The only thing separating many travelers from their energy-sapping work environment and that longed-for annual restorative vacation is an airplane ride. But if they haven’t prepared well, that time in the sky — anywhere from a couple of hours to the equivalent of a day or more when crossing hemispheres and multiple time zones – can actually be, as far as the human body is concerned, a sojourn to hell.
“The important thing people need to realize about an airplane cabin is it’s really not a healthy environment,” says Leslie Kaminoff, a yoga therapist and breathing specialist in New York. Kaminoff points out that the pressure in an airplane cabin at cruising altitude may make passengers feel like they are at about 8,000 feet, as though they were high up in the mountains.
“Just sitting and breathing in that environment is a challenge to the system,” Kaminoff says. “People don’t realize they’re at 8,000 feet of pressure and breathing is more labored. In the cabin, there’s less available oxygen in the air. This puts an added load on the system, which is trying to get the required amount of oxygen into the bloodstream.”
Another factor that may disturb breathing is the air’s diminished humidity, which is generally below 25%, in contrast to a comfortable home environment where the humidity level is at about 35%, says Kaminoff. He suggests long, easy, deep breaths.
But relaxed, efficient breathing is not enough.
Another risk during air travel is developing leg clots or deep vein thrombosis (DVT). It’s also known as “economy-class syndrome” — a condition often brought about during long flights. Periods of immobility increase the risk of DVTs because sitting and leg room are cramped.
Other risks for developing leg clots include dehydration and low cabin pressure, according to the American Heart Association.
“You want to create a situation where your legs are moving and the muscles are contracting,” says Kaminoff. “The deep veins in your legs have one-way valves, where blood can only move toward the heart. The only thing that gets that venous blood from the lower body back up to the heart is muscle contraction.”
Kaminoff does not advise the kind of exertion that comes from doing “deep knee bends in the back of the plane.” Instead, he encourages plane travelers to contract their calf muscles.
“Your calves are often called your second heart because of the role they play in helping pump venous blood from the lower extremities,” he notes. Something as simple as tapping the feet will do nicely; this type of movement will also create movement in the shins and thighs, and even in the hip joint.
There’s another way to encourage movement. “If you just keep drinking water you will be fine, because you have to get up and use the lavatory,” Kaminoff says.
Pratima Raichur, a chemist, botanist, and aesthetician who owns Pratima Ayurvedic Skin Care in New York, advises against drinking ice-cold or cold water. That’s because, according to Ayurvedic principles, being in the air parallels Vata, a particular Ayurvedic constitution that is dry, does not like the cold, and denotes a delicate digestive system. In other words, says Raichur, with Vata energy already exaggerated in the airplane cabin, it’s important to make choices that decrease Vata.
Her advice? Take a pass on cold foods, such as raw salads, in favor of warm nourishment. Decline carbonated beverages, which are full of gas. Favor warm liquids, and choose tea over coffee. Because it’s harder to digest food in ultra-Vata conditions, it’s better to eat a meal before boarding the plane.
If a person’s flight is long, one possibility is to bring one’s favorite teas and food and “eat as little and light as possible.” Raichur, who says that steamed vegetables are always a good bet, likes to take “kichidi,” a combination of rice and beans that is flavored with warming herbs like cumin, coriander, clove, and a pinch of cinnamon. Fennel seeds are also good for digestion, she says.
Raichur, who wrote the book Absolute Beauty, values hydrating as a protective element for the skin. In addition to carrying water in a spray bottle to spray directly on the face, one can also use essential oils. For Raichur, the best essential oils for hydrating are geranium, rose, sweet orange and lemon, either alone or in combination. She advises adding a total of 10 drops to 4 ounces of water.
Because the nasal mucous membranes can dry out, she suggests either taking a saline solution to spray inside the nose or using “ghee,” or clarified butter, that one can take in a small container to apply directly into the nostrils.
Raichur also suggests massaging key sinus points on the face – they’re located on either side of the nose, by the nostrils, on the cheeks at the mid-nose point, at the cheek bones, and at the temples. One can also dab essential oils diluted in carrier oil onto the pulse points for relaxation.
For Laurie Steelsmith, a licensed naturopathic doctor and acupuncturist who practices in Honolulu, it’s very important for people to protect their immune systems while they’re airborne. “You’re in a closed environment with really dry air and a lot of ill people from all over the world,” she says. “You’re a walking open door.”
Steelsmith is the author of Natural Choices for Women’s Health: How the Secrets of Natural and Chinese Medicine Can Create a Lifetime of Wellness. “When you’re under stress, your body pH is going to become more acidic,” she says.
Avoid sugar-laden food and drink. “From the Chinese perspective, sugar creates dampness and phlegm, which can lead to an environment where viruses and bacteria thrive,” Steelsmith says. “It creates a petri dish in your sinuses and the back of your throat.”
The best time to think about tackling that plane is well before boarding, when one can attend to details about remedies and food and water to bring. “We need to know how we’re managing our lives and not creating chaos,” says Steelsmith. Killing oneself to catch a plane by cutting a schedule impossibly close is not worth it, if it means that one’s resulting physical and mental state is not strong enough to resist the microbial and other challenges of the airplane ride itself.
“Use foresight to plan ahead,” advises Steelsmith. That – and a couple of liters of water – can ensure that passengers arrive at their destination in a healthy enough state to enjoy their vacations.
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