The Herb Research Foundation: Herb Information Greenpaper

The Herbally Aware Traveler

by Rob McCaleb, HRF President

The houseplants are watered, your neighbor is taking care of the cat, and an exotic destination is on your mind. Naturally, you remembered to pack your herbal travel kit, didn't you? Just in case you don't yet have one to pack, here's a look into mine. Perhaps you'll find some of these items worthy of inclusion in a custom kit of your own. It's always hard to predict what herbs you may need for any single trip, but it helps to prepare for all kinds of travel-related complications.

For a number of reasons, travel can lower your resistance to ubiquitous and annoying viruses that can wreak havoc with your business trip or vacation. Changes in climate put your body through unfamiliar stresses, starting on the airplane, if you're flying. The air in airplanes is virtually moisture free, being drawn in from the frigid cold high-altitude outside environment. Since it must then be heated, the amount of air exchanged is very limited. Then there's the concentration of people breathing that limited air, and exposing you to their "bugs". Often, the climate at your destination is different enough from your home's to further stress your resistance. Added to this are other stresses like disrupted schedules, sleep deprivation, and the tensions and frustrations inherent in travel these days.

Consequently, I start several days before a trip building my resistance with echinacea and astragalus. A bottle of echinacea tincture and some slices of astragalus root accompany me on all trips, and have saved me from countless oncoming virus attacks. These are the best-researched immune-system stimulants for increasing general nonspecific resistance. Specific resistance--by contrast--usually means vaccination against a particular disease. Nonspecific immunostimulants raise the number and activity of a diversity of immune system cells, responsible for eliminating invading organisms or aberrant (ie. mutated) cells. In a 1983 study, it was demonstrated that astragalus could promote or trigger immune competent cells from the resting state into a heightened activity. In fact, astragalus extracts were even able to completely restore the function of damaged immune cells from cancer patients. More to the point for the average traveler, astragalus can decrease the incidence and duration of the common cold. Recent research hints that nonspecific immunostimulants can only boost the immune system for a few days at a time, so I don't take these daily.

Another plant I always include is some form of adaptogen, like ginseng. Adaptogens are thought to increase endurance and resistance and to "normalize" body functions. Leaving aside the debate about which type is "best", eleuthero or siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) is my usual choice, but Oriental or American ginseng (Panax ginseng and P. quinquefolium respectively) are also fine. In the Orient, ginseng has been used for so many purposes, that we think of is as a panacea, which is the meaning of the scientific name Panax. Since it is used to generally promote health, we think of it as a tonic. Actually, in China, ginseng is considered neither a panacea nor a tonic. Rather it is thought to restore homeostasis, or normalize various body functions, like blood pressure, blood sugar, energy, etc., and to increase strength and stamina (increasing Yang). The great Soviet ginseng researcher I.I. Brekhman, PhD. coined the term adaptogen to describe the normalizing action, along with anti-stress, endurance-enhancing effects. Brekhman began testing ginseng on Soviet soldiers, and found they could run faster in a 3 km race than a control group given a placebo. These tests also suggested a protective effect against environmental stress like cold temperatures. Eleuthero has also been shown to protect the liver, which is important since I may be overindulging in unusually rich foods and beverages. Unaccustomed pollutants may also assail my liver, so perhaps a more specific liver-protective agent is in order. Milk thistle is the herb of choice for this effect. Medicinally, milk thistle seed extract protects the liver from damage and aids in the regenerative of liver cells damaged by toxins and disease such as hepatitis., The most recent report showed that six months of treatment significantly improved liver function in thirty-six patients with alcohol induced liver disease.


Ginger is a must in the travel kit, especially if you are prone to motion sickness. The evidence here is contradictory, with one recent study denying ginger's effectiveness and others confirming it. Unless you have a serious problem, I can't recommend the drug found most effective in the former study, a scopolamine and amphetamine combination. Ginger is also useful for other stomach complaints, from indigestion to nausea to ulcers. Peppermint is another good digestive, which reduces gastric secretion (acidity) and increases stomach emptying speed by over 40%. These effects are ideal for simple overindulgence. I include non-herbal antacids in my travel kit, too.

For international travel, food- and water-borne gastrointestinal problems can be a real concern. It's tough to be genteel about the subject, but this usually consists of varying degrees of diarrhea, sometimes accompanied by nausea and fever. Management of the diarrhea has been accomplished historically through the use of astringents, using plants high in tannins. These are antibacterial, and form a protective coating on the intestines. Potent astringents include blackberry root (Rubus fruticosus), bistort root (Polygonum bistorta), white oak bark, and blackberry or raspberry leaves. Green or black teas are also high in astringency, but their caffeine makes them a poor choice, since it stimulates gastric secretion and intestinal muscles. Barberry (Berberis vulgaris) adds to its astringency the powerful antimicrobial effect of its major alkaloid, berberine. Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) also contains this and related compounds. Japanese research found goldenseal extract to be very effective against intestinal bacteria. Berberine appears to be effective even against giardia, a tenacious parasite responsible for many serious gastrointestinal infections. Berberine hydrochloride, a purified drug compound sold in tablets, is used specifically to treat diarrhea in the Orient and Mexico. If you find the tablets in your travels, they are worth having, as they have shown activity against a variety of bacteria and even amoebae. Though I have found it quite difficult to find, one of the most historical antidiarrheals is guava leaves, which slow the intestines and are astringent and antibacterial. It's a good idea to also carry something for absorbing bacterial toxins, like pectin or kaolin-pectin compounds. A few bites of peeled green apple--high in pectin--can be substituted in a pinch.

Some people find the opposite to be a problem, constipation. If increasing fiber intake doesn't do the trick, I would try senna or cascara sagrada. These are stimulant laxatives and should ONLY be used for temporary relief when needed.


If you are crossing more than two time zones, the effects on your biological clock can range from minor restlessness to total disruption. They can include drowsy days and sleepless nights and digestive distress, and can take days to readjust. Judicious use of stimulants (tea, ginseng, Ephedra) and sedatives (valerian, chamomile, hops or kava-kava) for the first few days can help to readjust my sleep cycle. Recent research has shown that light-therapy can help too, by resetting your body's production of the natural sedative, melatonin. Experts recommend spending a half hour or so in the sunlight in the early- to mid- afternoon for the first few days after traveling. Naps are a last resort, since they can reinforce the body's efforts to stay on the old sleep cycle, rather than adjusting to a new one.


Minor accidents can happen anywhere, so I always carry a first aid kit. Aloe vera is there for minor burns, including sunburn, and for wind chapping or the ravages of arid climates. Aloe is especially effective for moisturizing when mixed with glycerine. Witch hazel is equally useful; for scratches, scrapes (including shaving irritation), burns and insect bites. It is, in fact, the only natural astringent approved by FDA as safe and effective. It's a good to have a potent antiseptic, for which tea tree oil excels. It also treats athelete's foot and other fungal skin conditions. Arnica tincture, or one of the creams or rubs, is handy for bruises, strains and sprains. For sore muscles and joints, I use Tiger Balm or a similar blend of warming and stimulating essential oils.


One could easily get the idea from this article that I am paranoid about traveling, preparing for the worst. Just the opposite is true: I love to travel, and I expect the best. On the road, as much as at home, it is important to eat well, exercise often and maintain a healthy and positive outlook. The mind-body connection is very strong, and worrying about your health probably weakens your resistance. Enjoy your travels; the shrinking Earth is one of the most astonishing facts of our times, and we are priveleged indeed that we can cross the country or the globe in a fraction of the time and little of the risks which once faced travelers. Have fun, eat well, and don't forget to take your herbs!

This page and all contents are © 1997 by The Herb Research Foundation, Boulder, CO, USA.