How Not to Get Sick While Traveling (+ How Chia Seeds Can Help)


We’ve all been there: you wake up on the first full day of your much-anticipated beach vacation with a sore throat and runny nose, you are on a business trip and arrive at your first meeting with a pounding head, or you touch down from your fun vacation and immediately get laid up with a cold. 

Whether it’s for business or pleasure, we’re all traveling more than ever according to a global study by the World Tourism Organisation. Stateside, overseas travel has increased by over 170% in the last 20 years, thanks in part to the rise of travel planning online. Business travel spending is expected to reach $1.7 trillion by 2022, which seems to be a reflection of the overall global economy. As a company, Blue Zones was founded by explorers, researchers, and journalists, and we all spend many days on the road. 

For help with staying healthy on the road, we turned to John Ayo, a healthy travel expert and keynote speaker who is the author of Travel Balance: Where Healthy Travel Drives Greater Business Profitability. John spent 30+ years traveling around the world for IBM, and he has spoken to thousands of people in dozens of countries on how to stay sane and healthy while traveling. He also consults with businesses and organizations that want to keep their employees healthier and happier.  

He shared his inside secrets to reducing stress on the road:


Blue Zones: How did you go from a corporate job to being a travel wellness guru?

John Ayo: I had a long, successful career at IBM. I led the team that closed the biggest software deal in the company’s history for over $1B. There was a period there that I was on the road a lot, wasn’t fulfilled, was constantly sick and in pain, and could never get any sleep. I had it all: sinus infections in Tokyo, digestive trouble in Mexico, and the flu in London. And then I still had to go and do my job.

I went to countless doctors and had so many scans and tests and no one could figure out what was going on. They mostly said it was in my head.  I finally went to chiropractors, acupuncturists, and alternative therapists and started feeling better. I’m an engineer by trade, and my problem-solving brain kicked in. I was still working, but I went back to school to get a doctorate in naturopathy.  

Towards the end of my time at IBM, I was leading a sales class in 26 countries and was constantly flying and on the road. But I had learned how to stay healthy and energized while traveling, which is why I wrote Travel Balance.  It is incredible how much healthy travel affects productivity and the bottom line. That was of interest to businesses, of course, and that’s how I started consulting and speaking about travel wellness. I’m an engineer with an MBA and an ND (Doctorate in Naturopathy), so I can connect with corporate audiences.


BZ: It’s refreshing to hear that corporations are interested in keeping their employees healthy, even if it is for productivity.

JA: It’s a win-win. If you improve employee health and reduce travel sickness, you increase productivity and reduce absenteeism. Business travelers lose an average of 6.9 hours of productivity due to stress, and they’re also at risk of losing overall productivity due to frequent work travel. My advice also applies to the leisure world, of course. Travel is better when you aren’t sick or exhausted from lack of sleep.


BZ: So what are some of the things companies can do to help their business travelers?

JA: The first thing is awareness, so the first step is getting wellness on the radar. The second is education for both individuals and their employers. How do we reduce traveler friction? The three important pieces of advice I give businesses are:

1 Book employees into decent hotels. 

It doesn’t have to be luxurious, but it should be clean, safe, and comfortable so that they can get a good night’s rest.

2 Education on wellness travel for employees.

I give some of the tips below for corporations to use in their HR and employee materials.

3 Policies that allow employees to upgrade to business class on flights over 8 hours.

This last one is a little harder because it actually costs money. But the cost-saving strategy of putting one of your employees in a middle seat from the United State to India will probably not pay off if they have to get off the plane and perform for your company. 

People regularly quit their jobs because of cost-saving measures like this. And that is a huge cost to companies—much more than the class upgrade or the domestic seat with extra legroom. 


BZ: What can individuals do to stay healthy while on the road?

JA: Stress is one of the worst things for your immune system. In daily life and especially in travel, it’s not just one thing that affects stress levels. It’s many things. So it’s important to reduce the stressors where you can.

1 Wear Noise-Canceling Headphones on the Plane

Engine traffic on the plane is a major stressor for your body and mind. There have been countless studies on the effects of noise on stress and the immune system, and also studies that show that pilots wearing noise-canceling headphones have increased alertness and lower stress.

So canceling out the ambient noise during your flight is a good practice.

2 Eat and Drink Your Water!

Drink a lot of water before, during, and after flights because planes are so dehydrating. Also, eat your water through fruits and vegetables! Fruits and vegetables are made up of mostly water and are more hydrating than just plain water because they are made up of structured, or gel, water. Chia seeds can also absorb water and convert it into structured / gel water, so putting those in your water bottle or smoothie is a good practice to start. Like eating fruits and veggies, this hydrates at the cellular level. A big bonus is that chia seeds, fruits, and vegetables are also full of antioxidants and other health-promoting properties that will help your immune system.

3 Avoid These Foods When You Start to Feel Sick

When you start to feel rundown or get that telltale scratchy throat, immediately start avoiding as much sugar, dairy, and wheat as you can. This will cut out a large portion of inflammatory and processed foods from your diet so that you’re sticking to healthy whole foods.

4 Use Aromatherapy to Help Calm You Down

Smelling plant oils stimulate receptors in the nose that send chemical messages to the brain. These messages affect our mood and emotions and help us relax. Common essential oils for travel that people find helpful are lavender, lemon, chamomile, and peppermint. Lavender and chamomile are useful for stress relief and relaxation, peppermint helps with vertigo and nausea, and lemon oil helps as a mood-booster. 

You can dilute the oils and spray them around your seat (they also help to block other unsightly smells!) or tap a few drops onto your travel pillow or hotel room sheets and bedding.

Anything else that can relax you by tapping into your senses is useful, as well. For example, if calming music helps you sleep or relax, then listening to that on a flight or before sleeping in a new place can help.

5 Make Sleep a Priority

The reason it’s hard for most people to sleep in hotel rooms, besides a time difference, is that your body is on high alert. So you have to make it feel safe and relaxed. Keep your phone six feet away from you and don’t use it before you sleep. Keep your room cool and dark, use essential oils or calming music, and take a warm bath or shower before trying to sleep. 

If you’re going up against a big time difference and will need to deal with jet lag, however, you will do better in the long run for overall sleep if you stay awake until 9 pm on your first two nights. Also, as soon as you step onto the plane or get in the car for a road trip, put your mindset and your clock to the time at your final destination. Then eat and sleep according to that time. 


BZ: Fascinating tips, thank you! You’ve been ahead of the curve in terms of advocating for wellness for business travelers, but any new trends that you think our readers should know about?

JA: The big story is that travel wellness is the biggest new thing in the tourism industry. Baby boomers want to travel to wellness destinations or have wellness be a component to their vacations because they are at retirement age—and now they want to focus on their health.

The best thing is prevention though, and Millenials get it. They have seen their parents stressed out and suffering and they won’t tolerate it. They will often just quit. Now Millennials are moving to executive positions, which I predict will be a great thing for workplace wellness policies.

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