Germs on a Plane

People magazine is saying this week that yes, flying is hazardous to your health: “three different incoming flights at two U.S. airports were held on the tarmac [due to] sick passengers.” That’s pretty shocking, frankly.

This has been a bête noire of mine for years—if you’re sick, stay home, dagnabbit, don’t bring your cold onto an airplane and share it with me!—and I’m glad a popular national magazine is talking about it:

“It’s important to get your immune system in good shape before you travel,” the magazine’s expert says. “Rest up in advance so you don’t arrive to your flight exhausted and stressed, eat healthily and stay hydrated leading up to travel.”

This is important, and should not be underestimated. Start a slow-down before you leave so that you’re rested. It’s your best defense against an errant germ on the airplane—which could ruin a long-planned dream vacation if you run into that germ on your out-bound flight.

Distilled Water—A Precious Commodity in Ireland

A few years ago I was diagnosed with sleep apnea, and as a result, I travel with a CPAP machine, which uses distilled water in the humidifier portion of its program. It takes about a cup to fill the reservoir, and that lasts several days. I buy distilled water at the local grocery store; it costs about eighty-nine cents for a gallon.

Remember that. Eighty-nine cents for a gallon.

The first time I traveled to Ireland with my CPAP (2012, I think), I asked Gerry to pick up some distilled water for me. They don’t carry it at the grocers there; you have to go to “the chemist’s” (Americans would call this the pharmacy) to purchase it.

Half a gallon (actually, two liters) of distilled water cost eight euro. Eight euro! That’s sixteen times what it costs in the States! (But wait—there’s more. When I returned in 2013, the cost had more than doubled, to seventeen euro. That’s what it cost in 2015 too.)

WHY? This is the question. Why is it hard to find (you have to order it and wait for it to come in; it’s not kept on hand to sell to the public), and why in the world does it cost so much? My mother, back in the day, kept distilled water on hand to put in the iron, for steaming (this is no longer necessary, by the way). It has never been expensive nor difficult to find in the States.

But it sure is in Ireland. I’ve spent a lot of time searching for answers—which I have mostly found on various message boards. No travel website on either side of the Atlantic has addressed it, as best I can tell. So here’s what I’ve gleaned about the availability of distilled water in Ireland:

  1. Pharmacy: The chemist will be able to get it for you. Be prepared to wait a couple days, and pay through the nose.
  2. Boil and cool: Water in Ireland is very hard, so you don’t want to put it in your CPAP as is. However, you can boil it and cool it. Takes more time, of course, and when you’re traveling it isn’t particularly convenient, but it’s a solution. Most hotel rooms are equipped with electric kettles.
  3. Health food store: I found this chain of health food stores in Galway selling distilled water in one-liter bottles. But a check online of several shops in Dublin yielded no such convenience, though it may just be they don’t get enough call for distilled water to add it to their online product database.
  4. Car-parts store: Because distilled (or deionized) water is used in batteries. I have yet to walk into a car-parts store in Ireland to find out. I’d call ahead.
  5. Babies: I’ve also read to try the baby section of supermarkets (for humidifiers and such, I guess). Again, I have yet to try this, and I’m not going to count on it until I can. But at €17 for a half gallon, who could afford to run a humidifier in baby’s room, eh?

Finally, a reminder that deionized water is not the same as distilled water; check with your CPAP manufacturer before you put it in your machine.

Bottom line—if you’re traveling to Ireland and know you will need distilled water when you get there, do some advance planning. If you’re visiting friends or relatives, they can help. Otherwise, call your hotel’s concierge or your B&B and ask them to track some down for you (and remember to tip the concierge well when you arrive).

Dealing With Jet-Lag

I originally had titled this collection of notes “How to avoid jet-lag” but I’m not sure it can be completely avoided, especially as we age. Couple that with the fact that airports and planes are crowded, flights are late or canceled, everyone’s rushed and stressed … the travel—the getting there—itself is not a pleasant experience.

And then you’re hopping across all those time zones. Heck, I have trouble with the change from standard to daylight savings and back, and that’s just an hour.

So let’s talk about what you can do to minimize the effects of the trip as well as the time change. These are just my personal experiences, nothing scientific.

  • Don’t wear yourself to a frazzle before the trip, getting ready for it. Start fresh and rested. If you live a long way from the airport, travel in to the city the day before and stay in an airport hotel so you don’t have to rush.
  • Drink plenty of water to avoid the effects of dehydration (headache, etc.). I also carry Body Shop hydrating spray, which I spray on face and arms and anything else. Drink water as soon as you hit the ground too—lots.
  • If you’re the sort who can, grab some shut-eye on the plane. Bring and use noise-canceling headphones and remember that blue-spectrum light—from your phone, laptop, iPad, the seat-back movie screen—keeps you awake. Make yourself a little cocoon of quiet, as much as possible. Sleep is usually iffy for me; I read until I get tired and then doze, maybe. Again, it’s that little cocoon of quiet.
  • Bring your own pillow; it helps on the plane and once you arrive too.
  • I stay away from pills; no melatonin, no OTC sleeping pills. I’ve tried both—melatonin didn’t have much effect and sleeping pills didn’t help enough. But that’s just me.
  • Alcohol on the plane is not your friend. Rule of thumb on booze is 1 in air = 2 or 3 on ground. So take a pass unless you want to add a hangover to your jet-lag.
  • Also, stay away from junk food and processed food as much as possible. Eat the good stuff. I know it’s more expensive, but you just don’t want all those preservatives and additives in your system, especially if, like me, you’ve made a concious effort to “eat clean” in your daily life. It’s like taking poison.
  • Wear compression socks if you have trouble with foot swelling on long flights, as I do. It will help. Don’t worry about looking good; stay focused on feeling good.
  • Don’t collapse as soon as you arrive. Stay up and as much as possible go to bed when the locals do. When I go from Middle Tennessee to Dublin, I arrive in the early morning and just stay up all day. Maybe go to bed a little early.
  • Do get some sunlight when you land—a walk outside is not just getting some fresh air, it’s resetting your body clock to local time.
  • Schedule a massage for the day you arrive (or the next day). It will make a world of difference to the way you feel. Do this, obviously, before you leave home.
  • Soak in a hot bathtub before you go to bed. At the very least, soak your feet in Epsom salts.
  • Give yourself time. Don’t jump into a vigorous schedule right away, and don’t expect to recover in one night. If you ease into things, you’ll feel better faster.

You can find all sorts of advice online, some of it contradictory, so use caution with unsolicited advice. The best thing is to use your head, be kind to yourself, and take it easy.

Still Thinking (and Reading) About the Health Quest

“I remember the day I stopped worrying about eating fat. It was long before I started poring over thousands of scientific studies and conducting hundreds of interviews to write this book. Like most Americans, I was following the low-fat advice set forth by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in its food pyramid, and when the Mediterranean diet was introduced in the 1990s, I added olive oil and extra servings of fish while cutting back further on red meat. In following these guidelines, I was convinced that I was doing the best I could for my heart and my waistline, since official sources have been telling us for years that the optimal diet emphasizes lean meats, fruits, vegetables, and grains and that the healthiest fats come from vegetable oils. Avoiding the saturated fats found in animal foods, especially, seemed like the most obvious measure a person could take for good health.

“Then, around 2000, I moved to New York City and started writing a restaurant review column for a small paper. It didn’t have a budget to pay for meals, so I usually ate whatever the chef decided to send out to me. Suddenly I was eating gigantic meals with foods I that I would have never before allowed to pass my lips: paté, beef of every cut prepared in every imaginable way, cream sauces, cream soups, foie gras—all the foods I had avoided my entire life.

“Eating these rich, earthy dishes was a revelation. I ate with abandon. And yet, bizarrely, I found myself losing weight. In fact, I soon lost the ten pounds that had dogged me for years, and my doctor told me my cholesterol numbers were fine.

“… The more I probed, the greater was my realization that all our dietary recommendations about fat—the ingredient about which our health authorities have obsessed most during the past sixty years—appeared to be not just slightly offtrack but completely wrong. Almost nothing that we commonly believe today about fats generally and saturated fats in particular appears, upon close examination, to be accurate.” (Emphasis mine.)

— journalist Nina Teicholz, in The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat & Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet © 2014 Simon & Schuster

I Used to Get Sick When I Flew

Now I don’t. I worked on this problem for a long time, but people frequently ask me how I conquered air travel. All I can tell you is what seems to work for me, with the added disclaimer that I am not a doctor, and none of this is to be construed as advice, medical, health, or otherwise.

My father, as I’ve mentioned more than once, was an air force pilot. So I grew up around planes—big ones and little ones. A flight suit was standard issue in our house, and we went to flight shows whenever they occurred. I’m sure I was the first little girl on my block to set foot in a B-52 (among many others). Daddy was big into radio-controlled model airplanes, too, and built them from scratch. So we learned all about the physics of flying. We took family vacations in small aircraft, with my dad at the wheel and me riding shotgun. I’ve always been at ease with flying.

But Daddy was also a chain smoker—he started smoking at age eight—in the era when they had no idea what cigarettes did to a body. Nor did they know what secondhand smoke did to the body’s loved ones. My sister and I have both had numerous respiratory issues in our lives, and we’re pretty sure they stem from all those cigarettes we inhaled without ever smoking a one. When I catch a cold, it immediately settles down in my lungs.

And when I fly, I’m exposed to a boatload of OPG … which is to say, Other People’s Germs. I’d never been a germophobe, but between 2006 and 2012 I took eighteen round-trip flights and ended up sick—bad sick—after every one of ’em. The first one—to Ireland in February 2006—landed me in a walk-in clinic with a miserable case of bronchitis and a course of antibiotics. As time went on, the bronchitis got more severe, the treatment more strenuous, the recovery period longer. My last three trips ended in pneumonia, and I don’t mind saying it scared me.

I even tried wearing a surgical face mask on one trip, but the fact is these masks are intended to keep germs in, not out. They are not designed to protect the wearer from inhaling airborne bacteria or viruses (respirators are, but just try wearing one of those on a plane), they are designed to keep the wearer’s germs from spreading outward. In other words, folks who are sick should wear masks.

Fact is, folks who are sick—even with “just” a cold—shouldn’t fly. They should wait until they’re better. (Or wear a face mask!) However, there’s a financial penalty for that—the airlines don’t like us changing flights at the last minute, for one thing (and I don’t blame them). We might also lose deposits on hotel rooms and other vacation activities.

So until the airlines start filtering the air inside the plane (an expensive proposition) rather than just recycling it, we passengers take our chances, and mine had proven to be not so good. What’s a girl to do?

I’ll tell you: research. As you know, I’ve been slowly evolving to a holistic, naturopathic lifestyle. I’ve written about the three health events that changed my life (and the follow-up). Even prior to that, I’d grown away from pharmaceutical solutions. For example—and at the risk of TMI—though I had easy access to birth control pills in my late teens (the early 1970s), I quit taking them after a couple years, when I began to actually read the fine print on the box and came to the conclusion all by myself that the pills would not be good for my health. I switched to the diaphram, which I used for the rest of my child-bearing years. Not as easy, maybe, but not polluting my body, either.

I knew I’d been blessed with reasonably good health, so why chance it? Unlike many children born in the 1950s, we kids were not bottle-fed. (Family legend has it that I asked one of our neighbors what a baby bottle was when I saw them on the drainboard in their house—I was about six or seven years old—because I’d never seen such things in my own house.) That alone gave us a head start that many kids of our generation didn’t have, as the 1950s and ’60s were a time when “the predominant attitude to breastfeeding was that it was something practiced by the uneducated and those of lower classes,” according to Wikipedia. Also during this time, there was a surge in modern conveniences and processed food, and a lot of kids got a lot of meals out of cans, but our mother, who’d grown up with a huge vegetable garden in the backyard, cooked with a lot of fresh foods. We had to beg to be given SpaghettiOs. 🙂 (Later she got sick, and was sick for the next 24 years, and convenience products crept into the house; but as the oldest, I got a very good beginning.)

So I’ve always been cautious with pharmaceuticals. I am apparently one of the few Americans of my generation who takes no maintenance drugs. I’m very fortunate.

But I had this pesky cold-bronchitis-pneumonia problem, and it sounded to me like I needed to work on my immune system. But there is no magic pill for that either. 🙂 The best I could come up with is this: a good immune system starts in the gut—healthy eating, healthy digestion.

And about the same time, I was exposed to essential oils. I started researching the use of essential oils in building the immune system as a step toward personal health. (I’d tried herbal concoctions already, but they hadn’t done the trick.) Over time, I developed a little regimen of oils (I put them in a capsule for convenience) that I take in the run-up to a trip: lemon, frankincense, lemongrass, oregano, and Thieves, a blend of 5 oils. By 2013, I had it dialed in, and I haven’t gotten “airplane sick” since then. (Again, this is my personal story. I make no claims to efficacy; your experience may differ. I am not a doctor or health-care advisor, nor am I in the business of selling essential oils; I purchase and use them only for my own benefit.)

When I have a trip coming, I make up enough capsules to take one per day for 30 days prior to the trip, and one per day for the duration of the trip. I only take them for this period; I do not take them day in and day out.

Although I don’t believe in using germicides in daily life, I take packets of them with me when I travel. When I get on the plane, I wipe down the seatbelt, the armrests, and the tray table. I carry a bottle of Thieves with me, and every two or three hours I rub a few drops over my fingers and hands and around my nostrils. (Here’s a little article about the Thieves blend’s ability to kill household germs.)

I use Thieves this way during the cold and flu season too: as I approach the grocery store, where I’ll be touching a cart that others have touched, I rub Thieves over my hands and nostrils.

It’s worked well for me. And, yes, I have started my regimen, because I fly in one week. Can’t wait. 🙂

Ready to fly!

Ready to fly!

Following Up on the Health Quest

I haven’t meant to become an evangelist. Or an activist. I really haven’t. But when I went to see my doctor about three months ago, she noticed I’d lost weight. “Good girl!” she said. “What are you doing?”

I told her (see previous post) I’d read this book and was following the recommendations in it. I told her it was a low-carb diet. “I eat a lot of meat and green, leafy vegetables,” I said. I figured she knew the science of how this works.

Lean meat,” she said.

Her emphasis was an indication that she doesn’t know the science; she’s still buying in to the medical establishment’s emphasis on cutting fat and calories. My health insurance company sends me little newsletters full of advice to increase exercise and cut calories (the calories-in/calories-out method); this also is bad science. In Why We Get Fat, Taubes notes,

The physicians of Bruch’s era [the 1940s and ’50s] weren’t thoughtless and the doctors of today are not, either. They merely have a flawed belief system—a paradigm—that stipulates that the reason we get fat is clear and incontrovertible, as is the cure. We get fat, our physicians tell us, because we eat too much and/or move too little, and so the cure is to do the opposite. … This is what Bruch described in 1957 as the ‘prevalent American attitude that the problem [of obesity] is simply one of eating more than the body needs,’ and now it’s the prevalent attitude worldwide. … Over the years, this calories-in/calories-out paradigm of excess fat has proved to be remarkably resistant to any evidence to the contrary. Imagine a murder trial in which one credible witness after another takes the stand and testifies that the suspect was elsewhere at the time of the killing and so had an airtight alibi, and yet the jurors keep insisting that the defendant is guilty, because that’s what they believed when the trial began.

“Well,” I said, “we actually need the good fats—saturated fats—to facilitate the chemistry that creates the weight loss.” But even as I spoke I could see her losing interest. I’ve since learned that they don’t teach nutrition in med school.

Still, I’m not looking for my doctor’s approval. I continue to eat the way I do because I feel so good. From May to December, I was unmoved by carbohydrates because I felt great. Then the Christmas season arrived, I went on vacation, and, well, there were cookies. 🙂 Mostly I kept to my eating habits; I didn’t go looking for trouble. But I definitely had some cookies.

If you're going to have a cookie, there are none better in all the land than those from the Chucklet & Honey Southern Bakery, owned by my friend Chuck Hargett. Tell ’im Jamie sent you!

If you’re going to have a cookie, there are none better in all the land than those from the Chucklet & Honey Southern Bakery, founded by my friend Chuck Hargett. This is their signature cookie, but there are lots more … and they’ll make your mouth water. When you call, tell ’im Jamie sent you!

Some bodies are genetically inclined to remain lean—it’s not all the fault of carbs—but the fact is mine is a body that is genetically inclined to plumpness. I’ve been to the family reunions, kids, and I’ve seen. So you can imagine my delight when I got home and discovered I hadn’t gained weight. This convinces me further that I’m on the right path. And I got right back on it.

I’m done with this topic, now, on my little travel blog. I’m excited that I’ve lost a little weight and I feel good. I’ve got two big trips coming up this year, and I’ll go into them with some of the best health I’ve enjoyed in a long time. But I wanted to leave you with a link to an article in case your medical professionals also got through med school without any nutrition science:

20 Mainstream Nutrition Myths

If you find it intriguing, visit the author’s website. I’m a big believer in scientific evidence in plain language, and you can find it there.

Sooooo … have you got any trips planned? Stay tuned, because I’ve got some great ideas about that.

Three Events That Changed My Life

I flew to Phoenix to spend Christmas with my son and to visit several friends who live in the area. Due to the nature of the season, I think, I found myself telling this “story” more than once, and it occurs to me that it’s appropriate to wind up my consideration of the year just past with a final telling.

Camelback Mountain—and Phoenix—seen from the Desert Botanical Garden.

Camelback Mountain—and Phoenix—seen from the Desert Botanical Garden.

This title, by the way, has to do with health. I place my relationship with loved ones first on my list of priorities, but in the category of living well and comfortably—and I grew up in a household dominated by catastrophic illness (my mother), so I know a little about that—there have been three health-related events that affected me in a deep, life-living way.

Throwing Out the Drugs

I worked for more than a decade in a high-stress job at a corporation. Toward the end of my tenure there, I developed and was diagnosed with GERD. For all the television commercials about “acid reflux” that might make this condition seem common and almost routine, GERD is a serious health issue—I actually thought I was having a heart attack the first time. Treatment involved sleeping with my head elevated and a prescription for Prevacid. (And giving up coffee—the horror!) This got the situation under control, but it was a condition I thought about all the time. There were a lot of foods I couldn’t eat, and I still had several miserable episodes per year. As time passed, Prevacid became an over-the-counter drug (as did Prilosec and Nexium, the other major GERD pharmaceuticals), which meant my insurance quit paying for it. I had to take two pills per day to keep it under control, and thus had a $70/month habit.

One day I was discussing this with my massage therapist (she and I share an interest in naturopathy and holistic medicine) and she facepalmed. “I don’t know why I didn’t think of this!” she said. “You should try probiotics. Just try them. They might work.”

And they did. Probiotics cost me about $15/month, and I was able to resume eating many of the foods I’d had to forgo in the past. I still had episodes, though not as frequently, and I still slept elevated. But I was off drugs. Probiotics changed my life. Now, unlike many Americans, I do not take any daily maintenance-type drugs.

Getting Good Sleep

Several years later, I visited my physician. My ankles had begun to swell at the end of the day, sometimes uncomfortably. (Ankle swelling can be caused by a lot of things, so don’t take my diagnosis as yours.)

My physician asked an odd question: “Do you snore?”

“Like a freight train,” I said. “And don’t tell me it has to do with my weight, because even when I was young and thin I snored, to the extent that no one wanted room with me on school trips. I know I’m getting old but—”

“You’re not old.” She laughed.

“Then tell me why I feel like I am 90 years old when I get up in the morning,” I said. “I used to be a morning person. I used to spring out of bed ready to go. Now I am exhausted when I get up. My best hours of the day are 11am to 3pm. I hate it.”

“We’ll test to be sure, but I think you have sleep apnea,” she said.

The sleep study was absolutely the most miserable night of my life, but in a sense, it was a huge success. Everyone has sleep apnea: it is normal for you to stop breathing 1 to 5 times per hour, but anything over 5 should be treated. Thirty times per hour is considered severe sleep apnea. But I stopped breathing 85 times per hour! No wonder I had no energy. No wonder I was tired all the time.

I was promptly fitted with a CPAP machine and literally overnight, my life changed. Most noticeably, I began to have dreams! (I never reached REM sleep before.) And I was rested and energetic—OMG!

Two other things happened. First, my acid reflux diminished significantly. I quit thinking about it (which did mean I had a couple episodes), and I began to sleep on just one pillow, like a normal person. Second, my sacroiliac dysfunction—which had been making me miserable for twenty years—also diminished significantly. I quit thinking about it too. Honestly, the value of a good night’s sleep cannot be overstated. If you snore or otherwise suspect you may have sleep apnea, get tested. It will add years to your life.

And one other interesting side note: I have for years kept track of the titles and how many books I read each year. (I love to read. And I’m an editor.) Most of my personal reading happens at bedtime—and suddenly I was reading for 30 minues, 45 minutes, an hour—instead of the miserly 15 minutes I had before. My book count has doubled. I love my Magic Sleep Machine!

Say Good-Bye to Sugar, Sugar

I still struggled with weight, though. In the spring of 2014, a long-time friend of mine recommended I read Why We Get Fat by science journalist Gary Taubes. Taubes isn’t selling a diet or diet foods—he’s only selling books. In Why We Get Fat,

Taubes argues that certain kinds of carbohydrates—not fats and not simply excess calories—have led to our current obesity epidemic. … Taubes reveals the bad nutritional science of the last century—none more damaging than the “calories-in, calories-out” model of why we get fat—and the good science that has been ignored, especially regarding insulin’s regulation of our fat tissue. He also answers key questions: Why are some people thin and others fat? What roles do exercise and genetics play in our weight? What foods should we eat or avoid?

The book made a pretty compelling case. In the third week of May, I cut my carbohydrate consumption dramatically. I gave up sugar and bread and processed foods cold turkey.

And I began to feel grrrrrrrrrreat!

My acid reflux is a thing of the past. I no longer give it any consideration; nothing I eat affects my esophagus. Gone also is my sacroiliac dysfunction—along with a lot of little aches and pains. I am never hungry—because this is not a diet. It’s a changed way of eating. I don’t have cravings.

Have I lost a dramatic amount of weight? Not yet. But I do lose weight every week, steadily, week after week. I’m confident that this will continue. From a health standpoint, I feel better every day.

If you are curious—and aren’t ready to read a book yet—watch the documentary called Fed Up. (Scroll down for the trailer.) Gary Taubes is one of the people featured in the film.


This blog is about la dolce vita—which, for me, includes travel. So don’t be alarmed: there is a travel connection to this story—and not just because I was on holiday when I thought of it as a three-part story. If you read the posts about my trips, you’ll note that I often ended up sick—with pneumonia—in a foreign country. Why? Because the airlines recycle the cabin air and people often travel in spite of being “just a little” unwell. And I—having grown up with a father who chain-smoked—am more susceptible than many to respiratory illness. I took 18 round-trip flights in 7 years from 2006 to 2012 and I got sick—often very sick—every time.

When I was researching a way to boost my immunity—perhaps I could ward off those circulating germs on the plane—I learned that all immunity starts in the gut. Improve your digestive health and your overall health will improve. Similarly, good sleep will improve your health across the board. And whether you want to lose weight or not, have a look at giving up sugar. You can thank me later. 🙂

Have a happy, healthy new year!