My body never knows what time zone it's in. As a travel writer, I typically go on at least two trips a month. It's a dream come true - but it has wreaked serious havoc on my sleeping routine.
That is until a colleague recommended I take melatonin before a long-haul flight from Argentina to New York. This was in 2014, and I was wary at first - developing a dependence on sleep medication is the last thing this chronically jet-lagged occasional insomniac needs.
But she assured me this natural supplement wouldn't cause dependence. A quick Google search confirmed her claims, and I took the pill.
Half an hour after boarding, a mild drowsiness set in, and I soon found myself resting as peacefully as possible when crammed into a coach seat. Compared with the typical restless night at 33,000 feet, this flight was pure bliss.
Melatonin now has a perpetual place on my packing list, but it's not the only supplement that can help travelers feel their best before, during and after a trip. Pinpointing your biggest travel troubles (Tummy issues! Jet lag! Stress!) can help you zero in on exactly which supplements belong in your suitcase.
Here are a few supplements that may help put your body in vacation mode from the inside out.
Make room for melatonin
I've already praised melatonin, so let's recap exactly how it works.
Your body already produces melatonin to manage your sleep cycle. But if you're trying to fall asleep at a different hour than you're used to, supplementing with some over-the-counter melatonin may support better sleep.
Research shows that melatonin helps get your body's biological clock back on track when you've crossed time zones. I generally take it the first three or four nights of a trip and again when I get home, to combat jet lag. Once I find myself getting naturally sleepy at the right bedtime, I quit using melatonin.
Bonus: Studies have also found that melatonin can help manage immune function and cortisol levels. Those are benefits just about any traveler could use.
How to take it
- Start by taking a low dose, like 2 or 3 milligrams, 30 minutes before bedtime. In my experience, the quick-dissolve tablets and gummies kick in more quickly than the pills.
- Do some calming activities (like reading a book or taking a bath) to get your body in the mood for rest and let your jet lag melt away.
- While melatonin is considered a safe supplement, it can cause mild side effects like headaches, nausea, and dizziness.
Prep your belly with probiotics
You want to eat new foods your digestive tract has never seen before. What's a belly to do? Well, traveler's diarrhea - which, fortunately, often resolves itself with no treatment. But who wants to make that an anecdote from their trip? Not you.
To avoid more severe cases (that can sometimes put you in a clinic), line your gut with probiotics.
Research has shown that taking probiotics can reduce the risk of traveler's diarrhea by 15 percent. Probiotics also show promise in reducing constipation and bloating.
Plus, a 2003 study found that probiotics may boost your immune system, helping your body battle any virus or bacteria you encounter in a faraway land. Talk about a traveler's best friend!
I have a pretty strong stomach, so I generally take probiotics only if my digestive system is acting up on a trip. But if I'm on another specific medication (such as malaria prevention pills) while I'm traveling, I'll supplement with probiotics just to keep everything running smoothly.
Your doctor can offer tips on when you should take probiotics.
How to take it
- Start taking a daily dose of probiotics at least 2 days before a trip. Research shows that probiotics with at least 5 billion colony-forming units (aka the amount of good bacteria!) are the most effective, so check the packaging.
- Continue taking probiotics every day while you're traveling.
- If you get the runs, keep taking probiotics for 1 to 2 weeks after it goes away, even if you're already back home.
Turmeric, the inflammation tamer
Your spice rack might give you a clue to another travel supplement worth packing in your suitcase.
The magic of turmeric seems to stem from a compound called curcumin. Research has shown that it can help with everything from inflammatory conditions and metabolic issues to arthritis and anxiety.
And let's get real: Even the best vacations come with their fair share of stressors. Curcumin might help take the edge off the anxiety of going through security and give your body a boost after air travel.
Don't expect just any turmeric supplement to offer those health benefits, though. Curcumin isn't well-absorbed in the body on its own and works much better when combined with black pepper.
How to take it
- Turmeric dosing can be tricky, as there's no consensus among experts about how much to take. You might consider trying 500-2,000 mg per day - the amount used in many studies - throughout your trip.
- Once you're home, switch to a low dose or stop taking turmeric altogether. Taking high amounts of turmeric for a long time might cause health issues.
Magnesium for many maladies
Few supplements offer as many varied benefits as magnesium. It plays a role in more than 600 reactions in the human body, including energy creation, gene maintenance, muscle relaxation, and regulation of the nervous system.
You can get magnesium from a wide variety of foods (including pumpkin seeds, black beans, almonds, and avocado).
However, research shows that the vast majority of people may not be getting enough of this important mineral. Depending on their age, women should aim for 310 to 320 milligrams of magnesium per day and men should try to get 400 to 420 milligrams.
To put that in perspective: A medium avocado contains 58 milligrams of magnesium, so you'd need to eat about five per day to come close to the recommended amount for adults. That's more guacamole than most of us can stomach.
You'd need to pay pretty close attention to your diet to get enough magnesium from food alone. What are the chances that you're actually thinking about magnesium when you're slurping a bowl of cacio e pepe in Rome?
Play it safe by packing a magnesium supplement in your suitcase (with your doctor's approval, of course!).
How to take it
- Your body can absorb certain types of magnesium supplements better than others. Choose one that's known for being well-absorbed, such as magnesium citrate or magnesium malate.
- Take the supplement every day.
Boost up with B vitamins
Your energy levels can directly impact how much you enjoy a trip - and no one wants to yawn their way through the Louvre. Fight fatigue and give your energy a boost with B vitamins.
B vitamins play a critical role in converting food into glucose, ultimately giving you energy for sightseeing, museum-hopping, or swimming in the ocean. Getting enough of it can help you feel ready to take on the day's adventures.
B-12 has actually become one of my go-to supplements since my doctor told me I was “severely deficient” in the animal-derived vitamin a few years ago. It's tough for vegetarians like me to get enough B-12 from food.
No matter where I am in the world, I always pair a vitamin B-12 pill with my breakfast. And since I got my B-12 levels up, I've noticed much more sustained energy throughout the day - an invaluable benefit during whirlwind travel.
How to take it
If you're eating a well-rounded diet, you may not need to supplement with B vitamins. But if healthy eating goes out the window on trips (no judgment!), consider taking a daily B-complex vitamin.
Every traveler's kit will look a little different
Melatonin has helped me conquer jet lag in any time zone. And I've become reliant on vitamin B-12 to give me the energy I need to trek with gorillas in Rwanda and swim with whale sharks off the coast of Mexico.
As you rack up passport stamps, find the right supplements that work for you. It can make a world of difference in how you travel.
Joni Sweet is a freelance writer who specializes in travel, health, and wellness. Follow her journeys and musings on Instagram.