Finding a Cure for Motion Sickness and Sea Sickness
DISCLAIMER: CONSULT WITH A DOCTOR BEFORE DECIDING ON A TREATMENT PLAN FOR A DISEASE OR DISORDER.
My son-in-law is from Myanmar. When he and my daughter first met, she had a plane to catch and she had to leave him behind to travel from the middle of the country to Yangon to get a passport. He had to take a night bus along the notorious “Death Highway” to get to Yangon and it was on this bus that he told my daughter that he had severe motion sickness.
It was good that he didn’t know what was ahead of him at that time! Over the course of two years, he had to travel around the world 3 times through 17 different countries using literally every mode of transportation you can think of (planes, trains, boats, taxis, motorbikes, you name it!). As a Myanmar citizen, every immigration counter is a challenge. No one ever recognizes his passport and he regularly gets pulled to the side and interrogated. Add the challenge of the COVID pandemic into that mix and traveling has gotten even harder. So, when we travel, we’d gotten used to the drill of disembarking from (or being on) planes, trains, boats, buses, taxis, and having to tell everyone walking by that “he gets motion sickness” as our poor son-in-law takes a moment to puke his guts out before confronting immigration.
Over the past two years, I’ve really studied the patterns involved with my son-in-law’s motion sickness to try to help him control it. My daughter and I took up this torch together on his behalf. And it’s become clear to us that for him, travel sickness, sea sickness, and motion sickness are definitely related to stress or, better put, a dysfunction or imbalance between the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. And while there also seems to be a connection between the severity of travel sickness and H. pylori infection (which can be treated too), in this article we’ll talk about the underpinnings of autonomic nervous system dysfunction and how to treat it.
The Autonomic Nervous System and Travel Sickness
The sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system are sub-parts of the autonomic nervous system. And you might be starting to yawn and get bored now because these are such long phrases and it’s like…who cares about the autonomic nervous system, right? But the autonomic nervous system isn’t like the parts of our nervous system that we’re mostly familiar with like the parts of our brain and the nerves that make our muscles move and our skin feel hot and cold and the human touch. The autonomic nervous system doesn’t really communicate with the brain. It seems to work according to its own rules that are only dimly related to the way the central nervous system works.
Like octopusses, for example. Octopusses have become famous over the past few years for their intelligence. It appears that they can recognize people’s faces and they have all these social and very human-like behaviors. And yet they lack a central nervous system and a brain. So how is that possible? As I see it, the autonomic nervous system is its own brain that’s distributed throughout the body. It manages all the “natural reactions” that we have to everything we’re exposed to in the world, but it can also react to stressors that exist in far away places (psychic stressors). This is the system that can feel and experience intuition.
How to Cure Travel Sickness and Motion Sickness
There may be different causes behind travel sickness and motion sickness, but a lot of people describe a situation that sounds a lot like a parasympathetic / sympathetic nervous system “glitch”. Basically (without getting too technical), when the sympathetic nervous system switches OFF the parasympathetic nervous system (which has been working behind the scenes all the while keeping our organs running) becomes more dominant. These two systems are supposed to balance each other smoothly, but most of us aren’t very balanced, in reality. The sympathetic nervous system sometimes gets a bad rap because it’s the system that’s dominant when we’re stressed. So this is the system that’s become synonymous with stress. When people talk about being in “fight or flight”mode, they’re talking about the sympathetic nervous system (as well as some endocrine components like adrenaline, but that’s beyond the scope of this article). On the other hand, rest-and-digest (as well as play-dead) functions are attributed to the parasympathetic nervous system. And westerners tend to be more in fight-or-flight mode than in rest-and-digest mode. In fact, many Americans and Europeans are constantly aspiring toward the rest-and-digest way of living and, as a result, they tend to demonize the sympathetic nervous system with all it’s fight-or-flight tendencies.
But the reality of things is that balance is the key to the autonomic nervous system. Balance is what we want and when we don’t have balance between the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system, all kinds of disease states start popping up. Fibromyalgia, for example, appears to be a sympathetic ON situation as opposed to Lupus which appears as
a sympathetic nervous system OFF situation. But that’s going too far afield for our discussion here. If you have motion sickness or travel sickness and it’s ruining your fun (or even your life), then it would be valuable for you to understand that the sleepy feeling you get when you start to feel ill has to do with an autonomic nervous system dysfunction.
I know, I know. That sounds serious. It sounds grim. A nervous system problem, oh my GOD! But don’t let your imbalanced autonomic situation get the better of you here. There are ways to retrain your autonomic nervous system, so keep reading! There’s a lot of hope for you!
Retraining the Autonomic Nervous System to Cure Motion Sickness
Most of us have autonomic imbalances. I suppose one reason why we have imbalances between sympathetic and parasympathetic systems is because we have very little knowledge in general circulation about this system in our bodies and why it’s important for our lives. So before you label yourself “autonomically dysfunctioned”, realize that all of us have these imbalances. It affects different people in different ways. You may have motion sickness / travel sickness / sea sickness. The person sitting next to you, on the other hand, may have panic attacks or PTSD as their autonomic nervous system dysfunction.
We store our stress for later in different areas of the body. Have you heard this theory before? It may sound a little woo-woo, but acupuncturists have worked with this thought for centuries. And more recently, Neural Therapists have used syringes and procaine to treat areas where energy pools and stagnate or where it moves too quickly in certain areas of the body. In people with motion sickness, sea sickness, or travel sickness, the knobby area above the mastoid process is a common focal point for this kind of treatment. This is where all your inner ear-gear lives (the stuff that particularly deals with balance). Perhaps you had a semi-traumatic or totally traumatic travel event that happened years ago and the reactive components of this event got stored in the part of your body most sensitive to movement (your inner ear). Maybe you remember it, maybe you don’t. It doesn’t matter. But your body learned to shut off the blood supply to the ear as a stress-response when you get on a plane or a train or whatnot and now, as a result, EVERY time you get in a car or on a boat, you feel sick.
So what can you do about it? You can retrain your autonomic nervous system to respond differently to this stress using tricks to bring blood flow back into the inner ear while modulating the autonomic system as a whole using black horehound (Ballota nigra).
Biomagnetism for Motion Sickness:
There are actually a number of things that can be done to cure motion sickness. If the goal is to get blood supply back to your inner ear, you can use bio-magnets to help increase the circulation on both sides of your head behind the ears. Scientists who have studied motion sickness say that as a general rule it’s easier to prevent motion sickness than to cure it once it flares up. That’s why I’m starting with biomagnetism as a portable way to open the blood vessels in the inner ear and then hopefully keep them open using black horehound and other natural travel sickness treatments. Begin the biomagnetic treatment for motion sickness at least 5 minutes before you intend to get in a vehicle to travel somewhere for best results.
Bio-magnets work by physically drawing red blood cells into a given area of the body by magnetically pulling on the iron in red blood cells. But even if you pull on the red blood cells, it may take time and other treatments to get the smallest blood vessels, the capillaries, to open back when you’re stressed. You have to TRAIN the sympathetic nervous system (which, by the way, travels alongside each and every blood vessel in the body including capillaries to tell them when to open and close). So your goal is to find one or a combination of different treatments that work together. And you need to be patient with yourself as you do this process because you’re training a part of you that senses travel and that reacts with fear, the way a child might react with fear to something. Being hard on the child doesn’t teach the child to be less fearful, so don’t be hard on yourself either! It’s important to realize that you need to have a number of good experiences traveling without motion sickness to retrain your autonomic nervous system.
Biomagnetism is actually pretty amazing. It was developed in Mexico by Dr. Isaac Goiz and it’s famous there, but in other parts of the world, people still haven’t caught onto the possibilities of this non-invasive treatment method. To get biomagnets to work for you, you need to have oppositely polarized magnets on opposite sides of the head. But, as a motion sickness treatment, one side will be attracting red blood cells and the other repelling red blood cells. So you need to get two small magnets that can sit right next to each other and set one in place with the positive side down and the other with the negative side down. On the other side of the head, you need to do the same. Put them on your head at least 5-10 minutes before you start traveling in a car or a bus and use a headband or a hat or some other fastening tool to keep them in place. The body will get used to the magnets after they’ve been in place for about an hour and at that point, they’ll stop being effective until your body has had a break from them for a few hours.
Again, you need to remember that this is part of a RETRAINING process to help your body learn a new way to respond to movement stimuli and the specific stress (which includes memories of traumatic travel events) that causes travel sickness.
Black Horehound for Motion Sickness: Herbal Cure
By far, the most pronounced changes in regard to motion sickness happened when my son-in-law started sucking on Ricola candies that contain black horehound. My daughter likes to avoid sugar so she makes her own honey-based hard candies now that contain black horehound, sage, and thyme, but my son-in-law was really happy about how this herbal cure for motion sickness made it possible for him to enjoy being in a car for the first time ever! Note that not all of the Ricola cough drops contain black horehound. Read the ingredients label to make sure the Ricola cough drops you’re buying contain black horehound.
The first time my son-in-law used the black horehound was on a trip between Tijuana and León, Mexico. He was dizzy and vomiting and we still had a connecting flight we were waiting for to get to León. Nothing was helping and as you probably know, dear reader, once you go down that spiral (it feels more like a circle), it can seem impossible to make the sickness stop without sitting or laying very still for several hours. This is, in part, due to what’s going on inside the inner ear, but one could also blame the global function of the autonomic nervous system for the imbalances that have led you into this state.
Black horehound has a stimulating effect on the autonomic nervous system, which may be the secret as to why it works so well as a natural treatment for motion sickness. It may work in part by helping the sympathetic nervous system stay awake and alert, but not too awake and alert. In other words, it seems to work with the autonomic nervous system to help it rebalance what’s going on in the body.
So black horehound has a mildly amphetamine-like affect on the body. It helps give the sympathetic nervous system a little jolt when the parasympathetic nervous system starts to become dominant, but I think black horehound works through a more complex mechanism than just functioning as an amphetamine. I think it helps the body rebalance its sympathetic and parasympathetic functions overall and that it also has this special tendency to simultaneously suppress the urge to vomit and diminish the problem of nervous dyspepsia.
Black horehound can be used to help with bronchial and respiratory problems which can also be treated with certain types of mild amphetamine-like substances like pseudoephedrine or phenylephedrine. But like I said above, just because black horehound has these amphetamine-like behaviors doesn’t mean that it’s a full-on amphetamine. Rather, I think this herb works by balancing the autonomic nervous system as a whole. But if you have to fly on a plane or if you travel to a higher or lower altitude, it might benefit you to have clear sinuses and ears.
So black horehound works as a cure for travel sickness and sea sickness because it has this package of properties that only plant medicines can offer. It has the ability to go into your body and take a look at your autonomic nervous system to see whether it needs to be boosted or reigned in. It simultaneously looks at your tummy and decides whether you need to let the acids and contents drain into the small intestines in order to prevent nausea and vomiting. And it also helps your respiratory system function better in a general way, which changes how your body processes oxygen and carbon dioxide (another dynamic that plays an important role in autonomic nervous system performance).
Essential Oils for Motion-Sickness: Treating Dizziness and Nausea
I almost hate to write anything about these essential oils because there are so many places on the Internet that talk about ginger and peppermint for sea sickness. I mean, the reality for us has been that, by themselves, ginger and peppermint essential oils can’t control motion sickness. But they do help a little bit. What I mean to say is that, ginger, peppermint, and lemon balm essential oils are friendly with black horehound. They can be used with black horehound to complete the natural motion sickness treatment “package”. Black horehound is a staple in this whole set-up though. And don’t neglect the breathwork for motion sickness that I talk about in the following section.
Ginger Essential Oil for Motion Sickness
Ginger works by encouraging the stomach to dump its contents into the small intestine, but like black horehound, ginger has other beneficial effects too. It can help reduce dizziness, headache, and vomiting though its effects are milder than black horehound in people who want to prevent travel sickness. It would combine well with black horehound, however. And some scientists have found that the combination of ginger essential oil and peppermint essential oil can be used as aromatherapy to reduce motion sickness.
Lemon Balm Essential Oil for Travel Sickness
Lemon balm is one of the ingredients in the Ricola candies that my son-in-law used to cure travel sickness on our way across Mexico. And this herb has been used for hundreds of years to cure vertigo.
Peppermint Essential Oil for Motion Sickness
Peppermint essential oil can be used to calm the stomach when taken internally, but it also helps with headaches (it can be applied topically for this purpose) as well as to quell vomiting. It combines well with black horehound too. Use it sparingly! A little bit of peppermint essential oil goes a long way when treating motion sickness.
Rose Essential Oil for Travel Sickness
One study found that the smell of rose essential oil was able to alleviate visually-induced motion sickness. Remember, if you use rose essential oil for motion sickness, you will only use it for aromatherapy. No need to ingest it. It’s possible that rose essential oil works by providing stimulation for the sympathetic nervous system.
Final Notes on Retraining the Autonomic Nervous System to Cure Motion Sickness: Breath
As an autonomic nervous system dysfunction, motion sickness can be treated through retraining of this system. And while it may sound “weak” as a treatment for motion sickness, breathwork is actually one of the most powerful methods you can use to retrain the autonomic nervous system. Breathwork and breathing exercises have worked for many people who have a wide variety of different autonomic nervous system dysfunctions.
A Note on Yawning in People with Travel Sickness: Scientists have demonstrated that yawning causes a short burst of sympathetic nervous system arousal. So frequent yawns in anticipation of a travel event may be the body’s natural effort to reboot the autonomic nervous system. In other words, yawning may be your autonomic nervous system’s effort toward reestablishing balance between the sympathetic fight-or-flight mode and the parasympathetic rest-and-digest mode.
When you breathe in, your sympathetic nervous system is dominant. In contrast, when you breathe out, your parasympathetic nervous system becomes dominant. This reality about our breath really illustrates how these two sub-systems are meant to work together very closely and in balance. Normally, breath is something that happens outside of our awareness. It happens automatically. But we still have the ability, as humans, to take control of our breath if we want to. And people who do different types of controlled breathing often find that they can reduce motion sickness.
Wim Hof Breathing for Travel Sickness:
Wim Hof, also known as the “Iceman” has developed one of the most important breath patterns for motion sickness. His system looks a bit like hyperventilation (Round 1: 30 deep and controlled breaths, an exhale without inhaling for 1 minute, then a deep inhale and holding of that breath for 15 seconds, breathe naturally for a moment. Round 2: 30 more deep and controlled breaths, an exhale without inhaling for 1.5 minutes, then a deep inhale and holding of that breath for 15 seconds. Round 3: performed exactly like Round 2). Wim Hof learned how to retrain the autonomic nervous system using this breathing method.
In addition to doing breathwork for travel sickness, you might also consider doing Wim Hof’s cold showers or ice baths to retrain the autonomic nervous system prior to traveling. Just be cautious with cold-therapy if you have a heart condition. On the other hand Wim Hof’s methods have worked to cure panic attacks and a wide variety of other health issues. He was even able to prevent infection with E. coli (via controlled injection by scientists) using this method of breathing.
Other Types of Controlled Breathing for Motion Sickness:
One study looked at controlled diaphragmatic breathing for travel sickness. The experimental subjects reduced their breathing rate to 8 breaths per minute during a motion-sickness inducing virtual reality experience and they showed greater heart-rate variability (a good thing) and less motion sickness overall.
Another study looked primarily at seasickness and how World War II soldiers were able to control motion sickness using breath. The technique, which basically involves exhalation on the backward tilt of a wave-like motion and inhalation on the forward tilt, tends to decrease motion sickness. Also, scientists noted that people who breathed slightly slower or faster than the cyclic movement of waves tended to have less nausea than people who breathed in rhythm with the waves. The reason behind these breath-related changes is thought to be due to the fact that in addition to the inner ear, our abdomens sense movement too, but our abdominal gravity-sensors tend to send a message to the brain more slowly than the ears. There are sensors in our muscles and tendons and our blood vessels too by the way! And these sensors have to match up in terms of the information they send to the brain regarding movement. When the various motion-sensors in the body send mismatched information, we can become nauseated.
The most sickening motions involve those that mimic natural breathing and scientists have noted that people have a tendency to breathe in time with a motion. So breathing out of time with a wave-like motion can be beneficial as a cure for seasickness.
Another study asked test subjects to “control their breathing” without coaching the subjects on how to control their breathing. They were simply told to “breathe gently and regularly”. There was no external pacing offered and they were given only 3 minutes to practice before a motion-sickness-inducing session. Scientists found that subjects who “controlled their breathing” and also listened to music at the same time were able to control their motion sickness with about half of the strength of pharmaceutical-based anti-motion sickness drugs, which isn’t bad considering the side effects of motion sickness drugs. Combining “controlled breathing” for motion sickness with black horehound would be a powerful package if you’re hoping to cure travel sickness and still be able to function after a long day of traveling.
So, if you want to cure travel sickness, there are herbal treatments, biomagnetism to bring blood flow back to the ears, and breathing methods that can help you get control over your autonomic nervous system. This control will help you in all areas of your life, not just when you’re traveling.
Other Important Links:
Farmer, A. D., Al Omran, Y., Aziz, Q., Andrews, P. L. (2014). The role of the parasympathetic nervous system in visually induced motion sickness: systemic review and meta-analysis. Retrieved June 11, 2021 from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24792503/#:~:text=The%20parasympathetic%20nervous%20system%20(PNS,of%20visually%20induced%20motion%20sickness.&text=Controlled%20trials%20reporting%20validated%20measures,in%20healthy%20adults%20were%20included.
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Healthline (2021). Can You Use Essential Oils to Treat Symptoms of Vertigo? Retrieved June 11, 2021 from https://www.healthline.com/health/essential-oils-for-vertigo#research
Lin Lau, P., Salihah, N. (2012). A Brief Review of Current Scientific Evidence Involving Aromatherapy Use for Nausea and Vomiting. Retrieved June 11, 2021 from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/229073607_A_Brief_Review_of_Current_Scientific_Evidence_Involving_Aromatherapy_Use_for_Nausea_and_Vomiting
Koch, A., et al. (2018). The Neurophysiology and Treatment of Motion Sickness. Retrieved June 11, 2021 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6241144/
Hain, T. C. (2019). Neurotransmitters in the vestibular system. Retrieved June 11, 2021 from https://dizziness-and-balance.com/anatomy/physiology/neurotransmitters.htm
Stromberg, S. E., Russell, M. E., Carlson, C. R. (2015). Diaphragmatic breathing and its effectiveness for the management of motion sickness. Retrieved June 11, 2021 from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25945662/
Sang, F. D. Y. P. et al. Science (2009). Seasick? Try Controlling Your Breathing. Retrieved June 11, 2021 from https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2009/12/seasick-try-controlling-your-breathing
Capella, B. (2019). Secret to the Wim Hof Method of Preventing Seasickness. Retrieved June 11, 2021 from https://bobcapella.com/2019/07/15/secret-to-the-wim-hof-method-preventing-sickness-and-illnesses/