”
Some common strains of probiotics associated with gut health include:
- Lactobacillus acidophilus: The most well known probiotic and one of the most important for the health of the small intestine. Acidophilus inhibits pathogens, and produces such natural antibiotics as lactocidin and acidophilin, which enhance immunity.
- Bifidobacteria bifidum: Prevents pathogenic bacteria and yeast from invading. In addition, this species increase absorption of iron, calcium, magnesium and zinc.
- Streptococcus thermophilus: Used to make yogurt. Breaking down lactose to create lactase, the enzyme that digests milk sugars, this species can help with lactose intolerance. Other Streptococcus strains: Cremoris, faecium and infantis.
- Enterococcus faecium: Has shown in studies to be helpful for diarrhea, shortening duration of symptoms. It kills pathogenic microbes, such as rotavirus. Studies have also shown this strain to lower LDL or bad cholesterol. This organism is very resistant to antibiotics.
For more on gut health, check out 4 Steps to a Healthier Gut, and Why It’s So Important.
Bonus Tip: Drink water water water.
“Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water (you want very light colored urine),” says WellnessFX Practitioner, Lori Brizee MS, RD, LD. Water consumption is an important part of overall health – your body depends on it. It’s instrumental in healthy organ function, naturally improves digestion to help break down foods, and softens stools, which helps prevent constipation. You do not want to be constipated while traveling (or any other time, if we’re being real).
Pro Tip: Invest in a reusable water bottle (BPA-free plastic or glass). You can fill up after you get through security, and then you can take it with you wherever you go – at coffee shops, restaurants, when at your relatives’ house.
It may take a moment to pick up the habit, but what you’re doing is creating the opportunity to drink more water. If you don’t create it, it doesn’t exist. Read here for more tips and tricks to help you drink more water.
How WellnessFX Can Help
Regular blood screening is crucial for understanding your hormones, tracking progress, and measuring your associated risk, to hopefully stop a problem before it becomes a problem. Some markers of immunity you can track include your:
- White blood cell count
- hs-CRP, a marker of inflammation (which impairs the immune system)
- Vitamin D, a core regulator of the immune system
- Micronutrients, such as Folate, Magnesium, and B12.
Once you have the information, you can make educated, informed choices that fit your body’s specific and unique needs, from nutrition and lifestyle changes to hormone and risk monitoring.
The posts on this blog are for information only, and are not intended to substitute for a doctor-patient or other healthcare professional-patient relationship nor do they constitute medical or healthcare advice of any kind. Any information in these posts should not be acted upon without consideration of primary source material and professional input from one's own healthcare professionals.