I’m a qualified natural health practitioner and a traveller. I know the joys and challenges travel can bring. This special report draws on my own experience of maintaining health while travelling — often off the beaten track— to many parts of the world, and combines it with latest research.
Travel brings both rewards and challenges. To travel well it’s far better if you can retain your health and energy and not succumb to local illnesses. Staying healthy while travelling is often a very different scenario from maintaining your health at home.
It’s preferable to prevent illness by awareness and following certain procedures than it is to have to deal with acute illnesses while travelling. Before leaving, always get a medical/naturopathic and dental check-up. Dentists are particularly hard to find in many countries, so get your teeth fixed before you go, if at all possible.
In health terms, different areas of the world have different challenges. Travelling to Asia and the Middle East, you are more likely to be exposed to pathogenic organisms that impact on gut function and can make you vomit and trigger diarrhoea, especially if, like me, one of the reasons you travel is to experience new foods and flavours. This frequently means trying street food. If travelling to Europe, Russia and other colder climates, respiratory infections are more common.
Good hygiene is essential anywhere in the world. Wash your hands frequently and make liberal use of hand sanitisers if you have no easy access to clean water and soap for washing. I use a natural hemp-based one that is effective. The hand sanitisers without the antimicrobial chemical triclosan are healthier options.
Not a drop to drink
Never, ever drink the local water. Always drink bottled water from a bottle that is sealed — check it hasn’t been drained and refilled — or drink filtered water. Never have ice in drinks and always wash your teeth in filtered or bottled water, and never eat salads that may have been washed in the local water. Large hotels are usually safe for salads but it’s worth checking.
While bottled water is readily available worldwide these days, for the sake of the environment it’s useful to carry a water purifier. Camping stores sell a variety of water purifiers. Personally, I don’t like the chlorine-based tablets but prefer a battery-operated UV light system that sterilises water. You could also take colloidal silver and/or hydrogen peroxide to sterilise water, clean and disinfect teeth, and, in the case of colloidal silver, to act as an antimicrobial internally and topically.
Small portable travel filters can also be useful for removal of other unwanted chemicals. There are various filters available that are worth considering. Heavy metal and chemical removal systems may be required if drinking well water — for example, arsenic contaminates ground drinking water in many countries and worldwide is a common contaminant in rice.
Carrying a small light, stainless-steel, BPA-free, insulated water bottle that can double as a thermos or cool bottle is handy and filling up at reputable hotels, which nearly all have filtered or purified water in the lobby, helps reduce your carbon footprint.
While travelling, you will always be exposed to organisms that the locals are immune to but which you have had no previous exposure to and therefore don’t have the same immunity and are likely to react strongly. These can make you very ill, totally spoiling your holiday.
Malaria (a parasite)
A scourge worldwide that kills millions of people annually, malaria, along with other diseases such as dengue fever, is transmitted by mosquitoes, potentially the most dangerous of the common insect encounters.
General preventive measures are essential. Don’t go out around dawn or dusk when mosquitoes are active unless covered with light, protective clothing and sprayed with an insect repellent. I use one based on lemon eucalyptus that has minimal toxicity and works well if I spray frequently.
The herb qing hao (Artemisiaannua), also known as sweet wormwood, has had substantial research on its antimalarial properties. It’s sometimes available in tablets combined with olive leaf extract (an old antimalarial) and will need to be taken a couple of weeks before leaving home, while travelling in malarial areas and for a month after returning (my timing suggestions but it seems to work). The exact dose will depend on the product you use.
The tissue salt Nat Sulph can also be taken for added protection with the same dose and timing. Nat sulph “drains” the liver and was used before the research into Artemisia annua,and its common availability.
Dengue fever (a virus)
Another increasingly common mosquito-borne tropical viral infection is dengue fever. There are various herbs that exhibit antiviral activity against dengue, but more specifically pawpaw leaf (Carica papaya) extract or juice is easy to obtain in tropical areas and has supporting research. It’s anti-viral and also raises platelet count,the lowering of which contributes to the haemorrhagic nature of this infection.
Gut bugs (usually parasites or bacteria)
Gut bugs are the scourge of travellers in many parts of the world, including tropical Australia. Be very careful of the water in other countries, as mentioned. Don’t eat raw food or have ice in drinks. Make sure street food is cooked in front of you. For prevention of gut bug infections, a protein-digesting enzyme supplement taken immediately at the end of every meal is very effective. Bacteria are made of protein, while viruses have a protein strand, so will be denatured by the supplemental enzymes before they can proliferate.
I also recommend a general gut herbal capsule that contains pau d’arco, berberis, citrus seed extract, cat’s claw, walnut hulls, garlic and essential oils. Take a herbal formula such as this daily to prevent infection and, if any pathogens get past the digestive enzymes and the herbs, increase your dosage, depending on the product you use, until symptoms improve. These herbs are specific for parasites but will also improve bacterial and other infections.
Eating the local yoghurt for the first three days after arriving is another old trick for travellers. This gives you the local gut bugs in a pre-digested form and allows your immune system to quickly develop antibodies and therefore some resistance to them.
Pathogens like mycoplasma pneumonia are more prevalent in Europe, although it’s becoming more common in Australia where it can manifest as a severe lung infection and persistent cough. Travellers have little to no resistance to these local infections. Olive leaf extract, andrographis and echinacea can cover a variety of bacterial and viral infections when accompanied by extra zinc and vitamin C.
These are available in tablet form and are not usually needed unless the onset of a cold or flu is felt. When this happens, take two tablets four-hourly at the onset of symptoms, along with two tablets of quercetin to reduce the inflammation caused by the infection. Reducing the inflammation can help prevent the infection spreading. Do this for a couple of days and in most cases it will fix the problem. Thyme and elderberry syrup, often available locally, help relieve the cough. Get plenty of rest and drink lots of filtered water for a few days as well.
Wounds & general infections
As you have little resistance to the local bacteria in new locations you’ve had no previous exposure to, scratches, wounds or insect bites can become infected very easily and be difficult to treat. Always carry an antiseptic cream to apply immediately. I use a herbal antiseptic cream. I also carry a colloidal silver spray and topical iodine to use, if necessary. Both of these are excellent broad-spectrum antimicrobials.
Even if you love animals, avoid patting them in any country unless you’re sure they are not infected with rabies or toxoplasmosis, also known as cat scratch fever. It’s not worth the risk.
In some parts of the world, ticks are a significant problem. The east coast of Australia has paralysis (not in humans) ticks, while Siberia has large edible ones. Central Asia has toxic varieties and in the US and elsewhere ticks transmit Lyme disease, a debilitating illness that can be very hard to treat. These are not a problem in the cities but can be in the countryside or in places like animal markets.
I find lavender oil/water is a good preventive if sprayed on regularly, as is a lemon eucalyptus spray. Camping stores have a selection of these that do not contain DEET, which is a very effective insect repellent but does have recorded toxicity issues and, as such, is not recommended for children other than for short-term use — except in areas of high malarial incidence in local populations. I prefer the healthier options, but you do need to apply them more frequently.
Time to vaccinate
If a vaccination is mandatory, you must have it before you leave the country. Yellow fever is the main one if travelling to parts of South America or South Africa. With vaccines that are “recommended” you have a choice whether to have them or not, but if you decide not to have them, be aware that you will need to protect yourself in other ways. Check the Travelvax website or discuss with your local doctor long before travelling as this can change quite quickly.
Living in Australia means nearly every overseas flight is along-haul one. It takes up to six hours just to cross this country. The main issues are increased ozone levels causing dryness and respiratory symptoms, the risk of blood clots and the risk of contracting an infection from so many humans in close proximity for long periods when sleep-deprived and stressed. All of this challenges the immune system.
A couple of tricks I use include placing a thick ointment of some kind around and into the nostrils. You can use Vaseline, scarless healer, pawpaw ointment or some other thick, sticky healing cream. Apply frequently. This moisturises and provides a physical barrier against inhaled organisms; it’s remarkably effective if applied regularly throughout the flight.
Moisturise your skin before travelling and carry a small bottle of moisturiser in your hand luggage — nothing over 100mL or customs will dispose of it. Lip balm can be useful, too. Long-haul flights can be very dehydrating. It may be useful to use a barrier cream on exposed skin, as some of the airborne chemicals in aircraft cabins can be absorbed through the skin as well.
If travelling overseas frequently, the level of radiation exposure needs to be considered. It has been shown that airline pilots receive a similar amount of radiation to that experienced by nuclear workers. A good vitamin E capsule with a variety of tocopherols and tocotrienols, taken daily with food,will help repair DNA damage caused by the radiation.
If you have any known allergies, contact the airline and hotels you will be staying at to inform them beforehand. Organise dietary components before travelling; for example, gluten/dairy-free. These days, most places are only too happy to help if given enough notice. If booking a trip on various airlines, this only needs to be done at the time of booking and they organise it from there.
Drink plenty of water on the plane to prevent dehydration, and minimal to no alcohol. No airlines will allow you to carry water on a plane, so you will have to drink what’s provided. Apparently, a bottle of water is difficult to distinguish from a bottle of a chemical like hydrogen peroxide that could be used to make liquid explosives. You can fill empty bottles on the aircraft or have the water provided.
Carry any liquids in checked baggage but make sure they are well wrapped. Liquids are better in plastic, wrapped around with bubble wrap and duct tape to seal the lids and a final plastic bag around the lot. If they break, you don’t want your clothes saturated.
Try to get as much sleep as you can, which is difficult in economy seats but easier in business class. Melatonin helps, as it does on arrival tore-establish your circadian rhythms. Jet lag is always worse travelling east than travelling west, and it takes a few days after landing to get back to “normal” sleep patterns. Give yourself a chance to catch up on sleep before swinging into the main normal activities like going back to work. Carry small teabags of a relaxing herbal tea such as chamomile, valerian or a mix of relaxing herbs,and use them in the hot water provided.
Flight socks are an essential item on long flights. These are tight compression stockings that are very effective in preventing blood clots forming in the legs from prolonged dehydration and inaction. DVTs (deep vein thromboses) are blood clots in the calves of the legs and can be potentially life threatening.
A Cochrane Collaboration report revealed that flight socks can reduce the risk of DVT by an impressive 90 per cent. Flight socks have been shown to be more effective than aspirin for prevention of DVT. Crossing your legs or ankles while flying is also not recommended as this can restrict circulation. Drink enough water during the flight and move around from time to time.
The research shows that the risk of DVT is three times higher in passengers on long-haul flights, whether travelling in economy or not, and the risk rises after the age of 40, or if overweight, pregnant, taking oral contraceptives or suffering from various medical conditions. In fact,compression socks should be used for any travel — air, road, rail — that is longer than six hours.
Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin C and anti-inflammatory herbs and nutrients also help by reducing platelet stickiness, but this is a long-term strategy.
First aid kits
Many pharmaceuticals are available worldwide, though I question manufacturing practices in some places, and you can frequently buy medications over the counter that are available only on prescription in Australia. However, don’t use this as an opportunity to “stock up”. I always travel with herbal or nutritional medicines as these can be more difficult to access while travelling.
The pharmaceuticals I take as emergency supplies are Zofran Zydis wafers for reducing nausea (ginger can substitute unless very ill) and a broad-spectrum antibiotic against unusual infections. I carry these for emergencies but so far have never needed them in 10 years of regular travelling. I usually give them away when I leave for home.
If I am travelling for a month or two, I do take quite an arsenal of herbal and nutritional supplements. This is often overkill, but there have been times when I have used most of them in keeping myself healthy, plus there are always others we are travelling with who seem to need them desperately.
What you take will depend on where you are going, how long you are going for and where you are staying, ie big well-stocked hotels where they have doctors on call or cheaper guesthouses and backpacker hostels where you may need to cover more bases. If you are going for a long period of time you will not need as much as you’ll have a chance to learn where local supplies can be found.
Herbal first-aid kit
Topical applications such as creams and oils are very effective; in fact, they may be better absorbed than many supplements and herbs that are swallowed, particularly if you have digestive problems. A good homœopathic first-aid kit would be effective.
My own first-aid kit contains arnica cream for bruising, sprains and strains; ledum cream for insect bites and stings; colloidal silver as abroad-spectrum antimicrobial; herbal antiseptic healing cream with calendula, hypericum, aloe vera and comfrey — there are several formulas available; aloe vera gel for burns and sunburn; and emu oil or hemp oil to reduce skin dryness and inflammation.
I put these into small containers of about 10g if travelling for a month or so. It sounds a lot but takes up little space and whatever is under 100mL can be carried in hand luggage. Small amounts are useful as they will be irradiated going through customs but still seem to be effective.
Herbal sunscreens without nanoparticles or titanium that are based on zinc and antioxidant herbs are important in sunny climates or in the snow with its reflective surfaces.
Glucosamine and chilli cream is excellent for joint inflammation and pain from arthritis or sprained or torn ligaments. I have used it to repair a torn meniscus in the knee, along with good strapping. The regular use of this has also kept my arthritic patients almost pain free so they could enjoy their holidays.
I also take various-sized Band-aids and elastic bandages or elasticised strapping if prone to various joint problems. I like the elasticised “sleeves” for joint support and these can be cut to size. Scissors and tweezers go in the checked luggage in the hold, so if you only have hand luggage, leave them behind and purchase or borrow them while away. An eye patch, gauze swabs and latex gloves can all come in handy. They fit into a small space and are light to carry.
Magnesium cream or oil can be useful for cramps and spasms, especially since magnesium may be needed in countries that have few green leafy vegetables as salads are not recommended and obtaining cooked green leafy vegetables can be difficult, depending on the country and the time of year. Nearly every country has onions, tomatoes and cucumbers, but in many places that’s all the vegetables offered.
Last but not least, Rescue Remedy or Emergency Essence is useful in stressful situations.
Local herbal supplies
Most countries use ginger as a remedy, so it’s easily obtained. Around the Mediterranean basin, thyme cough medicine and elderberry syrup are readily available — great for coughs, colds and flu, both being antibacterial and antiviral. The local raw honey can be useful for infections including colds and flu (in frequent doses) and can be used topically to help heal wounds and scratches.
Teas that confer significant health benefits are generally available. Hibiscus tea is popular in the Middle East and green tea is available in most places; these can be drunk regularly. Avoiding the large amounts of sugar automatically added to them is trickier. I usually ask for “sugar outside” as I can add it, or not, as required. Coffee generally is better in Australia and New Zealand than almost anywhere.
In Europe, apothecaries are common in the cities and in Asia there are barefoot doctors or Ayurvedic practitioners in India and Sri Lanka. These can be helpful, if not quite what you are used to in medical treatment.
A small box containing a few essential oils can keep most people healthy and deal with a few specific problems.
Lavender oil is antiseptic and calming, reduces headaches and helps with sleep. Neem oil, oregano oil and tea-tree oil are antimicrobial and antifungal, so choose your favourite. Eucalyptus oil can be useful as an antiseptic but also as an inhalation for chesty coughs and colds; and clove oil is excellent to relieve toothaches, being both a local anaesthetic and an antimicrobial.
Lemon eucalyptus oil and lavender oil and water can help protect against being bitten by ticks, mosquitoes, flies etc, and can help heal the wounds if they were missed initially.
Foods as supplements
Dried nettle, gotu kola, powdered homemade kale chips or any of the good commercial green powders can be very useful as a source of green leafy vegetables in countries and climates where they’re hard to come by, such as mountainous and desert regions and places like Central Asia/Mongolia, which are largely populated by nomadic people. In these places the climates can be extreme and green leafy vegetables don’t grow well, while the local people are culturally and genetically adapted to their different diets.
These green powders can be added to soups or casseroles and are easy to carry labelled as medicines. I have never had any problems getting these through customs as I carry them in a professionally labelled packet. If you are prone to cramps anywhere in the body, they are major sources of hard-to-get magnesium and folate and are valuable if taken daily when green vegetables are not available.
“Naked” ginger, which has less sugar than crystallised, is handy as it can be quite effective as an anti-nausea in mild cases, as well as reducing the squeamishness of travel sickness, although not always as effective for severe nausea and vomiting from acute infections.
Your clothing choice will depend on how long and where you are planning to travel. It’s good policy to pack very light when leaving — you will probably have to carry your own bags at some stage and they can be heavy. It’s amazing what you don’t need when travelling. Most countries have attractive cheap clothing if you need more, especially at the markets.
Always check the weather patterns in the countries you are planning to visit. At times there will be a variety of weather conditions expected, from very hot and steamy to freezing cold. In my experience layering works well. If hot or cold variations are expected, take one good warm (not too heavy) coat that can be worn on the plane so it’s not included in luggage weight. Then pack a singlet or spencer, a couple of light T-shirts, a good shirt or dress for special nights out, two or three jumpers — light, medium and thick — to layer on or off as necessary and a couple of pairs of washable jeans or trousers. There are some good websites with “how to pack light” lists.
Thermal underwear — I prefer merino wool over polyester — is very light and takes up little space in your backpack, and if you do need it you will be very pleased you have it. I also carry a large warm scarf that can double as a blanket, and a light scarf to wear over my head if necessary. This can be useful in Islamic countries as a mark of respect and can sometimes get you into places you would not otherwise be admitted to.
In Islamic countries, which have some of the most spectacular art and architecture on the planet, you will need to cover up: no cleavage, shoulders or knees should show, especially if female. You can do this easily with light clothing. While you may not subscribe to their belief systems, it’s important to show respect. You will generally not be expected to wear a scarf covering the hair, but I always do so if I’m allowed to visit a mosque or place of worship.
Other religions, such as Coptic Christian, will also expect women to wear a skirt that covers the knees when entering their churches. On many Pacific islands you are expected to be covered while in public places — again,that means no cleavage, shoulders or knees — even while swimming. There are more dress restrictions on women than men, generally. Always check in a place where you don’t know the rules.
Footwear is bulky to pack and you actually need very little. A pair of good shoes for going out, a pair of sandals you can safely get wet for warm weather, a soft pair of slippers and a pair of walking/hiking shoes that can be worn on the plane will often be enough.
A little forward thinking
A folding umbrella is useful for rain but also as a sunshield when hot. Make sure you pack a cap or hat and a warm beanie, plus sunglasses for sun protection.
In Asia, squat toilets are common. For those inexperienced in their use, loose flowing clothing makes the whole experience much more difficult. Body-hugging pants are easier to manage. Some of these toilets are splendid porcelain creations, but others are commonly little more than a hole in the ground. If you need toilet paper, I suggest you carry an emergency supply with you, but be aware of the environmental implications of travelling “off the beaten track”.
Protect your valuables
A wallet that goes around your waist under your clothing to protect valuables such as your passport, most of your money and any spare cards is invaluable. Make sure you get into the habit of wearing it at all times. I put it under my pillow or the mattress at night when sleeping.
Take another small bag to carry money and a card you may need each day and that you can reach easily if you need to purchase anything. Only put in the amount you think you will need each day so, if it is stolen, you won’t lose much.
I always wear a vest or waistcoat over my clothes to cover the shoulder strap of this small bag. It reduces the risk of theft. Be aware that obvious valuables can be stolen anywhere in the world and some people are extremely good at it. Don’t carry valuables in backpacks as they are too easy to cut open without you noticing. Also, always be vigilant about your luggage when in cafes and public places.
I also take a few sheets of bubble wrap in checked baggage as this can be very handy to wrap breakable (small) souvenirs. Teabags you fill yourself are useful for carrying small items such as ear-rings or other small jewellery. Generally, it’s not a good idea to wear or carry expensive jewellery or precious items as they are easily stolen and can be attractive to people living in poor conditions.
Camping stores carry a range of lightweight, efficient and handy items that save luggage space. Check out your local one. They sell items like small clotheslines, which are useful and easily carried. If you’re washing underwear, being able to string up a stretchy small clothesline (I use one with twisted elastic material so I don’t need pegs) speeds up the drying. They also hook onto any upright piece of furniture. I also use a liquid soap that can be used for washing both myself and my clothes.
Camping stores also stock wet weather covers for mobile phones, cameras and luggage, all very useful if it’s raining and you have a distance to travel.
Also, remember your electrical transformers. Most countries use a different system from Australia’s but there are only two or three you’ll need that will cover most countries. You can sometimes buy these in a pack where they fit into each other and are much easier to carry. I find airport shops at the destination usually have a good knowledge of what you will need.
Luggage & customs
I prefer backpacks with wheels as luggage, as I can wear them if necessary or wheel them if not. The old ones are very heavy, but the newer ones are much lighter and therefore more convenient. At home, I keep a bag in the bottom of my wardrobe that has all my travelling equipment together so it’s ready and all in one place when I need it.
Going through customs can be a little stressful. What to declare and what not to declare changes, so always check. Australia tends to be one of the strictest countries in the world, so always declare anything you’re not sure of. It’s better to wait in the queue than be fined or worse if it’s illegal. Central Asia is not so strict and the locals are allowed to carry small quantities of food and herbs without declaring them, which makes for prime-time TV when they travel to Australia and don’t know the rules here.
Travel brings both rewards and challenges. Be aware of any cultural differences before you arrive, or ask when you get there, and respect them. People think and behave differently the world over and, while this is becoming more homogenised with the tourism boom, when travelling you are the visitor and need to be mindful of that. This is why we travel: to learn other ways of being, not to impose our own.
Always take a small notebook or journal and pen to record your experiences. You’ll be able to enjoy these memories for many years to come.
First published on wellbeing.com.au