Assemble an herbal first-aid kit for healthy traveling
By Kim Erickson
Travel can be a well-earned respite from everyday life, but whether your vacation entails staying at an exotic ecoresort or backpacking in the wild, it can harbor frustrating health risks. Bug bites and sunburn can keep you from communing with nature. Sore muscles and tummy troubles can cut short adventure. And jet lag can leave you too weary to enjoy your surroundings. If you become seriously ill or injured on your trip, of course, head straight for the emergency room. For minor maladies, however, herbal first-aid supplies may do the trick.
Bag Bug Repellent
Whether you're in a hotel or at a campsite, mosquitoes and other native insects can pester you. Ethnobotanist James A. Duke, PhD, author of The Green Pharmacy (St. Martin's, 1998), says the best way to avoid bug bites is to apply a liberal amount of clove (Syzygium aromaticum) essential oil, which recent studies have found as effective as DEET. "Clove oil contains many compounds that have proven better than DEET," says Duke. "Since my mother used to put clove oil on my tooth for a toothache, I wouldn't be afraid to apply diluted clove oil as a bug repellent. I'd prefer it over a synthetic repellent, which is often much more dangerous." The Children's Health Environmental Coalition agrees, stating DEET is toxic and consumers should avoid using products containing it, particularly on children. Other research suggests thyme (Thymus vulgaris) and eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus) essential oils can also keep pesky critters at bay (Journal of the American Mosquito Control Association, 2002, vol. 18, nos. 2 and 4). To make your own insect repellant, combine 4 ounces of grape-seed or sweet almond oil with 1/2 teaspoon of essential oil in a spray bottle and shake to blend.
If the bugs bite anyway, Duke relies on plantain leaves (Plantago lanceolata or P. major) to soothe the pain and stop the itch. Simply mix the cut herb, available in capsule form at natural foods stores, with a bit of water and apply it to the affected area. You can also apply tea tree oil (Melaleuca alternifolia), if needed, to help heal the painful welts that often appear after a bite or a sting. A clinical trial of 27 volunteers at Flinders Medical Centre in South Australia found that applying a bit of undiluted tea tree oil to laboratory-induced "stings" significantly reduced swelling (British Journal of Dermatology, 2002, vol. 147, no. 6).
Pack Pain Relievers
It's tempting to be more active than usual while you're away from home, but overdoing it can leave you with myriad aches and pains. To treat sore muscles, make sure your kit includes a sports cream containing arnica (Arnica montana). According to the German Commission E, arnica soothes overworked muscles and reduces the pain and inflammation of a strain or a sprain. For relief, squirt a dollop of arnica cream onto the sore area and rub it in well.
Another aches-and-pains remedy that master herbalist Althea Northage-Orr, LAc, president of the Chicago College of Healing Arts, always packs in her herbal travel kit is a juniper-pine massage oil. Blend four drops each of juniper (Juniperus communis) and pine (Pinus sylvestris) essential oils in four ounces of almond, avocado, or jojoba oil and rub the mixture into the affected area for soothing relief.
To speed the healing of cuts and scrapes, it's also wise to have a calendula (Calendula officinalis) salve on hand, says Northage-Orr. More potent at reducing inflammation than some prescription drugs, calendula also has antibacterial and immune-stimulating properties.
Take Tummy Tamers
If you're prone to motion sickness, make sure you pack ginger (Zingiber officinale) capsules. A recent double-blind, placebo-controlled study by researchers at Taiwan's National Yang-Ming University and the University of Michigan found that ginger effectively prolongs the time before onset of motion sickness, reduces nausea once it occurs, and shortens the recovery time (American Journal of Physiology-Gastrointestinal and Liver Physiology, 2003, vol. 284, no. 3). To get a jump on motion sickness, take two 500-mg capsules 30 minutes before you depart. Repeat every four hours as needed to calm a queasy stomach.
Although exotic foods can make a vacation memorable, eating like the locals can also result in indigestion. Peppermint (Mentha piperita) can ease gastrointestinal upset, says Texas-based pharmacologist Philip Duterme, PhD. And, according to researchers at Epsom General Hospital in Surrey, England, drinking a cup of peppermint tea after eating a meal soothes the digestive tract by reducing colonic spasms (Journal of the Royal Society of Health, 2001, vol. 121, no. 1).
If heartburn accompanies the indigestion, Northage-Orr recommends her tummy tea: equal parts meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria), wild yam (Dioscorea villosa), German chamomile (Matricaria recutita), licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra), and marshmallow (Althaea officinalis). Use 1 tablespoon per cup of boiling water to make a soothing tea. "It will stop heartburn in its tracks," says Northage-Orr.
Slip In Sun Soothers
If a day at the beach or on the sea leaves you looking like an overripe tomato, reach for the aloe gel (Aloe barbadensis). Although this herb is well known for its ability to cool a sunburn, researchers at Chulalongkorn University Hospital in Bangkok, Thailand, found that aloe also reduces burn-related inflammation and speeds the healing of burn-damaged skin tissue (Journal of the Medical Association of Thailand, 2000, vol. 83, no. 4). "Better yet, during a recent trip to Kenya, one of the locals told me that aloe can actually help prevent a sunburn," says Duke. To test the claim, Duke applied a liberal dose of aloe gel to just one arm. Sure enough, the unprotected arm suffered sunburn, but the gel protected the treated arm from the hot African sun.
Green tea (Camellia sinensis) is another guard against ultraviolet skin damage. A review of studies on green tea by researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham concluded that the polyphenols in green tea offer potent protection against the sun's burning rays and help prevent the skin inflammation common to overexposure (International Journal of Oncology, 2001, vol. 18, no. 6). If you're vulnerable to sunburns, sip three to four cups of green tea every day for two weeks prior to heading off on your sunny vacation to shield your skin from the inside out. Once you're out and about, slather on a sunscreen containing green-tea extract for even more protection. Green tea is also a terrific sunburn treatment, especially if you suffer from a lobster-red face. To increase the levels of healing antioxidants on your skin and reduce the sting of overexposure, dunk a teabag in cool water and apply directly to your skin.
Rhodiola not only relieves fatigue, but boosts mental performance and increases levels of serotonin. Fold In Fatigue Fighters
You don't need to be a jet-setter to suffer from jet lag. If trekking across multiple time zones throws your body clock out of whack, avoid stimulants, such as caffeine, because they can interfere with the body's stress-fighting ability. Rely instead on adaptogenic herbs, plants that exert a normalizing influence on the body, such as rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea). Several clinical trials have found that rhodiola not only relieves fatigue, but also boosts mental performance and increases levels of serotonin, the brain's mood-elevating chemical. "St. John's wort can also help your body readjust during travel because it contains melatonin," notes Duke. Reset your body clock with either 50 mg of rhodiola twice a day or 300 mg of St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum) three times a day until you're feeling like yourself again.
Now You're Off
An herbal first-aid kit can be a real vacation saver. So plan ahead and slip these natural remedies into your suitcase to prevent and treat any minor mishaps that might plague your next trip.