The travelling executive’s life is portrayed as glamorous and jet set, when the reality is often the opposite. Frequent travel, trade events and conferences can leave you struggling to feel fit and on top of your game. The culprits are disrupted sleep, jet lag, excess drinking, poor food choices, lack of movement and vital fresh air and sunlight. We end up searching for a quick fix solution in an energy drink or vitamin dose to boost our immunity.
Travelling exposes you to a pathological level of germs. When this is combined with stress, you have the perfect storm for colds and viruses. For the executive traveller, having to work long hours on a disrupted body clock, staying well on the road begins with maximising your health at every opportunity starting with before you travel.
The good news is a little can go a long way in health. These simple techniques can really make a difference, helping you not only survive but also how to boost your immune system in order to enjoy your work travel.
Prevention is better than cure
Frequently washing your hands in hot water and soap during cold and flu season is a much more effective way of preventing colds than taking a cocktail of supplements. You want to keep your hands germ free and to avoid touching your face as much as is possible to help you stay well.
Hydration is key
Keep yourself well hydrated as saliva is a key component of defence against harmful bacteria and viruses. It flushes the mouth clean and is a carrier for Immunoglobulin A (IgA), which helps protect our mucus membranes, which are our first line of defence. Chewing gum can help in stimulating saliva.
Move to boost your immune system
Did you know that your immunity relies on muscle contraction? Keeping your body moving is necessary for robust health. Unlike the heart, your immune-lymph system requires muscular contraction to move through your body. Conscious, deep belly breathing will move the diaphragm, and all forms of exercise will help circulate lymph, as well as increasing oxygen to the tissues, which ultimately energise you.
Prioritise your sleep
This is easier said than done when you have jet lag, long hours and late dinners. However, to keep your immunity robust, sleep needs to be a priority. One study showed that subjects who were limited to 7 hours sleep or less across a week were twice as likely to catch a cold afterwards.
Sleep hygiene is about creating the right environment for sleep. Your room should be cool (18° Celsius), dark and quiet. However, the biggest impact to sleep quality will come from avoiding the blue light from your cell phones and lap tops about 60-90 minutes before bed. Blue light is the light of dawn, a signal to your biology to wake up. In order to achieve the best sleep, you want to be dimming the lights and giving your body environmental cues it is time to rest.
If you are jet lagged, the sleep hormone Melatonin can be helpful if used on a short- term basis. You can talk to your doctor before taking Melatonin, as there may be contraindications with other medicines or health conditions.
An Epsom salt bath can prove deeply relaxing, as it is rich in the muscle relaxant, Magnesium, which is also available in supplement form. Including some healthy carbohydrates at dinner such as sweet potato, quinoa or brown rice can also be helpful to sleep. Go easy on the alcohol as the sugar content can wake you up around 2am as well as dehydrate you.
Food First, Supplements Second
About 70% of our immune system lies within our gut, so gut health is integral for good immunity. Protecting this immunity is about eating the right foods to enable the good gut flora to flourish. Seek out these foods always, at home or travelling, including them frequently in your diet.
Fermented (sauerkraut, keffir, kimchi), sweet potato, asparagus, rye, oats, chicory, garlic, onions, leeks, beans, lentils, chickpeas and bananas.
Choose fresh whole fruits and vegetables throughout the day at every meal, along with lean quality proteins. Protein is vital for immunity as it makes our anti-bodies, which play an important role in fighting infection. Ensure healthy fats like avocado, olive oil, oily fish, nuts and seeds are in your daily diet as they protect your cells.
Minimise alcohol and avoid the refined carbohydrate and sugars. These foods can rob you of vital energy as they are poor in nutrients.
A few key supplements have been seen to be helpful with immunity. Some, like Vitamin D and medicinal mushrooms need to be taken on a long-term basis to see their beneficial effects. Others, like Vitamin C and Zinc, can be taken with a more immediate beneficial effect.
There are also products on the market like First Defence that can really be helpful with any exposure to people en masse as found in air travel and trade shows. I would suggest taking First Defence across any travel journey.
However, the biggest impact on your immunity is unchecked stress.
Stress and immunity
We are not designed to be frequently stressed. When you are chronically in overdrive, you drain your energy making you an easy target for colds and viruses. To make matters worse, stress means you absorb nutrients poorly, especially the B vitamins, which we need for energy production.
The stress hormone is Cortisol and it influences many of the immune system cells. When high, cortisol reduces our white blood cells and antibody production. So, the more stressed you are, the more you are suppressing your immune system, and that’s when you become more susceptible to bugs and viruses.
To add insult to injury, cortisol works in balance with another hormone, DHEA. High levels of both will block our IgA, which is needed to protect our mucus membranes, our first line of defence.
So how do we make stress an ally? Mastering stress starts with awareness of being stressed so we can use strategies to calm the system.
When stressed, the first thing is to calm down. How we do that is by exhaling. When you exhale you activate the brain, the parasympathetic nervous system, which is in charge of relaxation. When you breathe deeply you tend to calm your mind. So that would be the first simple practice when agitated.
Through the breath, we can control our heart rate, which is a powerful thing. This means we can use techniques like heart rate variability (HRV) to stop stress in its tracks. If you are relaxed and aerobically fit and healthy, you will have good variability (coherence). You can use the tools like Heart Math or Emwave to practice, increasing capability and ultimately protecting your health.
Such tools and techniques really help improve our overall physiology and ultimately our immunity. Prioritise the way you eat, move, sleep and calm down your body. All these factors concur to answer the question how to boost your immune system while travelling.
To discover more, check my Travel Wellness Plans, which include Jet Lag Protocols.
Deborah McTaggart is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist practising in Barnes, South West London and global via Zoom or Skype. Deborah offers bespoke nutrition, health and wellness programmes with a special interest in the busy professional and frequent traveller.