I’m an advocate for prevention when it comes to healthcare. If you know that something is going to make you sick, even years down the road, change your habits. I mean, there are no guarantees in life. I can do everything “right” health-wise and still end up with cancer or heart disease (for example: I could catch Chagas Disease and 20 years later, my heart could swell up and I could die never knowing it was from the bite of a Kissing Bug in my youth). But, to me, prevention means eating well and exercising and avoiding chemicals that are toxic, like fragrances in beauty and cleaning products. My goal is to feel good as often as possible. Prevention is just part of a larger healthcare strategy that we follow as digital nomads to get the most out of every day of our lives.
Foods to Avoid
There are a lot of things that aren’t preventable or predictable like car accidents or a parasite infection, for example. But there are foods like dairy products that have been proven (beyond a shadow of a doubt) to cause osteoporosis and to contribute to the development of cancer (read The China Study for more information). Don’t eat these foods if you’re rich enough to travel. Consuming dairy products only make sense in developing countries where the life expectancy is low enough that the residents won’t live long enough to develop osteoporosis.
Refined sugars are some of the most unhealthy things you can consume, but they’re found in convenience foods. The paradox is: if you don’t eat refined sugars, you won’t feel hungry very often…if you do, you won’t be able to resist the candy bars on display in every airport in the world. Refined sugars cause inflammation in the body and they’re blamed for heart disease (they cause inflammation of the blood vessels which leads to cholesterol build-up) and cancer (refined sugars feed tumors). If you want to reduce the chances that you’ll end up with the various chronic diseases that are devastating our world today, cut out the refined sugars.
Chemicals to Avoid
I spend extra money on make-up that scores a 1 or lower on the EWG Cosmetics Database because, as a medical writer, I was hired to do a project once where I had to write a dictionary of different chemicals found in cosmetics and fragrances. That was a sobering experience. Since that time, I’ve developed an interest in things like soap nuts and other plants that naturally saponify. I don’t want our family exposed to all the chemicals that can manipulate her hormones. There are other options. When we settle for a longer period of time in a particular place, I take the time to scope out make-up products and cleaning products including shampoos and conditioners that are as non-toxic as possible.
Preventing Traveler’s Diarrhea
But that being said, you can’t avoid everything and to me, prevention is about feeling good as often as possible. It’s not about preventing death because you can’t prevent death. You can, however, prevent traveler’s diarrhea by choosing foods carefully and avoiding street food specifically. Be sure to carry antibiotics with you to treat traveler’s diarrhea and avoid things like loratadine whenever possible. Our family hasn’t had traveler’s diarrhea in years, despite numerous trips to India, China, the Middle East, and Latin America. But then again, we never/rarely eat in restaurants and we wash all our fruits and vegetables in a water and vinegar before preparing them to eat.
Preventing Malaria and Dengue
You can prevent malaria by taking anti-malarials daily (recommended in certain parts of the world, like Africa, where malaria strains are particularly deadly). Herbal alternatives to atovaquone-proguanil (atovaquone-proguanil is my first choice in terms of medication for malaria in countries where malaria is raging—I don’t mess around with herbs in a place where malaria strains are deadly) include Neem, Wormwood, and Cinchona Bark. Neem can also help prevent and treat dengue fever, but a better choice for dengue is papaya leaf extract.
Papayas have all kinds of amazing properties. The leaves can be used to make a tea that’s used by people with thrombocytopenia increase their platelet counts. The same properties that help people with thrombocytopenia raise their platelet counts can also diminish the chance of death in people who end up with hemorrhagic fever from Dengue. There are a number of well-known hemorrhagic fevers that are famous for the gruesome symptoms they produce: Yellow Fever, Ebola, Dengue. I don’t know if papaya leaves would increase survival in people with Yellow Fever or Ebola, but apparently, papaya leaf extract or tea can help reduce bleeding in people with Hemorrhagic Dengue.
But back to malaria. Malaria is a parasite infection transmitted via mosquitos. Malaria prevention has to do with not getting bitten, or taking prophylactics like atovaquone-proguanil according to a particular schedule. But what if you’re going to be traveling in a malaria zone for a long time? It might be better to take Neem, Wormwood, or Cinchona Bark rather than taking a synthetic drug long-term. I talked about Neem above, but Artemisin (another common treatment for malaria) was derived from Wormwood (Artemisia). One of the advantages of Wormwood-the-plant over Artemisin, the synthetic drug is the fact that pathogens like malaria can’t mutate and outsmart Wormwood the-plant. Plants are complex. Synthetic drugs are not.
Cinchona Bark was the original inspiration for the synthetic drug Quinine, which was the main treatment for malaria years ago. Back in the day when Europe was beset with malaria, Cinchona Bark was shipped overseas from South America in great quantities. Today, the widespread use of Quinine has caused a widespread mutation that’s made it almost obsolete. Cinchona Bark, on the other hand though, can still work to treat malaria or possibly prevent it.
The dosages of these herbs is questionable because it’s hard to measure the amount of medicinal chemicals in herbal preparations. If you’re considering using Neem, Wormwood, or Cinchona Bark as herbal medicine for malaria prevention, I’d suggest reading Traditional Medicinal Plants and Malaria first.
Papaya for Digestion, Parasites, Abortion, and Contraception
Papaya is a good fruit/plant to know about when you’re traveling in tropical countries. They’re widely available and they can be helpful in a variety of situations. Green papayas are used by men in some Asian countries as form of contraception because they lower a man’s fertility levels. For women, green papayas can induce abortion (and cause other hormonal effects). Ripe papayas can help with digestion. The seeds can be ground up and used to get rid of intestinal worms (apparently, they’re quite potent).
In many less developed countries, there are a lot of home remedies that treat common diseases quite well. For example, in Mexico, Moringa is marketed for its effects as a cancer treatment. It’s available everywhere in Mexico and its popular. Does that mean that it works? I don’t have any personal experience with it, but why not? I’m sure that the Pharmaceutical Powers That Be in the United States would dispute the efficacy of something like Moringa, but the more you travel, the more you’ll see how jacked up our beliefs about healthcare are as Americans. We’ve been taught that good health comes from a doctor, but actually, we’re all capable of taking care of ourselves in most situations if we have access to the correct information and the right tools.