Arrive Healthy! Reduce Airplane Flying Stress

Arrive Healthy! Reduce Airplane Flying Stress

In This Article

Altitude Shock

When I worked for the New Jersey Nets, I traveled 17 days out of each month for the 2000 NBA season. The job was great, but I felt the travel took years off my life. I remember waking up in hotel rooms: my eyes were puffy, the ring on my finger was tight, and my feet were still swollen from the plane ride. I remember looking in the mirror and saying, I think I have aged 10 years in just a few months. I was highly motivated to figure out why this was happening, and how to mitigate the insidious stress of air travel.

You may be surprised to learn the many health risks associated with air travel. For example, in a new study from Auburn University, bacteria can live and be infectious for more than a week on arm rests, seat pockets, seats, and bathroom doors of commercial aircrafts. Dry air is said to contribute to their extra-long life on airplanes.2 That’s not to mention the health risks associated with jet lag, dehydration, noise levels, radiation, and fatigue. The good news is I’ve compiled some effective strategies to buffer these risks. Adding just a few simple tricks to your routine will lessen the impact, and help you feel more vibrant during and after your trips.

 If you enter a plane at sea level, the cabin quickly pressurizes to 8,000 feet above sea level. If you fly over the Rocky Mountains, the cabin will pressurize to 10,000 feet. I live in Colorado at 5,000 feet, and when people drive to nearby mountain towns, which average about 8,000 feet above sea level, it’s extremely common for them to get altitude sickness, which can be life-threatening. Even the most fit athletes who train at altitude can tell the difference when they climb to eight or 10,000 feet. In a plane, this altitude change happens in just a couple minutes. Ever wonder why it’s so easy to fall asleep in a plane? It’s likely because the oxygen is literally sucked out of your brain as the cabin is pressurized. The most instant effect of altitude shock is dehydration. Normally, the average person loses 2.5 quarts of water per day, and this rises significantly with air travel. I remember treating an airline pilot who complained of dry skin. I thought, How bad could it be? When he rubbed it, a white cloud of dry skin would literally fall to the floor. When the body is repeatedly subjected to such drastic altitude changes, the effects become chronic. Chronic subclinical dehydration will first dry out the outer skin and then the skin-associated lymph beneath the skin.3,4 When this dries out, it affects the flow of the lymphatic system, compromising its function of draining toxins and circulating white blood cells around the body for immunity.

Air Travel Survival Tools

  1. Pre-Hydrate

For one to two days before you fly, make every effort to drink half your healthiest body weight in ounces of water per day (for example, if you weigh 140lbs, make an effort to drink 70oz of water per day). Day of flight, sip hot water every ten minutes to further support the lymphatic system. If you’re really affected by air travel, you can also do this for a few days before flight, as well.

  1. Shilajit

Sherpas of the Himalayas eat this herb regularly. Its active ingredient, fulvic acid, has been found by scientists to support oxygen and energy transport in the blood.5 Consider taking shilajit around travel days. 

We Recommend Researchers Rediscover Shilajit Benefits

Recycled Air

The Journal of Environmental Health Research reports that air travel increases risk of catching a cold by 100 times because of recycled air. With the way recycled air operates, if someone in row 48 is sick and you’re in first class, you might as well have them coughing on you. So, why doesn’t everyone get sick? There are two pieces to this puzzle: exposure and susceptibility. While exposure is unavoidable, susceptibility we can do something about. Recycled air is both dry and inefficiently purified. When sinuses are exposed to dry air, cilia of the respiratory tract dry out. Because they are responsible for immunity, this increases our susceptibility to infection. I remember once flying to Russia to teach. After getting regular headaches during air travel, I decided to try an Ayurvedic technique called nasya, lubricating the nasal passages with an herbalized sesame oil formula. During this flight, I snorted nasya oil every hour or so to test it out. Not only did I not get a headache, I was so focused that I was able to write on my computer nonstop for the entire 6-hour flight. I remember the little Russian woman next to me commenting on how hard I was working! Prior to that flight, my headaches would have prevented me from working while flying. I was truly blown away by how good I felt.

Air Travel Survival Tools

  1. Nasya

Sniff 5-10 drops of nasya oil in both nostrils before and every hour or so during flight. Tilt your head back and sniff the oil all the way back to make sure it lubricates the entire nasal passage. 

We Recommend At-Home SAN (Sagittal Sinus Abhyanga Nasya): Cleanse Your Sinuses + Emotional Baggage

  1. Ashwagandha

This trusted Ayurvedic herb is known as an adaptogen to support the nervous system and immunity: a classic remedy for supporting frequent travelers and boosting immunity before, during, and after flight.6

Jet Lag

Jet lag, medically known as desynchronosis, is defined as a temporary disruption of the body’s circadian rhythms after air travel across time zones. In numerous studies, air travel shows consistent disruption of body rhythms.7 Chronic jet lag can cause fatigue and lead to cognitive decline, sleep issues, and even psychotic or mood disorders. Anyone who has traveled cross-country or internationally has experienced some jet lag. To get a better idea of how jet lag happens, imagine air-lifting a whale from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean in just four hours. Then, after a quick layover, air-lift that same whale to somewhere off the coast of China. Would you expect that whale to ever re-establish normal migration patterns? If so, how long do you think it might take? For humans, too, this disruption of the body’s normal biological rhythms is very real.

Air Travel Survival Tools

  1. Ashwagandha

Considered by many one of the most potent adaptogens, this above-mentioned herb seems to support the body’s ability to adapt to stress, such as that incurred by short-term jet lag.6

  1. Daily Ayurvedic Massage

According to Ayurveda, applying herbalized oil to the body will calm the nervous system. Every square inch of skin is innervated by sensory neurons. When skin becomes dehydrated, these neurons may become irritated and overstimulated. Applying oil to the skin in this way may soothe the nervous system, providing support for travel stress.8

Cosmic Ray Radiation

Radiation from space that concentrates at high altitudes is referred to as cosmic raysOne international flight will supply a hit of radiation equivalent to one chest x-ray. If you take plane trips often, this can become an issue.

Air Travel Survival Tool

  1. Iodine

Iodine provides natural support for radiation exposure. In one study I reported on in my article Protect Your Breasts, research indicates that just 1-3mg of iodine a day supports optimal lymphatic health. It may be prudent for frequent travelers to add an iodine supplement and/or make seaweeds (naturally high in iodine) a regular addition to their diet.

Blood Clots

Many travelers are unaware of the risk of deep vein thrombosis (DVT), or blood clots, during and shortly after air travel. One small study in New Zealand reported by The Lancet in 2003 found that 1% of travelers develop clots. With 2 billion travelers annually, this calculates to 20 million sufferers of DVT a year. While other studies report lower numbers, all agree that air travel presents a blood clot risk.1 Risk factors seem to be a combination of sitting still for hours in a pressurized cabin, lymph congestion, and dehydration, but it is still unclear to what extent each of these factors on their own causes clots.

Air Travel Survival Tools

  1. Move regularly during long flights.

Try to get an aisle seat: stretch and move your legs often and take trips up and down the aisles even if you don’t have to go to the bathroom.

  1. Stay hydrated.
  2. Follow all of the tools discussed above to optimize lymph flow.

Hearing Loss

Some planes are louder than others, and the roar of engines could exceed safe levels for your ears. Airline cabins range from 75 decibels in the front of the plane to 85-100 in the back. A loud nightclub, for example, roars at about 100 decibels. The Institute for Occupational Safety and Health limits safe noise levels to 88 decibels for four hours. This suggests that there is potential risk of permanent hearing damage during frequent flights longer than four hours.

Air Travel Survival Tools

  1. Noise Reduction Headphones

If you are a frequent traveler, consider a set of noise reduction headphones, which reduce noise by about 40 decibels.


Perhaps the most common complaint I hear regarding air travel is resultant constipation. Most likely, this is due to a combination of:

  • Jet lag affecting our natural rhythms.
  • Altitude shock: Gaining 8,000 feet of elevation in minutes may affect cellular pressure.
  • Dehydration: Dehydration and breathing high-altitude recycled air for hours will pull excess water through an accelerated evaporation process.

Air Travel Survival Tools

  1. Triphala (also spelled Trifala)

Triphala is a natural bowel toner that supports regular bowel movements. It can be used for short periods of time around travel without dependency.9


The most common cause of swelling during air travel is a congested lymphatic system. Factors that could cause lymph congestion are almost all of the items discussed above, particularly:

  • Travel-related constipation dries out the lymph concentration on the outside of the gut wall.
  • Altitude shock affects cellular pressure, which is responsible for lymph movement.
  • Sitting still for hours may congest lymph, as movement pumps lymph and takes pressure off the circulatory system. Lymph congestion could also be a factor in elevated rates of blood clots.
  • Dehydration directly affects lymph flow.
  • Jet lag adds unprecedented stress to the body, and stress is a major cause of lymph congestion.

Air Travel Survival Tools

  1. Manjistha
  2. Turmeric

Manjistha is one of Ayurveda’s most prized herbs for supporting lymphatic flow.Turmeric has been shown to protect the body from stress, swelling, and circadian imbalances that could arise from air travel.10

  1. Follow dehydration and altitude shock tips.

While travel has become a way of life for many, if you travel a lot, it’s a good idea to be aware of some of the possible risks. Please use this Survival List as a tool to offset such travel stress:

Complete Air Travel Survival List

Bon voyage!



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Dr. John

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