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How to Eat Safely and Travel With an Autoimmune Disease

Most medical professionals categorize travel as a stressful event, even more so for those suffering from autoimmune diseases like inflammatory bowel, celiac, Hashimoto’s or psoriasis. A change of routine, jet lag, and unfamiliar germs or foreign food can exacerbate one’s condition.

Plus, since a growing number of people adhere to strict anti-inflammatory diets to manage those illnesses, dining on the road can pose a real challenge. Here, doctors and specialists share some advice on how to stay healthy and eat well while traveling. As always however, talk to your doctor for specific advice related to your condition, depending on where you plan to visit.

Prepare your prescriptions before you go

“Make sure your disease is under control before you travel,” said Dr. Michael Chiorean, director of the Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) Center of Excellence at Virginia Mason. “I encourage my patients to choose destinations where they don’t need to get a live vaccine, like yellow fever, because it can lead to other health issues, or where they won’t be exposed to deadly organisms.”

He also recommends carrying on medications in their original packaging with a copy of prescriptions, as well as a doctor’s letter detailing their condition and necessary medications to decrease any chance of confiscation by airport or border security.

“Visiting regions like Western Europe where it’s easy to replace medications is also helpful,” he added. If specialty drugs are lost or confiscated, patients can contact their health insurance’s or drug company’s patient support programs, which typically provide a rescue supply of medications through a local specialty pharmacy or hospital (depending on the country). For generic drugs, patients can usually go to local pharmacies to get a short-term refill.

Eat and drink wisely (or do your own cooking)

Supporting the body’s immune system is key to staying healthy while traveling. Ryan Warren, a clinical nutritionist at the Jill Roberts Center for Inflammatory Bowel Disease at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian steers her patients toward local, fresh, seasonal foods while traveling abroad. “Every patient’s dietary needs are different, but I recommend fresh fruits and vegetables (well cooked, skinned and de-seeded if the patient is avoiding high roughage foods), lean proteins like fish, poultry and eggs, and a variety of whole grains, nuts, nut butters and legumes, as tolerated,” she said.

Ms. Warren also suggests staying away from raw foods because they can carry food-borne illnesses, exposing travelers to pathogens that might be problematic for people with compromised immune systems. Avoiding inflammatory triggers like concentrated sweets, fried greasy foods and alcohol is also beneficial. “Since air travel is inherently dehydrating, drinking plenty of water is key,” she adds.

Use technology to help you

Smartphones are a useful tool for travelers with a chronic health condition. Travel writer Jodi Ettenberg sells digital gluten-free restaurant cards in 12 languages on her website Legal Nomads, which explain celiac dietary restrictions and cross-contamination concerns using local food names.

Google Translate helps travelers communicate specific medical needs to flight attendants, waiters, hotel staff, and health care professionals. Booking accommodations with a kitchen via apps like Airbnb and VRBO allows travelers to cook suitable meals for themselves rather than relying on restaurants. (And it also gives you, a traveler, the opportunity to really embrace local cuisine and experiment with cooking it yourself.) When dining out, food-related apps such as Yelp, Happy Cow and HealthyOut (U.S. only) help locate restaurants that accommodate specific diets.

Finally, for travelers with digestive issues, finding a bathroom in a pinch is vital. Location-based apps like Charmin’s Sit or Squat and Flush Toilet Finder map out the nearest public restrooms in destinations across the world. And to reduce stomach-related stress on the go, travelers can relax a little and practice mindfulness using meditation apps like Calm and Headspace.

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