How Travel Made Me Sick (And My New Blog Niche)

on January 27, 2018

Two days after I flew home to Michigan in December, I found myself sitting on a cold Doctors office table, being pricked with injection after injection of neon-red liquid. No, I hadn’t returned from some jungle expedition with a rare tropical disease. I was returning from three years of living in England, and four months of traveling within Europe. Every country I traveled to was considered “developed,” none had health warnings or required vaccines which I didn’t already have. So no, I wasn’t being treated for some rare condition…. unless you count the health impact of travel itself as a condition. Which, after dozens of painful injections, I was starting to.

travel isn’t always as great as it appears on social media – I was actually recovering from a back spasm here :O Allllllllll the heat packs.

What was wrong with me?

It turns out that my body had stopped absorbing some important vitamins. In particular, I had a severe deficiency in Vitamin B12 (which helps produce red blood cells, nerves, and even DNA) which can lead to numbness, extreme fatigue, memory loss, and more. It also explained my low blood cell count. Hence… the injections.

With such a severe deficiency, my doctor asked me how I could have not noticed that something was wrong. And the truth? I did know something was wrong.

My body hadn’t felt right for a long time, but I had attributed this to the stress of living abroad and finishing a Masters degree. When I thought it might be something more, I went to my NHS doctor in England, and started undergoing tests, including the lengthy investigations for Crohns. And although I’ve mentioned my love for the NHS, if your life isn’t in imminent peril, it can take a long time to get tests done on the NHS. Add to the equation that I started traveling longterm in August, spending weeks working for the refugee camps in France, traveling to Italy, Slovenia, Iceland, you name it. There wasn’t a lot of time for doctors appointments.

Along with all my long-term gastroenterology symptoms, I began to feel fatigued, low in mood, antisocial, foggy brained, and more. But this was normal, right? I mean, nobody expects you to be depression or anxiety free when you are working in the high-stress and high-trauma environment of a refugee camp. And solo travel is exhausting – it would be weird if I wasn’t tired, right?

Travel was my priority. And somewhere along the way, that meant that my health stopped being my priority.

these frites weren’t very nutritious – but they were a “must try” in Belgium!

Are longterm travel and maintaining your health mutually exclusive?

No, I don’t think so. But I will argue that it is very difficult to maintain your health when you travel longterm. Especially if you have preexisting conditions that can be exacerbated by travel. Consider this:

  • Travel makes it difficult to attend or schedule doctors appointments
  • Different countries don’t dispense the same prescription drugs
    • When I moved to the UK from the USA, I couldn’t get my long-term prescription medication on the NHS. The NHS doctor flat out refused to give me this medicine I had been taking for years. The truth is that different countries have different research and professional standards. Not being able to access my medicine had a significant impact on my health.
  • Irregular eating schedules and unusual cuisines
    • This means different access to vitamins
  • Difficult to maintain a regular exercise routine
  • Travel can be stressful!
  • Sleep deprivation: unfamiliar sleeping environments, staying out late…
  • Extreme environments: Travel (in Europe!) exposed me to environments with scabies, lice, even hostel bed bugs.
  • Emotional stress: It can be difficult to be away from family, friends, and have to constantly meet new people
  • Everything is go, go, go: less time for self care
  • Always splurging: More drinking, eating out, partying, and more because you’re “on vacation” – even if this is a longterm vacation
  • NB: I think it’s also important to note that despite these physical symptoms, travel can also have a positive effect on health because it is a meaningful occupation 🙂 It can enhance mental wellbeing, and this exists alongside the other health impacts, not in-spite-of.

case in point: sometimes train travel can be stressful!

For many people, longterm travel is the dream. But what we often see are glossy, filtered representations of longterm travel. You’re not going to read on Pinterest:

I quit my job to travel the world!

And then I developed severe vitamin deficiencies, extreme fatigue, and unidentifiable gastroenterology disorders!

Lol. But seriously, somewhere in that blush-pink, saturated internet vortex on travel, we miss out on the really important health effects of travel. So what does this mean for me now?

Am I giving up on travel to focus on my health?

Not exactly.

I’m enjoying the slower pace of being back in Michigan. Sleeping in the same bed for more than a week at a time. Having a routine. Going to the gym. Spending time with family and friends. And I’m going to the doctors! A lot! The blood tests and other things aren’t so fun, but I’m making progress on my health and have already had one new diagnosis.

Although it is comforting to get names to my symptoms, it is also very overwhelming. It is upsetting to be finding more and more things that are “wrong” with me – but at the same time I am grateful and hoping this will only help me manage my health better in the future. Which also means managing it better when I travel in the future.

I’m not giving up on travel 🙂 just changing the way I do it.

What does this mean for the future of Endless Distances? My new niche!

I’m still going to be writing about travel. This is me, after all. I have lots of adventures to share from my longterm traveling in Europe, and I will also be bringing more Michigan and USA travel content to the blog.

However… I am also going to be entering a new niche: wellness.

I am a yoga teacher and have a Masters degree in Occupational Therapy, so although I’m not sure you can ever be a master on this topic, it is definitely one I am qualified to write about! This is also something you guys have been asking me to write about for a long time, so I am excited to finally start bringing some wellness content to Endless Distances. 

What do I need from you?

I like this blog best when it is a two-way conversation, so it would mean a lot to me if you guys let me know what kind of content you want to see. Do you have specific requests for health and wellbeing content? You can comment on this post or email me at sarah@endlessdistances.com.

I am also hoping to do another giveaway in the coming weeks, and will link this to a survey asking what you guys want to see from me in 2018. In the mean time, please stay in touch.

 

Sarah xx

Pin it for later…

Two days after I flew home, I found myself sitting on a cold Doctors office table, being pricked with injection after injection of neon-red liquid. It turns out, travel made me sick... but not in the way you think. I had only been to "developed" countries and had all my shots. So HOW did travel make me sick?

Two days after I flew home, I found myself sitting on a cold Doctors office table, being pricked with injection after injection of neon-red liquid. It turns out, travel made me sick... but not in the way you think. I had only been to "developed" countries and had all my shots. So HOW did travel make me sick?

^^^ LOL SORRY I COULDN’T RESIST

 

  • I am all for your (new?) wellness direction! Honestly, I just like blogs about LIFE. Daily life, thoughts, musings, routine, things you love (in addition to places you go, of course) so I guess I’d be interested to read it all 🙂

    • Yay! Well, hopefully I’ll be making health and wellness even bigger parts of my life, so it should be easy to share!

  • Such a great post, so honest! And I’m with you and totally understand. I’m glad you are having the time to rest and be in a routine now. I actually have IBS, which I have under control when at home. But my body seriously struggles with travel as it’s really difficult for me to pick and choose what I know I need to eat for everything to function well. Especially as I don’t eat meat so my options are lowered more too.

    Also, you have have have to read “Self care for the real world”, it’s a fantastic short book full of great practical reminders about keeping healthy. I’m excited for the new direction of your blog, I’ll be following as always!

    • Oh that’s really interesting to hear! One thing I’m being investigated for is IBS, but seeing as it’s a diagnosis of exclusion I am being tested for every single other thing first haha – joy! It’s just become more and more clear to me that my body struggles with travel too, so I’d really like to find some coping mechanisms to make it, if not perfect, at least better!

      And no I haven’t heard of that book – going to add it to my goodreads list now!

  • hope you get better soon! take good care of yourself!x

  • A few years ago, I was in a situation where I could also tell that something was seriously wrong with my health, but my doctors here just wanted to diagnose it as depression and move on. My mom blamed the traveling I was doing. I finally looked over my blood work, noticed one anomaly, did my own research, and took it back to my doctors. After several (stupidly expensive, redundant) tests, my doctor confirmed my self-diagnosis and I was immediately scheduled for surgery (and disappointingly, advised to cancel a trip to Australia). Within a few weeks, I was back to normal but the entire experience has made me very aware of how important it is to pay attention to your own body. And to insist when you know something isn’t right. I love the wellness niche – you have to find the right balance between travel, adventure, and taking care of you. Glad that you are on the mend. 🙂

    • Wow – that is pretty crazy that they missed such a huge anomaly as to have to perform surgery! That’s not very comforting, lol. I’m so glad you figured out what it was, though, and advocated for yourself!

  • Diana Maria

    Travel can effect your health so much, sometimes you attribute it to the stress of travel. I started to suffer from what felt like depression while living in the mountains, and being back home living a slower paced lifestyle changed everything for me.
    I’m so excited to hear you’ll be writing about wellness! I love yoga, wellness and health so I’m really feeling this new direction! Anything about anxiety, health care and yoga would be great to read about. I hope you’re feeling better and I’m glad you’re also enjoying the slow paced life!

    Sending light & love your way,

    My Lovelier Days

    • Yes – I always thought travel would be good for my health because I love it so much, and it is so refreshing to experience new places and ways of life. But I discovered that there are as many negative health impacts as the positive ones. I’m glad you are feeling better after your move. I can definitely relate that a slower lifestyle is helping me too <3
      Also thanks for your kind words on my new niche! I am making a list of possible posts tonight so I will make sure to fit something about anxiety, healthcare and yoga into it.

  • I pinned the second one because how can you not?! The blog world needs more realness like this! I’m so ready for your new niche, I know wellness goes out of the window for me when I travel so any tips you can share will be gratefully received. Good luck getting your symptoms sorted out, I have some that I need to get looked at but have been putting off going to the dr about 🙁 blahh coeliac is so rubbish sometimes!

    • Hahahah amazing!! I’m definitely still learning but I’m looking forward to sharing the journey and also posting about tips that have/will work for me! Also this is your sign to go to the doctor, lol, don’t put it off like me!!

  • Love your transparency, and I can’t wait to read more on wellness!

  • Ha that second pin is truly great. So sorry to read that you’ve been having these issues – as you say, very easy to ignore but so important to address. I’m glad you’ve got the ability to go slow and sort them out. I’m looking forward to reading more in your new niche – I would love any tips on maintaining health on the road, and balance generally.

    • Haha thanks. I’m very grateful for being able to slow down and sort out my health! I’m making a list of post ideas tonight, so I’ll be sure to add maintaining health on the road to the list 🙂

  • The NHS has treated us pretty well so far but I do see how long it takes when trying to diagnose something especially when it’s a mystery. I knew of someone who traveled to Canada and returned to the UK severely ill (as if he picked up a tropical disease) and took months for them to figure it out because, it’s Canada, what could you pick up? Well he got beaver fever or Giardiasis from drinking water in the fresh springs up in the mountains. No matter what the situation, you really have to advocate for yourself, only you know your own body. Glad to hear you are feeling better. #wanderfulwednesday

    • Yeah don’t get me wrong, I love the NHS. But as you said, especially regarding diagnoses that may take multiple in depth tests, it means waiting around for months when you feel very sick, with no change. I actually worked for two different NHS teams in the UK, and in one of them we had a 14 month waiting list….. 14 months!!! That’s also a really interesting story and totally shows that you can get sick anywhere! Hope he’s all sorted now!

  • Wow girl, so glad to hear that you’re getting better! Traveling can be exhausting when you’re gone for a week, I can only imagine the toll it has on our bodies and health when it’s for an extended period of time. I’m excited to for your new niche!! I Wellness is so important but I feel like it gets overlooked (at least by me). I need to learn to balance everything… that is one topic I would love to learn more about!

    • Thanks Christine! Yup slowly but surely 🙂 I’m making a list of post ideas tonight so will be sure to add some things about balance to the list!

  • It is great that you write about your experience since a lot of people who travel long term do not discuss the health effects of that lifestyle. I am glad you returned home and got to see a doctor. Sometimes we want to do all these things and we do not give a lot of importance to our health. The worst part is that without health we are not going to fulfill dreams and goals. When I travel, I try to get a decent amount of sleep and nice food. My body need energy and rest (and that applies to when I am home too). #WanderfulWednesday

    • That’s a good point Ruth. I think this topic particularly affects long term travelers, but I can count on one hand the number of posts from long term travel bloggers that I’ve read about health (there is a great one by Along Dusty Roads about women’s health on the road, though!).

  • Nice blog e read later. Still working for blog money.

  • I’m so sorry to hear about your health problems, Sarah, but I’m glad to hear that you’re taking care of yourself. I totally agree that travel is not a healthy lifestyle at all. I know my health is way worse than than before I started travel. Sometimes I feel really exhausted and fuzzy-brained too. I attribute it to this unhealthy lifestyle of poor eating choices, lack of exercise, and staying up too late most night (and I’m too scared to get it checked up). I’m glad you’re getting better and I’m excited to see where your blog goes with the new niche. 🙂

    • Thanks Anna 🙂 Slowly but surely sorting it out, emphasis on slowly. Doctors appointments are helping, and also just being in one place. I definitely recommend seeing a doctor sooner rather than later as now that I’ve waited so long, I feel like I’ve stacked a lot of different health issues on top of each other. It’s making it that much more difficult to address and separate each one from another.

  • I had Vitamin B12 issues when I attempted to live vegan a couple of years back and it really is no fun! I’m glad they found out that this is what was causing you trouble and I’m glad to hear that you’re feeling better! I absolutely love travel but I’d need to be at home for at least 2 weeks a month, if not 3. I just really love my routines as much as I love being on the road 😉

    • It’s not fun is it?! They did ask me if I was vegan as it’s a common issue with vegans, but I’m definitely a carnivore lol… so… ¯_(ツ)_/¯
      It’s good to hear from a fellow travel lover that you also love the home routine! I am really enjoying *not* traveling, which I didn’t think I would ever say! So we definitely share the love of being home 🙂

  • Oh no! Sorry to hear that, but thank god you figured out what the issue was!

  • So sorry to hear this Sarah, but also happy that you now know what’s going on and can focus on getting better! I can so relate to this feeling as being abroad makes it hard to do even the most basic of things- like seeing a doctor when you don’t feel well. Sometimes it’s easier to push things aside and put them off for later, which I’ve definitely been guilty of myself. BUT, I’m also happy that you’re turning this is into a positive and using it to explore a new niche! I can’t wait to see what you write about on these topics! 🙂

    • Yeah I definitely think it’s something that other people living abroad, and longterm travelers can relate to! Let me know if you have any specific questions or recommendations on health and travel related blog posts 🙂

  • Oh I’m sorry to hear about the troubles of your health. Good you’re putting yourself and your health first now. Local travel is a great way to travel slower too.

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