Monday, November 1, 2010

Cure Travel Ills Using Natural Medicines

With our guides in the Amazon Rainforest, looking for plants to relieve the sting of insect bites (photo by Luis Bastardo)

Although travelers do their best to avoid becoming ill during a trip, sometimes it's impossible to avoid. Unusual or tainted food, unfiltered water, insect bites, sunburn, motion sickness, altitude sickness, fatigue and injury can all lead to health issues. Even simple things such as a change in everyday routine can disrupt normal health. Most of these problems are not serious, but can nevertheless disrupt travel plans and cut into the pleasure of traveling. Many conventional pharmaceutical medicines are available, and are often preferable for more serious afflictions, but most simple conditions can be quickly treated with natural, herbal remedies. In fact, in many developing countries where the cost of pharmaceuticals is astronomical and traditional medicine is revered, most locals treat themselves regularly with herb and root teas and plant poultices. Keep in mind that these remedies are for first aid only; if symptoms persist or become worse, seek medical attention immediately.  

A cup of coca leaf tea, Colca Canyon, Peru (photo by Simone Cannon)

Altitude Sickness: One of the most common ailments in high altitude areas such as the Andes or the Himalayas is altitude sickness. Although relatively harmless and short-lived at lower altitudes, it can make a traveler feel miserable for 2-3 days if not treated effectively. Because of reduced oxygen levels and changes in air pressure, sufferers experience a range of symptoms from body aches and fatigue to nausea. In Peru, locals recommend treating altitude sickness with hydration and the chewing of coca leaves or the drinking of coca tea. Coca leaves are legal in many parts of South America and can help alleviate symptoms quickly. Although many people associate coca leaves with cocaine, the leaves serve only as a mild stimulant and muscle ache reliever. Coca leaves are to cocaine what coffee-flavored candies are to a triple espresso. The effects are very subtle, but effective. Many locals chew coca leaves as a daily habit, since the leaves are rich in vitamins, protein, calcium, iron and fiber and help to fight fatigue and reduce appetite, useful when performing manual labor or traveling. Commercially prepared or homemade versions of rehydrating sports drinks, such as Gatorade, are also helpful (see the recipe below for the natural, homemade version). 

Dried valerian root (photo courtesy of

Insomnia/Jetlag:  Schedule disruptions, time changes, unfamiliar beds and overnight travel can all lead to sleep disorders. There are several herbs, leaves and roots that are useful in helping induce sleep. Valerian root, lavender, and chamomile are all highly effective. In Argentina, linden (known locally as tilo), an herb that grows wild throughout the world, is used to make a tea that is an antispasmodic, diaphoretic and sedative, as the leaves contain a compound known as a benzodiazepine receptor. Every country in the world has a local herb that is used to relieve insomnia: passionflower, kava kava, hops, hawthorn, california poppy, wild lettuce, and even catnip are used. Herbs and roots can be infused in tea or taken in dried form in capsules. Ask local guides, shopkeepers and pharmacists which herbal remedies they can recommend. 

The valerian root tea kicks in on a long distance bus ride from Lima to Arequipa, Peru (photo by Luis Bastardo) 

Motion Sickness: Another annoying, yet mostly harmless ailment is motion sickness. This disorientation happens to almost everyone at one time or another, and usually occurs when there is no means of moving to a stable area to escape the torment (e. g. a bumpy plane or boat ride). Ginger is one of the best remedies for nausea and for the accompanying stomach aches. Chamomile and lavender are very calming for both the nerves and the stomach and can alleviate much of the discomfort. More conveniently, aromatic oils sprinkled on a handkerchief are also very effective at both calming and relieving nausea: a few drops of lavender, peppermint, licorice oils or ginger juice can steady the nerves and stomach.    

Ginger root (courtesy of

Stomach Ailments/Diarrhea: One of the greatest experiences when you're traveling is trying new and exotic foods. Unfortunately, if your stomach is not accustomed to very spicy or rich foods, you can run into trouble. Other dangers include tainted or unrefrigerated food, unclean water (also used to make soups, ice, drinks, etc) or unclean dishes and utensils. When disaster strikes in the form of stomach cramps or diarrhea, ginger can be a lifesaver: tea, capsules of dried ginger or just chewing on a piece of raw ginger can work wonders. In India, plain yogurt mixed with cold cooked rice is a widely used as a soothing remedy for "Delhi Belly" and is very effective. Other natural remedies include charcoal tablets, blackberry tea, oregano (especially helpful for internal parasites) and carrot juice. To make a homemade, natural "alka-seltzer", mix together the juice from two lemons with a 1/2 tsp. of baking soda. Keep yourself as hydrated as possible to replace fluids lost in vomiting and diarrhea, by drinking either commercially prepared or homemade rehydration beverages. To make your own "sports drink", simply mix together 2 quarts bottled water, 1/2 cup sugar, 1/2 tsp. salt and 1/2 cup fruit juice.   

Taking a much needed rest while trekking along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, Peru (photo by Luis Bastardo)

Injuries: You should always travel with an emergency first aid kit when traveling, especially when hiking or climbing. Simple things such as an elastic bandage or duct tape can support twisted ankles or broken toes until you can reach a medical facility. To reduce swelling naturally, if no ice is available, carrying dried herbs such as comfrey, ginger and meadowsweet can serve as anti-inflammatory aids. To relieve pain until the injury can be treated, capsules of dried kratom, a leafy plant mostly grown in Southeast Asia, or kava kava, found in the Pacific Islands, make useful, natural analgesics. Anti-anxiety herbs such as valerian, linden and kanna, a South African psychoactive herb, can help alleviate stress and bring a sense of calm. Keep in mind that, although not narcotic, anti-stress and analgesic plants can be addictive and should only be taken in small quantities as needed. To avoid injuries in the first place, take frequent breaks, don't let yourself get distracted by multi-tasking (e.g. walking on a rocky or tree root-filled trail while simultaneously trying to take a photo) and keep protected using appropriate clothing, sunscreen and insecticide.

A lifeguard wisely protecting himself from the sun, Grand Bahama Island, Bahamas (photo by Simone Cannon)

Sunburns/Insect Bites: prevention is the key here. Never trek (or for that matter, sightsee) without sunscreen, a hat, sunglasses and insect repellent. In the short term, sunburn can be painful and make your trip very unpleasant. I once had to cancel a planned trip to the Whitsunday Islands in Australia after burning my backside so badly while snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef, that I couldn't sit in an airplane seat. In the long term, sunburn can be devastating, causing everything from leathery, wrinkled, prematurely aged skin to deadly skin cancer. Biodegradable, effective sunscreens are widely available and contain non-toxic ingredients. According to the Natural Living for Women website, "Many beaches are now requesting their visitors use biodegradable products because the chemicals in many sunscreens washes off in the water and is harming the reefs, aquatic life and other wildlife." Biodegradable brands include Lavera, UV Natural and SanRe. For a natural insect repellent, try citronella, cedar, lavender or clove oils. If, despite your best efforts, you need to treat a sunburn or insect bite, the pain and swelling can be reduced by applying poultices of aloe vera, apple cider vinegar, cooled black or green tea, shredded apple or chamomile. A cup of baking soda added to a cool bath can greatly relieve discomfort.

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