Flying can put pressure on your body’s immune system as well as producing symptoms such as bloating, dehydration, swollen limbs and headaches which leave you feeling less than your best.
So whether you're crossing the Tasman, taking a short hop to another city in New Zealand, or if you're jetting off long-haul, we spoke to Auckland-based naturopath and health expert Helen Elscot for her tips on how to prepare for a healthy flight and what you can do while travelling to ensure you stay on top of your game.
Cabin Cruising Pressure
The issue: One of the most frequent complaints about flying – even on short trips – is the headaches brought on by the pressure in many planes' cabins. Although aircraft cabins are pressurised, cabin air pressure at cruising altitude is lower than air pressure at sea level – it usually matches an altitude of around 2000m. This leads to lower blood-oxygen levels which can cause tiredness, headaches, and in some cases, dizziness.
The solution: Avoid alcohol before and during flights – while you’re in the air, your blood cells will be able to absorb more oxygen more efficiently without alcohol in your system. Your body will also cope much better in low-pressure environments if you are a non-smoker. It’s also worth noting that modern aircraft such as the Boeing 787 ‘Dreamliner’ and Airbus A380 operate with increased cabin pressure to combat these issues – the pressure is equivalent to altitudes as low as 1550m – so these planes are a good choice for long haul travel.
The Pressure of Landing
The issue: Most people are familiar with the uncomfortable popping sensation in your ears as the cabin pressure changes on landing – if you’ve got a blocked nose or sinuses, this will be even more uncomfortable as the pressure will press on your eardrum. As well as the discomfort of painful ears, the effect can linger once you’ve landed giving you feelings of nausea and dizziness.
The solution: You can source special ear-plugs which help regulate the rate at which the air-pressure affects your ear-drum. There are also a number of commonly used techniques (such as yawning, swallowing or sucking a boiled sweet) to help equalise the pressure in your ears. If you have a blocked nose, you should prepare for your flight by taking decongestants or antihistamines before you get on board.
The issue: Because of how the air in the cabin is sourced from high-altitude and circulated throughout the cabin, it tends to be incredibly dry. As well as the familiar dry mouth and nose feeling you may get on short flights, this can create dehydration, dizziness and a less efficient immune system on long-haul flights. For people who wear contact lenses, this dryness is particularly uncomfortable.
The solution: Drink water. When the cabin crew come around with drinks ideally choose water, or if you’d like something else, ensure you have a glass of water with your favourite tipple. Alcohol and caffeine will speed up your dehydration, so try to avoid or minimise these choices. The rule of thumb is to have moist lips at all times - if you feel them becoming dry or cracked, you should have a drink. If your short-haul or budget flight doesn’t have free water, make sure you take water on board. And if you wear contact lenses, it may be wise to remove them for the journey and go back to glasses, or use the solution to keep them moist during the flight.
Are you Sitting Comfortably?
The issue: Depending on which class your seat is in, you’re going to experience differing levels of comfort – but even at the top end of travel there’s still the chance you may emerge from your trip feeling stiff and tired. If you’ve got poor circulation, there’s a risk of developing deep vein thrombosis, so it’s important to manage this risk. If you’re having to sit upright for long periods, your blood is going to circulate less efficiently, meaning that your blood-oxygen levels will be further depleted.
The solution: Compression stockings are a good, practical way to prevent blood settling in your legs and keeping it flowing smoothly. But it’s also a good idea to remain active while you’re in the air – especially on long flights. This can involve getting up for a walk around the plane or doing simple exercises (bending and straightening legs, feet and toes and stretching your calf muscles). Try not to keep any luggage under the seat in front of you to ensure you have as much room as possible in which to be able to move and stretch your legs. In terms of medication, if you’re worried about your circulation talk to a health care professional about what will best suit your body. Remember that commonly used medications such as low-dose aspirin and herbal medication like gingko can also interact with other medications you may be taking so it’s important to get the right advice.
Beat the Bugs
The issue: Airports and aircraft cabins can expose you to a range of germs and potential illnesses. If you combine that with a lowered immune system which can come with long-haul travel, then your body is likely to have to fight off infection just at the point when you as a business traveller need to be on your game.
The solution: Before you fly boost your immune system with high-dose vitamin-C or medicinal herbs such as echinacea, eat well and take plenty of rest. Pack hand sanitiser and disinfectant wipes which you should use whenever you’re in public bathrooms, kiosks or other places which will have been touched by others. If you see anyone looking ill or coughing and sneezing, stay as far away from them as possible – and if they look very ill, consider telling an air steward. Because coughs and sneezes can travel at least a couple of metres from an infected person, you can use the overhead air vent to direct an airflow over your face and deflect potential bugs, and you should use a nasal spray to keep the mucous membranes in your nose moist and functioning most efficiently to filter out the bugs.
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