Travelling with diabetes


Travelling with diabetes


The holidays are just around the corner, which means that many of us will be travelling to see family and friends. But how do you travel safely with diabetes? Bridget McNulty outlines a few essentials to keep in mind - and pack.


Planning is your friend


If there’s one thing diabetes loves, it’s routine. Anyone with Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes will know that the more routine life is, the easier diabetes is to manage. But one of the great joys of holidays, and travelling, is that routine goes out the window. While this is very fun, it can play havoc with blood sugar. Different meals, eating late, exercising less and sleeping differently all affect your blood sugar.


The solution? Plan ahead, and build a little routine into your day. While you may not be able (or want) to plan out your meals in advance, it helps to have at least one meal a day that you can count on to be diabetes-friendly. The easiest one to guarantee is probably breakfast - stick with something simple, without any refined carbohydrates (which are guaranteed to spike blood sugar!) and make it something that fills you up so you’re not tempted to tuck into treats mid-morning.


Planning ahead can also look like getting involved in festive meal planning, so that you’re sure there’s something you can eat that will be both tasty and kind to blood sugar. Or suggesting restaurants that you know have lower carb options - only going to pizza places or out for sushi will lead to persistently high blood sugar.


How carbohydrates affect blood sugar


The very simple explanation is that carbohydrates break down into glucose, which raises blood glucose. Taking insulin injections, or tablets, counters this blood glucose raising effect in people with diabetes (those without diabetes have a working pancreas that magically secretes the perfect amount of insulin).


All carbohydrates are not created equal, though. Those found in vegetables, fruit, some dairy and wholegrain foods break down slower than refined carbs found in sugar, baked treats, desserts, juices and fizzy drinks. 


Your best bet is to choose the lowest carb option available, and fill half your plate with green, leafy vegetables to crowd out space for anything else! Although protein (in meats, fish, eggs, legumes and nuts) and fats also raise blood sugar, their effect is less than carbohydrates.


Try to build exercise into every day


It can be tempting to roll from one lazy lunch to another during the festive season, or to spend days lying by the pool relaxing. While this is definitely a good idea some of the time, try to build some exercise into every day. Meet a friend for a walk rather than a coffee, go for a swim before a picnic, or ensure that you start every day with 30 minutes of exercise - no matter what the rest of the day brings. 


The effects of even a small amount of exercise on blood sugar are significant, and you’ll feel much healthier overall if you keep your body active. 


Top tip


Going for a short walk after a meal can reduce blood sugar levels. Even as little as 5 to 15 minutes can have a big impact!


Don’t skimp on sleep


We all know the basics of staying healthy: eat plenty of fresh vegetables, drink enough water, get some exercise every day, sleep 8 hours and reduce your stress. But how many of us actually pay attention to these essentials? When it comes to travelling with diabetes, sleep should be a priority. Reduced or interrupted sleep can flood your system with cortisol, the stress hormone that makes it difficult for insulin to do its job. The result? Higher blood sugar than usual, often accompanied by carb cravings… and reduced willpower. So try to make sure you’re getting enough sleep - even if you need to squeeze in an afternoon nap to do so!


Take more than enough supplies


If you’re travelling further afield, it’s a good idea to have more than your usual amount of medication, just in case. If you take insulin, try to have a pen or two extra in case one of your pens gets too hot (insulin denatures and stops working when it gets over 30℃). If you’re taking tablets, make sure you have enough to get you back from your holiday without having to rush to the pharmacy on a day when it might be closed due to holiday hours. Also ensure you have extra testing strips, if possible, and batteries for your glucometer! Particularly if you’re travelling overseas to a country that doesn’t speak English… If you’re flying anywhere, it’s a good idea to take your prescription with you - more than likely nobody will ask for it, but it’s good to be prepared.


What to pack in case of emergency


Write or print out the following information, and keep it in a sealed bag with your supplies.


  • Name, surname, date of birth
  • Type of diabetes you have
  • Other medical conditions, allergies, and previous surgeries
  • Current medications, doses, and time you take them
  • Your next of kin’s contact number
  • Your doctor’s number
  • Your medical aid details, if you’re on medical aid


Diabetes supplies to pack:


  • Glucometer (blood testing meter), testing strips and lancets.
  • Extra batteries!
  • Extra supplies for insulin pump or CGM.
  • Spare needles for your insulin injections.
  • Empty plastic bottle or sharps container to safely carry syringes, needles and lancets.


Add at the last minute:


  • Insulin or tablets.
  • Glucagon pen (for emergency low blood sugar - must be kept cold).
  • Cooler pack to keep your insulin and glucagon cool.


Stash sugar everywhere


This is a tip more suited to those with Type 1 diabetes, but anyone on insulin should always have sugar on them - always. Sudden low blood sugar can happen more frequently if you’re in unfamiliar surroundings, perhaps walking more than usual if you’re sightseeing, or in different temperatures (hot weather often drops blood sugar). It’s a good idea to stash a few sugar packets or rolls of Super C in your handbag, cubby hole, backpack, companion’s backpack and anywhere else you can think of. A juice box next to your bed is also a great idea in case your blood sugar goes low during the night.


Balance diabetes control and fun


Nobody wants a holiday ruled by diabetes control, and a list of do’s and don’ts when it comes to food, drink and celebrating. But if you throw all the rules out the window, you’ll be stuck on the diabetes rollercoaster - which feels awful and won’t let you have any fun anyway!


The goal is to find a balance between a healthy concern for your blood sugar, and a healthy dose of fun. Let yourself eat things you don’t usually, celebrate with friends, and relax after a busy year… But don’t forget entirely that you have diabetes and could do with some routine and structure. The upside of having to remember this? You’ll feel a whole lot better in January than your friends who overindulge the whole festive season!


If you’re living with diabetes, it can be really helpful to join a community - particularly during the festive season of temptation. There are so many of us living with the same challenges. Join South Africans with Diabetes on Facebook to feel part of a diabetes community, or get more info on how to live well with diabetes (including meal plans, food, exercise and weight loss tips) at

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