As fun as traveling can be, air travel can cause a great deal of stress to the body. Aside from the stress of getting to your flight on time, just sitting on the plane as it flies through the air bombards the body with stress. Most people don’t know this, but there’s radiation in the air and the higher the plane goes, the higher your exposure can be (1)! Then there’s the recycled air you have to suck. And don’t even get me started with the low-quality airplane food. What’s more, the airport itself is full of things that can add to your stress load and put you at risk of developing a cascade of health issues.
But fear not! Here’s your ultimate travel guide to keep your body’s stress burden at a minimum while flying.
1.) Opt-Out with Particle Scanners
Most airports now use devices called particle scanners to essentially decrease risk of a terrorist attack.
Ever heard of the “underwear bomber”? On Christmas day in 2009, a Nigerian Muslim man stuffed a bunch of plastic explosives down his pants and tried to detonate it on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. The response to this had airports begin using particle scanners to better detect non-metallic “weapons” that could be under a passenger’s clothing.
At most American airports you will encounter two types of particle scanners:
For some time the infamous “backscatter” x-ray machines were used in most American airports. These scanning devices work much like any other x-ray device, using a form of ionizing radiation to essentially strip search you with your clothes still on. The original units would actually be able to display a realistic nude picture of you on their screen, but in 2012 the United States FAA Modernization and Reform Act required these types of full-body scanners to be replaced with different units that created more “cartoon-like” pictures of passengers. The “healthy” threshold for ionizing radiation is still up for debate, but the effect of overexposure to this type of radiation, which directly ionizes the atoms it comes into contact with, can cause cellular mutations and DNA damage (2).
Interestingly, on December 2011, the European Union banned ionizing radiation scanning devices. Here’s their reasoning; “In order not to risk jeopardizing citizens’ health and safety, only security scanners which do not use X-ray technology are added to the list of authorized methods for passenger screening at EU airports.” (3)
But don’t worry, in 2013, the United States government mandated that these units be replaced with a different scanning unit called a Millimeter Wave Scanner. Unfortunately if you are flying outside the US, X-ray body scanners are still being used in other countries such as Russia.
Millimeter Wave Scanners
You’ll probably see these units in most US airports. These are called millimeter wave scanners. They are purported to be a lot safer than the other backscatter units I just mentioned because of their use of non-ionizing radiation. Studies are still being conducted to decide the safety of these units and so far evidence is mixed. One thing is certain; these units use terahertz radiation which has been found to tear double-bonded DNA, creating bubbles in the DNA that could interfere with processes such as gene expression and DNA replication (4).
Even if the risk is as small as some reports are saying, I’d rather just operate on the safe side. Regardless of the degree of harm, you are still causing unnecessary stress to your body. My logic is this; if you don’t have to go through these devices, why do it? I simply tell a TSA worker that I am “opting out” and they take me over to the side for a manual pat down. Sometimes the TSA member will lecture me that the scanners are safe, to which I politely thank them for their information and move on. Or if you’re really fancy, pay for the TSA Pre-check where you’ll just pass through one of the old school metal detectors.
2.) Don’t Sit Near A Window
If you sit near a window, pull the shade down. As the plane ascends upwards, the more ultraviolet (UV) rays pass through your window.Short-term exposure of UV-B rays can promote vitamin D production, but you shouldn’t get more than 15-20 minutes exposure or you’re at risk of skin damage—and that’s a recommendation when you’re on the ground, not in the sky where there’s less ultraviolet blocking because you are higher in altitude. In fact, for every 2,952 feet of altitude above sea level, you will experience an 15% increase in UV radiation intensity (5).
3.) Drink Lots of Water
When flying, the plane’s cabin uses a humidity level around 10-20 percent, which is much lower than a typical “real world” humidity level of 30-65%. That means if you’re just sitting around on the plane and not drinking water, you’ll be getting dehydrated fast.
To know your ideal hydration amount use this handy formula:
Take your bodyweight (in lbs.) / 2 = how many ounces of water you should be drinking per day
Translation: You need to be drinking a lot of water to remain hydrated when flying.
And I know, you’re probably thinking… “but I’m going to have to get up and pee a lot…” Yeah! So get an aisle seat and sit near the bathroom. That’s what I do. And as a bonus, you’ll be sitting further away from those pesky windows!
4.) Keep Stress To A Minimum
Getting ready to fly can be stressful enough, but just the act of flying is going to cause a lot of additional stress on the body from the various types of radiation that naturally exist at high altitudes. That means it’s best to minimize any other stress you can when you’re flying—the stress you can control.
I typically throw on some headphones and listen to a guided meditation track, or binaural beats to keep me in a calm state of mind. You could also try a technique called box-breathing which works great at shifting your body out of a fight-or-flight, sympathetic state, and more into the calm, parasympathetic state.
5.) Supplements to Reduce Inflammation
From the stress of flying, to the unavoidable radiation exposure you’ll be getting in the air, increasing your antioxidant intake is crucial. Eating foods that are low in sugar and high in color such as dark greens, beets, blueberries, etc. will hedge your bets that you won’t suffer from too much oxidative damage when flying. But if you really want to protect yourself, I highly recommend implementing a supplement regimen pre and post-flying, too.
Here’s what I recommend:
Glutamine – Pre-Flying
Taking about 5 grams of L-glutamine, which does everything from supporting your immune system to healing your gut and rebuilding damaged tissues; this is a great supplement to add in before you fly into the sky.
Glutathione – Pre and Post Flying
I’m a big fan of taking some glutathione before and after flying. This is a potent antioxidant the body naturally makes. You’re just taking more to boost your antioxidant potential, which will soak up more of those nasty free radicals that results from inflammation, stress, and just natural chemical reactions that take place in the body. What we are trying to do here is hedge our bets that our inflammatory burden is at a minimum. Glutathione is sometimes called “The Master Antioxidant.” You want to be taking this.
ProTip: Most glutathione supplements are not absorbed that well. Glutathione is a large molecule made up of three amino acids. As a result, in order for the body to absorb the glutathione, you have to break up the amino acids, absorb each amino acid on their own, and then hope that the body puts them back together in the form of glutathione. A better trick is to find a glutathione supplement that is of a liposomal variety, which protects the nutrients from being broken down in the stomach so it can pass to the small intestine for complete absorption. This will ensure you are getting your glutathione. My favorite brand to recommend is BulletProof Glutathione Force.
Whole Vitamin C (not just ascorbic acid)
Vitamin C does a bunch of things from supporting collagen formation, keeping our skin, bones, and muscles healthy and functioning properly, keeping our adrenal glands functioning properly, to healthy immune function.
When flying I recommend taking a high-dosage of vitamin C (between 1-2 grams pre and post flying), to keep your body running tip-top!
So I hope I haven’t completely scared you away from flying. My hope is now you are prepared to know the potential stressors flying can cause and what you can do to offset them. This is not a complete list and I’m sure there are plenty of other things you can do as well.
And please share any tips below if you have any specific healthy flying “hacks.”