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Nutrition and Herbal Medicine to Survive Long-Haul Flights

by Stephen Terrass(more info)

listed in nutrition, originally published in issue 47 - December 1999

Whether for business or holidays, we can either experience long-haul travel as an exciting adventure, or as a price we pay for our sins. In my experience, which camp one falls into has more to do with suitable preparation than why we are travelling or where we are travelling to. By preparation, I am not referring to logistical preparedness, but rather how prepared we are physiologically and biochemically for what the body will face on the journey.

Couple at rest

Fortunately, nutritional and herbal research has given us numerous clues as to how we can make such journeys, if not easy, at least far less traumatic to body and mind. As a person with a passport resembling James Bond's, I have had an opportunity over the last ten years to develop a personal programme which has changed my pre-excursion attitude from dread to a confident detachment and my post-flight state of being to anywhere between feeling OK to feeling positively refreshed.

There is no question that long-haul plane travel is stressful on the body in many ways, but the stress of travelling is not restricted to the flight itself. On one hand, you face jet lag. On another, you will be hit with the effect of prolonged exposure to the unforgiving environment of the airplane itself. Once you disembark you may then face the trauma of traveller's tummy, sunburn, mosquito attacks and the other common woes of venturing in to
foreign lands.

Jet Lag

Although the term is sometimes associated with all the maladies of long-haul travel, technically speaking, jet lag refers to the alteration of the body's biological time clock or sleep-wake cycle (Circadian rhythm) due to the crossing of several time zones in a short period of time. Research has established that the sleep-wake cycle is modulated by melatonin, a hormone primarily secreted by the pineal gland in the brain.[1] It is often said that it takes one day for the body clock to adjust for every hour's difference in time, however, it may not be necessary to endure such a slow correction.


Studies show that melatonin can be used successfully for re-setting the sleep phase of the Circadian rhythm to the desired new time.[2] It has also been found to be of value to many for the treatment of insomnia.[3] These properties have been partly responsible for the controversial popularity of melatonin as a 'supplement' in the US. In spite of its potential therapeutic properties, melatonin is a hormone, not a nutrient, and as far as I am concerned, its long-term safety is not sufficiently established to warrant the 'free sale' status that it enjoys in the States. While I don't have a major concern with the one-off use of melatonin for jet lag by most adults, I am concerned about the self- administration of melatonin on an on-going basis (i.e. insomnia). It is worth noting that a few years ago the Medicines Control Agency withdrew melatonin from free sale in the UK, making it prescription only. Although research into jet lag treatment is lacking outside of melatonin, fortunately there are nutritional and herbal supplements which may provide a useful alternative.


Melatonin is produced in the brain from the chemical messenger serotonin.[4] Serotonin is manufactured in the brain from the amino acid 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP), which is derived from the dietary amino acid L-tryptophan. Studies show that 5-HTP supplementation is the fastest way to enhance serotonin production in the brain, thereby making it perhaps the most suitable way to positively influence melatonin (other than taking melatonin itself).[5,6] 5-HTP is available without prescription on the UK market.

Herbal Sedatives

Trying to sleep when your body says it's noon can be a challenge even with the aid of melatonin enhancers. As a result, it may be worth considering additional research-proven natural relaxants and sedatives, such as the herbs valerian, passion flower or kava kava and the mineral magnesium.[7-10] I personally find that kava kava calms me remarkably well, but doesn't help me to sleep because of its tendency to enhance mental acuity. Nevertheless, most people I have spoken to seem to find it at least somewhat useful in jet lag and one of my colleagues once told me, "it knocks me out like a horse tranquilliser!"

L-phenylalanine, L-tyrosine and L-glutamine

The amino acids L-phenylalanine and L-tyrosine have been shown in research to enhance mental alertness and activity, due to functioning as precursors to stimulatory neurotransmitters in the brain (e.g. dopamine, noradrenaline, phenylethylamine).[11-13] L-glutamine is the precursor to glutamic acid, which is not only a stimulatory neurotransmitter, but also an alternative fuel source to glucose in the brain.[14,15] Although there are currently no clinical trials involving these amino acids in jet lag, they may well be of value during the waking stages, when the body really wants to sleep. I certainly have used these with success in the past (they are non-addictive), although they are not a substitute for a good night's sleep.

Circulatory and Lymphatic Sluggishness

Hours without physical activity and the pressurised plane environment not only adversely affect circulation in blood vessels, but also the lymphatic system, the body's mechanism for removing waste and toxins from the tissues. This is the main reason for the swollen extremities, and much of the feeling of bodily and mental sluggishness that you notice when it is time to leave the plane. It is worth noting that the consumption of alcohol, caffeine, nicotine and sugar lead to an elevation in the hormone adrenaline, which constricts blood vessels, exacerbating circulatory difficulties.

Gotu Kola (Centella asiatica) and Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba)

Without question, my greatest success in this area has been with a combination of the herbs Gotu kola and Ginkgo biloba. Before introducing these herbs into my travel regime I would have great difficulty putting on my shoes for quite some time after landing from any flight over about 5 hours.

Improving capillary circulation indirectly improves lymphatic drainage, thereby reducing oedema of the feet, ankles, hands, etc. My success with Ginkgo may not come as a surprise, as it is well known for its ability to dilate capillaries in the extremities.[16-18] Far less known, gotu kola has been the subject of dozens of studies, many which have proven its remarkable ability to enhance circulation, especially in the lower limbs.[19-21]

A well-researched treatment for varicose veins and cellulite, among other things, Gotu kola has been shown to stabilise the structural integrity of the blood vessels, especially the veins, which take blood away from the extremities. If blood is not taken away efficiently it pools in the extremities and causes a queuing up of blood, lymphatic fluid, toxins, etc. I have personally found Gotu kola the most effective tool for improving lymphatic drainage in the lower limbs, and not just in the case of flight-induced oedema.

Digestive Sluggishness

The typically mediocre standard of plane food, combined with sitting in the same place for hours has a lot to do with the increased risk of constipation and indigestion. Personally, I have reached the point where, other than my supplements, I consume nothing but Granny Smith apples, rice cakes and a couple litres of mineral water, no matter how long the flight.

I tried this a few years ago on the second of my many 26-hour (ugh!) marathon plane journeys to New Zealand. I combined it with servings of a barley grass-rich green drink every six hours or so. What a difference! The benefits came in many forms, but most dramatic was the increase in energy after the flight landed, a benefit that more or less was maintained for the two weeks that I was there, presumably because of the good start the in-flight preparation afforded me. It really made tangible how much energy we expend on digestion, absorption and detoxification of the components of normal sized meals, especially of plane food!

I can understand why few people would choose to settle for my personal in-flight menu, and I don't suppose that you would have to go to such an extreme to feel OK upon arrival. Nevertheless, it would be advised to be aware of a few simple rules, so that any decision you make regarding in-flight diet is an informed one. Generally, airlines make available meals which meet many different types of dietary restrictions, provided the request is made when the flight is booked.

1 Avoid alcohol (it inhibits detoxification, adversely affects circulation and dehydrates) and caffeine;
2 Eat only enough to avoid hunger;
3 Choose low salt, low fat (fatty foods slow digestion), low sugar and high fibre foods (e.g. vegetables, fruit, whole grains);
4 Drink plenty of pure water (if you wait until you're thirsty then you are already partially dehydrated).

Prior to my decision to avoid proper meals on flights I did manage to avoid indigestion and intestinal sluggishness with either digestive enzyme supplements or a supplement containing digestive herbs such as ginger, fennel and peppermint. And meal or no meal, I always supplement with the beneficial digestive bacteria, Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacteria.


One thing is for sure – using stimulants such as caffeine, sugar and nicotine will ultimately only worsen the effects of jet lag and flight fatigue. Stimulants do not increase energy; they drain it by weakening the body's stress-fighting capacity, imbalancing blood sugar levels and even further interrupting sleep patterns and quality.[22-24] Fortunately, there are several natural agents that have been clinically proven to fight fatigue, especially stress-related fatigue. These are known as adaptogens, or agents that enhance the body's adaptability to physical, mental and/or environmental stress. Of course, in long-haul travel you deal with all three types at once!


Without question, the best known adaptogen is the herb ginseng. Studies show that ginseng not only helps the body to tolerate stress, but also reduces mental and physical fatigue, enhances endurance, improves tolerance to temperature and altitude extremes and has many other benefits relevant to the challenges of long-distance travelling.[25-27] Because Korean ginseng (Panax ginseng) is the most stimulating type, if you tend to be a bit nervous or on edge, you may prefer Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococ-cus senticosus) instead, although its anti-fatigue effect is more subtle.

Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea)

Although little known, (believe it or not, due to Soviet secrecy during the cold war) the Asian herb rhodiola is one of the most powerful adaptogens ever researched (see also Research Updates: Herbal Medicine). Like ginseng, this herb has been shown to greatly improve tolerance to physical, mental and environmental stress, reduce fatigue and enhance mental and physical performance. One significant advantage of rhodiola over ginseng is its ability to significantly increase the brain's activity of the calming, mood-elevating neurotransmitter serotonin.[28-31]

The above adaptogens are best supported with supplemen- tation of the nutrients that are directly involved in modulating stress hormone production and activity such as B vitamins (especially pantothenic acid), vitamin C, magnesium and zinc.


Some of the fatigue from long flights may relate to the build up of harmful free radicals. It is thought that the body is exposed to a greater concentration than normal of free radicals in a high-altitude airplane environment. Among other things, free radicals hinder the efficiency of energy metabolism and oxygen utilisation. This would only serve to exacerbate the biochemical and physiological sluggishness discussed above, as well as the effect of the differences in oxygen levels compared to your normal environment on the ground. Antioxidant nutrients, such as vitamins A, C and E, carotenoids and the mineral selenium neutralise free radicals, thus helping to protect the body from their adverse effects. An added advantage is that many nutritional antioxidants also support the immune system, which is typically compromised with long-distance plane travel.[32-35]

Traveller's Diarrhoea and Nausea

Trekking in a foreign country was never intended to be restricted to the land that lies between the loo and the bed, but for so many travellers this is precisely what they will be faced with. Certain water and food-borne bacteria and parasites can wreak havoc on the digestive system.

Fortunately, there are many tools in natural medicine that can kill pathogenic organisms before they ruin your trip. However, because your body may well be bombarded with several different types at the same time, it is advisable to consider a multi-faceted anti-microbial approach.


In addition to carrying out various digestive functions, the beneficial bacteria, such as Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacteria, inhibit pathogenic organisms in the intestines primarily by making the environment inhospitable for the uninvited guests. One of many protective properties is their ability to lower the pH of the intestines to a point that is far too acidic for many pathogens to survive. Lactobacillus acidophilus primarily resides in the small intestine and Bifidobacteria in the large intestine.

Because both the small and large intestines can ultimately be affected by pathogens, it is recommended that probiotic treatment or prevention includes both acidophilus and Bifidobacteria.[36,37]

Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis)

One of the most potent anti-microbial agents known to man, goldenseal has been shown to kill many varieties of harmful bacteria, fungi, parasites, etc. that infect the digestive system. In fact, numerous studies have confirmed its dramatic benefits in the treatment of infective diarrhoea, and without the risks or side effects associated with anti-microbial drugs.[38-40] I consider goldenseal the most important tool in my 'travel protection kit' and I would not travel without it. I have never (he says as he knocks on wood) experienced even the slightest tummy trouble, and some of my non-business travelling has taken me to some of the less developed areas of developing countries. Through the help of goldenseal and probiotics, I also have more than one acquaintance who has returned unscathed when the rest of their group was stricken at one time or another.

Do not use goldenseal if you are pregnant.

Please note: Always consult a qualified medical practitioner if you contract an infection, whether or not you use any of the above agents. Certain infections can be dangerous if untreated or inadequately treated, and there is no guarantee that the above natural approaches will be sufficiently effective in every case.


The use of ginger to relieve nausea, and travel sickness in particular, is not new to many followers of natural medicine.[41,42] What is far less known is ginger's ability to inhibit certain pathogenic organisms, although it is not nearly as potent or versatile as goldenseal.[43] Although I do not get travel sickness, many people I know have found the greatest success with 1,000-1,500 mg of ginger taken 15-30 minutes before travelling and 500-1,500 mg as needed throughout the trip. For general nausea, ginger is often used at a level of about 500-1,500 mg as needed.

No matter whether you are travelling for business or holiday, the state in which you arrive at your destination will almost certainly have a critical impact on the rest of the trip. Thanks to nutrition and herbal medicine, with the right programme it is not only possible to avoid jet lag and flight stress, but also many of the unforeseen maladies that often afflict travellers after they arrive at their destination.


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About Stephen Terrass

Stephen Terrass, 37, is the Technical Director of Solgar Vitamins UK. A member of the Register of Nutritional Therapists, Stephen is recognised as one of Britain's top experts in natural medicine and nutrition. He has spent the last 20 years studying and researching the effects of diet, nutritional supplementation, and herbal therapies on health and disease. Stephen has lectured internationally on the proven effects of nutritional and herbal therapies in the treatment and/or prevention of health disorders and contributes regularly to various professional and consumer publications He is the author of a series of eight books published by Thorsons including: Arthritis, Allergies, Menopause, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Weight Control, Eczema And Psoriasis, Stress, Candida albicans. In 1992, the series of 12 cassette tapes that were written and narrated by Stephen won the Best New Product and Innovation Award at the health industry's national trade exhibition.

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