Traveling is not the time to skip a quality supplement routine. Navigating crowded airports, eating unfamiliar food, and bouncing between time zones affect your ability to maintain homeostasis, the body’s innate desire to seek balance and health.
I’ve had a private nutrition practice for 14 years, hold a masters degree in clinical nutrition and functional medicine, and have been awarded the credential of a Certified Nutrition Specialist practitioner. To keep myself healthy while abroad, I never leave home without this essential wellness pack, five supplements that support digestion, immunity, sleep, and stress.
Editor’s note: Please consult your doctor before adding supplements to your diet.
1. Ashwagandha: Your secret weapon to instant zen.
Ashwagandha has been used for over 2,000 years as a gentle tonic to help improve energy and reduce stress. Ashwagandha belongs to a class of herbs called adaptogens, which have the unique ability to help your body better adapt to stress. They work similar to a thermostat: When the thermostat senses that the room temperature is too high, it lowers the temperature, and when the temperature is too low, it raises the temperature. Adaptogens can increase a sense of calm and boost your energy at the same time. Essentially, adaptogens help to counteract the adverse effects of stress by normalizing body imbalances.
Taking a gentle adaptogen while traveling helps your body better adapt to the strain of travel. As I suffer from anxiety while flying, I take ashwagandha several times during a flight to help relieve the anxious discomfort that accompanies plane travel. Adaptogens may sound “woo-woo,” but there are several well-designed clinical studies to back their efficacy. A systematic review of five controlled studies found that ashwagandha significantly improved anxiety.
2. Magnesium: Improve sleep, reduce constipation, and relieve muscle soreness.
Magnesium is one of the most important minerals in the body, necessary for over 350 biochemical processes. It is estimated, however, that over 80 percent of the population is deficient, and a magnesium deficiency can affect virtually every system of the body.
Magnesium is my secret weapon of wellness when I travel. I keep travel-sized packets of powdered magnesium in every carry-on bag or suitcase that I own. Including a nightly dose of magnesium while you are away may help to keep you regular, improve sleep, and even relieve muscle pain from that long day exploring a new city on foot. I simply mix the powdered magnesium into a bottle of water and drink up.
There are many types of magnesium. For travel, I recommend magnesium citrate to help with regular bowel movements, and magnesium glycinate to raise overall levels of magnesium. The recommended daily allowance of magnesium is 420 mg for men or 320 mg for women. You can dose as high as 500 mg/day when traveling, but reduce the dose if you experience loose stools.
One of the highest food sources of magnesium is chocolate, which is good news indeed! A 3.5-ounce dark chocolate bar contains 176 mg of magnesium. So why not take your powdered supplement, and then also enjoy some chocolate while you are away?
3. Probiotic: Protect the good gut bugs.
Hippocrates, the father of medicine, believed that all diseases begin in the gut. Maintaining good gut-health habits while traveling is fundamental to overall health. The gastrointestinal system contains trillions of good bacteria that ultimately protect our body from infection and illness, support our metabolism, and promote healthy digestion and elimination. In fact, 80 percent of our immune system resides in our gut.
Traveling can take a toll on the balance of bacteria in our gut, oftentimes introducing new strains of pathogenic bacteria that can overtake the balance of good bacteria and thus cause frustrating symptoms of discomfort. Taking a probiotic both before traveling and during your trip can help to keep the good bacteria balance high so pathogenic bacteria has less of a chance to take hold.
When it comes to probiotics, the benefit is in the strain, but there are billions of strains. To say “take a probiotic” is much like saying “take a vitamin” — general and non-specific.
Saccharomyces boulardii, a particular strain of probiotic yeast, has been well studied and shown to be effective as a prophylactic treatment specifically against travelers’ diarrhea. I recommend taking Saccharomyces boulardii (affectionately referred to as Sac B in the nutrition word) at least a week before you leave for a trip, while you are traveling, and for a week post trip. Purchase a shelf-stable brand that does not require refrigeration.
4. Digestive enzymes: Because lamb kebabs at 2:00 AM in Tel Aviv are always a good idea.
I intentionally do not limit or restrict food while I am traveling. Experiencing another culture through their food is one of life’s great pleasures, and I am here for it. Unfortunately, diving into unfamiliar food at strange times of day can lead to digestive distress and discomfort.
Digestive enzymes to the rescue. Enzymes help to facilitate the chemical breakdown of food into smaller, more absorbable, easier to digest components. Some of us are inherently better enzyme endowed than others. Factors like age, overall diet, and digestive health play a role in how hearty your own enzymatic action may be. I’ve found that taking digestive enzymes with every meal while traveling dramatically improves my body’s ability to adapt to new foods and digest more efficiently. Essentially, digestive enzymes allow me to eat late-night street food all over the world and not suffer the consequences.
Digestive enzymes are naturally found in certain foods like pineapple and papaya, but when traveling I don’t rely on food sources alone. For a supplement, choose a brand that offers a broad spectrum enzyme blend, and take one to two pills with every meal.
5. Elderberry: Protection from a sneezing seatmate.
Maneuvering between airports, planes, trains, and automobiles while traveling means increased exposure to germs and the potential for getting sick. I think we can all agree that there is nothing worse than coming down with a cold or flu while on vacation.
Black elderberries are the fruit of a plant that has been used medicinally for centuries. Elderberry has the ability to improve immune defenses through potent antibacterial and antiviral properties. Elderberry should become a part of your new travel routine. Pick a location, book a flight, start taking elderberry.
A 2016 study found a significant reduction of cold severity and duration in air travelers. In the study, travelers took elderberry 10 days before travel and four to five days after arriving at their destination. The travelers found on average a two-day shorter duration of cold and a reduction in cold symptoms.
You can find elderberry in pill, gummy, and liquid form. I prefer the liquid (tincture) form at home, but I take the pill form when I travel. I also recommend wiping down your plane tray table and armrest with antibacterial wipes to avoid unnecessary exposure to illness.
As effective as all of these supplements are, the golden rules of nutrition still apply. There is no magic pill that will take the place of consistent health-promoting behaviors. Prior to a trip, eat lots of fresh wholesome food, get plenty of rest, stay well hydrated, and be cautious of over-consuming sugar or alcohol. Arm yourself with the right supplements to help fill in the nutritional gaps while you are away.