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10 Ways to Stay Healthy During Holiday Travel

According to AAA, nearly 100 million Americans [1] will be traveling during what they call the “year-end holiday season” (Dec. 23-Jan. 4). On the positive side, this means possibly spending quality time with family and friends [2], experiencing new destinations or enjoying a break from the routine of work and (at least some) domestic duties. On the other hand, it can mean a lot of sedentary time [3], roadside food, poor sleep, collective stress and airport crowds (with their accompanying germs). When the hoopla ends, some of us will greet the New Year relatively unscathed with little more than mild fatigue and gratitude [4] for some peace and quiet. Others, however, will succumb to the added pressures on physical and mental health and spend a portion of their travel time (or what was supposed to be travel time) nursing an illness. It’s little wonder, given the holidays offer the perfect set-up with their intersection of extra-everything when we probably do better with less of, well, just about all of it. It’s a practical Primal question: how can we keep ourselves healthy (and sane) when the best intentions of the season turn on us?

Those of you who have been sick during or following holiday travel likely understand the logic of it all. There’s the massive build-up of energy that goes into covering all the bases at work before time off as well as the trip prep itself (not a small feat – particularly with small children). There’s the stress of financial outlay and/or logistical upheaval. Just this build-up itself can result in lowered immunity, causing what one expert calls “leisure sickness [5]” or the propensity to get sick during the times we worked so hard for in hopes of rest and relaxation [6]. That’s right – the clinical manifestation of Murphy’s Law, if you will.

If we tend to go treat life like a 5-alarm fire [7], the body will interpret danger and stay on alert, running down reserves to maintain a heightened state of caution. When we finally let down our defenses, however, it’s another story. The body senses the danger has passed, and we pay the toll for our overzealous mental vigilance and physical expenditure. In other words, we’re down for the count just as the holiday celebrations are underway.

Even if we begin our travel with some decent energy and are able to get beyond those critical first few days, the conditions aren’t always in our favor moving forward. Maybe the sleeping conditions [8] at the in-laws’ leave something to be desired. The food situation on the road and at the destination is about as un-Primal as it gets [9]. The agenda leaves little time for quiet, the full house little chance for solitude [10].

Whether your travels take you to extended family or to a holiday getaway, here are some Primal strategies to enjoy your time (and the trip home) with health intact.

Build up your defenses.

The cliche holds: your best offense if a good defense. You may not have much control over circumstances where you’re going, but you can start your trip in good shape by being well-rested for the couple of weeks prior as well as well-nourished with nutrient-dense Primal fare [11]. Be sure you’re getting extra good doses of vitamin D [12], a key factor in immune function, and probiotic [13] in the weeks prior to leaving. Some people I know take it a step further by bumping up their vitamin C and bone broth [14] and taking zinc [15], elderberry and/or echinacea for a few days before traveling.

Take extra precautions with air travel.

Research appears to confirm a suspicion many of us harbor: we’re more likely to get sick following air travel. One study estimates a rate of 20% more likely in fact (PDF [16]). It’s more than the close quarters, however.

Surfaces, as always, are the main source. Our phones and steering wheels likely carry more germs than we’d ever like to know, but airplanes are particularly dense harbors for pathogens. One often cited study [17] showed that 20% of airplane toilet seats tested positive for E.coli, while flush and faucet handles tested positive 30% of the time. But that wasn’t it. Norovirus and MRSA [18] were just as common on areas like trays and back seat pockets. (Another reason to skip the in-flight magazine…) This is one of those times when some hand sanitizer [19] (no need for triclosan [20]) is good idea – along with an extra dose of vitamin C.

Hydrate during and around air travel.

For the integrity of the metal construction, airplanes keep their humidity extremely low. Levels can dip below 10%, which can leave you feeling tired and drawn after even a moderate flight. Once you’re past the security gate, fill up a large water bottle [21] and drink as much as you can without having to make umpteen trips to the lavatory. Be sure to drink extra water after you’re on the ground as well – especially if yours was a longer flight.

Get yourself in a flexible mindset.

Travel isn’t a time to let the perfect be the enemy of the good [22]. The idea is to avoid as much stress as possible. Go over options in your mind and get yourself in a place of mental flexibility. Be ready to look for the best possible options to eat strangely concocted meals to meet your Primal target, to rely on some of your own stores, and to fast entirely [23] when food choices are dismal. Prepare yourself to adapt to a different schedule – not just for the sake of others’ expectations and traditions but in the interest of fitting in a nap when sleep is an issue or when you need extra downtime or exercise. Consider it a marathon rather than a race. Pacing and adaptation matter.

But decide ahead of time what you won’t compromise on – and prepare.

If your good intentions are forever moving targets [24], you’ll never stick to your plan. Don’t base your most important decisions on circumstances. Base them on your needs and priorities. Just put in some forethought and prep. More on that below…

Pack your own sustenance.

I like to look at it this way. Pretend Grok [25] is accompanying you on your trip. What would you bring for him? [25] Would you force your honored guest to suck it up and eat whatever was at the next food court? Of course not. Have the same courtesy for your own well-being. Pack enough to get you through not just the car trip/flight but the time in between when the offerings aren’t in line with your Primal needs.

If you’re driving, of course, you have the added luxury of packing an entire cooler  [26]of veggies and meat choices, and non-perishables like good jerky [27], nuts, Primal energy bars [28], pemmican [29] and Primal Fuel [30]. If you’re flying, do whatever you can with non-perishables, including packing them in your checked luggage. The idea here is to maintain your nutrient intake and avoid the immune-busting sugar and carb fest [31] that too often characterizes the holiday line-up.

Load up on some key supplements.

Holiday travel is no time to get off your supplement routine. No matter how much other crap you have to pack, don’t skimp here. Be sure to take along all of your regular supplements (e.g. multi [32], vitamin D, probiotic [13]), and some extra vitamin C to take 2-3 times daily. It can’t hurt to bring along some elderberry, zinc and echinacea as well for daily doses of the first two and as need be for the third.

Finally, may I suggest some Primal Calm [33]? Because holiday travel is fun…until it’s not. I swear by it, and always keep some nearby.

Make your own sleep kit – especially if you’ll be dealing with jet lag.

Own pillow – check. Yellow glasses – check. Eye mask (when you can’t enjoy your own fantastic light-blocking curtains) – check. Melatonin? While I don’t suggest taking melatonin on a regular basis [34], it has been shown to help reset circadian rhythm and relieve the problem of jet lag [35]. In this case, it’s definitely worth it. Keep in mind that strategic fasting, too, can help [36] normalize your body’s clock.

Set concrete times for exercise – and fit in more whenever you can manage it.

Let’s face it – if you wait around for the perfect time to exercise, you’ll never find it. That’s true in life, and perhaps even truer during the holidays and travel. If you can keep your normal workout times, that’s great. If not, try to at least keep your normal workout schedule – meaning how often. Then fit in as much low level activity as possible. Reasonable physical activity (i.e. not chronic cardio [37]) supports healthy immune function.

Don’t compromise on self-care.

Too many of us white-knuckle it through the holidays. Unfortunately, “just dealing” with the endless expectations for a few days/full week may result in consequences beyond the holidays themselves. This is your time and experience as much as anyone else’s – even the kids. Don’t commit to more than you really want to. Schedule time for quiet [38]. Balance each day with some solitude [10] and activity. Do something good for yourself every day [39] you’re traveling (e.g. use the sauna at the hotel, enjoy a good book, find some fun trails).

Pushing yourself to make the most of every minute with an older relative you may not see next year or to get the most out of every dollar spent on a getaway is just that – pushing. That’s no way to enjoy a valued relationship or a long awaited vacation. Practice some daily self-care in the interest of maintaining health and being present [40] – the best way I’ve found to make the most of any experience.

Thanks for reading, everyone. What am I missing here that helps keep you healthy in the midst of holiday travel? I’ll look forward to reading your insights. Happy holidays to you, and safe travels to all who will be hitting the road.

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