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Healthy Flying Tips


By Diana Fairchild, author of "Jet Smart"

Jet-lag affects us physically, mentally, and emotionally.

A physical example is swollen feet. A mental example is disorientation. An emotional one is anxiety.

Swollen feet are caused by the low air pressure on board and lack of circulation from sitting for long periods without moving. To remedy this, wear slippers or large travel shoes and periodically walk around.

Abstaining from alcoholic beverages in flight (and drinking lots of water instead), is both a physical and a mental remedy -- it helps to offset dehydration, and it promotes mental clarity.

Travelers experience less jet-lag when they skip all airplane food! It's typically high in fat, salt, and sugar, and low in carbohydrates. Moreover, it's difficult to digest in flight with your intestines all swollen from the airplane's low air pressure. Either avoid eating (drink plenty of fluids but avoid solid foods between your departure location and your arrival destination) or bring along carbohydrate snacks (these help you function more effectively and think more clearly at higher altitudes).

Flying west usually causes less jet-lag than flying east. This is because eastbound travel crunches the day to less than 24 hours, so at bedtime we're not sleepy and then it's hard to get up in the morning. To help re-set your biological cycles, set your watch to the local time at your arrival destination when you first board your flight. Sleep on board if your flight lands in the morning and avoid sleeping on board if your flight lands in the evening. When you land, try taking a hot, candlelit bath instead of sleeping pills.

When you first arrive, schedule work or other important activity at a time when you are likely to have maximum energy, (i.e., in the evening, after jetting east, or in the morning, after jetting west). To help speed up acclimatization, spend some time outdoors every day during daylight hours. Even being in a room with windows helps to enlighten our body clocks. Natural light automatically cues our cells to the new local cosmology.

Along with the adoption of the local bedtime to help you quickly adjust to the new time zone, try doing what the locals do: their food preference, meal times, recreational activities, and even the way they dress. If you can do only one thing at first, adjust your bedtime to the local timetable as soon as possible.

Jet-lag is not psychological; it is cycle logical. All our internal cycles (temperature, sleep, cravings for sweets, reactions to medications) are programmable, like computers. Program yours to bounce back from jet-lag with adaptability and resilience by focusing your thoughts and feelings on your desired goals -- determine to enjoy your well-being as you skirt the globe.

What should I pack?

Lightly! Hand-carrying a little luggage requires less fortitude than losing a lot of luggage later. According to Consumer Reports, 8% of passengers who check luggage report something lost or stolen. Airlines limit their liability for lost or stolen luggage, and you must prove your claim with receipts. When preparing baggage for check-in, remember: it's easier to make a list of your effects while you are packing (video or photograph them) then to reconstruct one under duress.

Be sure to bring enough things in your carry-ons to manage for a couple of days, just in case. Always hand-carry your prescriptions, travel documents, money, and valuables. Other items which you may want to consider taking in your carry-ons are:

  • Bottled water
  • Spritzer
  • Cotton handkerchief
  • Local currency of your arrival destination
  • Carbohydrate snacks
  • Socks and slippers
  • Sweater or shawl
  • Inflatable neck pillow
  • Ear plugs
  • Eye-mask inscribed with the message "do not disturb"
  • Body oil for skin and inside of nose
  • Sleeping pills

Here's how to pack smart so you can keep it to carry-ons:

  • Before packing your clothes, imagine yourself at your destination. Watch several scenes. What are you wearing? If it's realistic, that's what you want to pack
  • Miniaturize toiletries
  • Wear heaviest clothing for flight, in layers. Your carry-ons will be lighter and you'll be comfortable as the climate changes en route (sometimes the plane is drafty, sometimes it's stuffy)
  • After landing, buy local duds to look local; you'll be treated more like an insider
  • Ship stuff home

How do I prevent dehydration when I fly?

The in-flight air is drier than any of the world's deserts. Typically, relative humidity is 20-25% in the Sahara or Arabian deserts, while optimum comfort is around 50%. Cabin humidity on long-distance, high-altitude flights can go well below 10%, in many cases approaching 1%. That super-dry air can create thirst, scratchy or bloodshot eyes, and dry skin.

To avoid in-flight dehydration:

  • Drink at least 8 ounces of water every hour en route
  • Carry your own bottle of drinking water when you fly, to sip when service is not available (right after takeoff or when the bar carts close before landing)
  • En route, drink bottled or canned water rather than the tap water. There are presently no standards for commercial aircraft water tanks, for cleanliness, treatment procedures, nor water quality in cities around the world where commercial jets refill
  • Avoid alcohol and coffee; they have diuretic properties (i.e., they squeeze water out of our cells
  • Spritz your face often; use an empty perfume atomizer and refill it from your own drinking water or buy a water spritzer (used for ironing)
  • Apply eye cream below eyes and oil inside nostrils (almond oil smells nice; jojoba oil is also good and a little thicker; olive oil is excellent, too
  • After landing, submerge and soak in water as soon as possible -- the ocean, a hot tub, a pool, a bath, whatever is available; immerse entirely, even and especially your head; bathing when dehydrated helps to replenish moisture right through the pores, and relaxes the nervous system

There's no way to avoid some dehydration while flying long distances in near-zero humidity in commercial jet cabins. We need to be mindful of our water intake en route, and remember to drink plenty of pure water for several days after landing. Without adequate water intake, both health and inspiration quickly deteriorate. 

How do I protect my ears when I fly?

If you plan to fly and have a head cold, please consider canceling out of compassion for your plane-mates. It's common knowledge that viruses recirculate in the recycled cabin air. A note from your doctor will ensure you do not have to pay a "no-show" penalty when you cancel. If you do have to fly, however, consider donning a surgical mask to keep your germs to yourself -- and watch out for your ears! As aircraft descend, pressure increases, and this can cause excruciating pain in the ears.

Invisible help is available, however, aboard every plane in the sky. Here's how to clear your blocked ears on a commercial flight. You'll need a cup, a paper napkin, and some hot water:

  1. Ask the flight attendant for a cup and cocktail napkin
  2. Put the napkin in the bottom of the cup
  3. Ask the flight attendant to add a little bit of boiling water, then drain off the excess
  4. Lean your head down and sideways towards the cup to cover your blocked ear. Be careful that none of the hot water gets in your ear!
  5. As the steam goes into your ear, the eustachian tube will quickly clear and pain will ease


How do I snag some shut-eye at 30,000 feet?

Sleeping aloft can definitely impact the overall success of a journey -- especially on "red-eye" eastbound flights where sleep en route will help to quickly alleviate jet-lag. For those passengers who have trouble sleeping on jets, there's always time lost catching up later -- whether at home, on business, or on vacation.

"Cocoon" yourself by using the airline blanket and pillow (claim a set before taking your seat), and sweater and socks to swaddle yourself. Fasten your seat belt loosely outside blanket; otherwise, in the event of turbulence, flight attendants may awaken you to buckle up.

You can also improvise:

  • Unfasten the velcro of your head rest cushion and relocate it behind the small of your back to provide extra recline
  • Position the airline pillow behind your head
  • Place a moistened handkerchief over your nose
  • Keep a bottle of drinking water within reach to sip and to re-moisten your hankie during intermittent awakenings
  • If you're on a red-eye jetting east, lower your window shade to avoid the dawn
  • If you're small enough to curl up on two seats, and lucky enough to have two, lift the armrest, then nest it between the seat backs. Fasten the male end of one seat belt to the female end of the other seat belt (over your blanket).

Set your mental alarm by telling your subconscious to awaken you when the new, high-pitched whine of the engines signals the top of descent (about 25 minutes before landing on long flights).

After the aircraft's wheels leave the runway:

  • Don your ear plugs and eye-mask
  • Recline your seat
  • Reposition your under-seat baggage as a foot rest
  • Doze off with the extra g-force of the ascent

Sweet dreams! 

Tired Volunteer
A Lifewater Canada volunteer getting some rest in on his way home from Africa!

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