The Mysterious Science of Motion Sickness

Motion Sickness

Story at-a-glance -

  • When what you see or hear doesn’t match up with movement felt by your inner ear, symptoms of motion sickness can result
  • Motion sickness may also be related to disruptions to your postural stability and it may have a genetic component
  • Ginger is one of the best motion sickness remedies available

By Dr. Mercola

Anytime your body moves in a way that’s different from what your eyes see, motion sickness can develop. Your inner ear, or vestibular system, is involved in movement and balance. This system senses motion, such as when you’re in a car or on a ship, and expects your eyes to confirm it.

When a mismatch or “sensory conflict” occurs, such as when you can feel the rolling of a ship but your eyes suggest you’re sitting still inside a cabin, nausea, vomiting, and dizziness – the hallmarks of motion sickness – can occur.

James Locke, a flight surgeon at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, told Scientific American:1

"Information from both our visual and vestibular systems is processed by the brain to match it all up. Your vestibular system—your inner ear—is tuned to a terrestrial, 1G environment

…When you move [yourself] around, changes in your vestibular system match up with what you're seeing. But [riding] in an airplane or car, your inner ear signals that you're moving, but your eye says you're sitting still."

This sensory conflict is the forerunning theory for why motion sickness occurs, but it’s not the only one. There are still many unanswered questions that science is only beginning to unravel, like why some people seem immune to motion sickness and why it manifests as feelings of sickness in your stomach.

The Postural Stability Theory

Tom Stoffregen, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Minnesota, suggests motion sickness is the result of what he calls postural stability theory. Your muscles are constantly in an active state, making small movements to keep you balanced.

This “body sway” isn’t noticeable to the average person, yet it’s what your body uses to keep you balanced during daily activities. Now, put yourself on a ship and suddenly the movements that have always worked to keep you from falling over no longer work.

Similar to sensory conflict, you’re now in a situation where, as The Atlantic put it, there’s a dissonance between expectations and reality. Stoffregen said:2

“You need to press with your toes, but what if you do that just as the ship is rolling out from under you? That means that [after] the movement you spent your whole life using to successfully stabilize yourself, your body will move in ways you don’t want it to move. You’ll no longer have the relationship between postural movement and postural outcome.”

According to Stoffregen, differences in body sway may explain why some people get motion sickness and others don’t. It’s also known that women tend to suffer from more motion sickness than men, which Stoffregen believes can also be explained by body mechanics.

Specifically, he says women sway slower and “farther” while men sway faster in a smaller area. He also believes that differences in hormone levels may play a role, as evidenced by research showing women may be more prone to motion sickness at different points in their menstrual cycle.3 This may also explain why many children “grow out” of motion sickness after they reach puberty.

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Are Some People Genetically Prone to Motion Sickness?

Another theory posits that motion sickness may be in your genes. The genomics company 23andMe found 35 genetic factors tied to motion sickness, including several that may be linked to nausea (other research suggests the nausea and vomiting associated with motion sickness may be activated by neural pathways).4

This may explain why, among the one in three people who are highly susceptible to motion sickness, the condition is often hereditary.5 Among the genes involved were those impacting balance, eye and ear development, and the nervous system.6

The study also revealed that people who suffer from motion sickness are more likely to have migraines, morning sickness, and vertigo, as well as be poor sleepers.

According to NASA researcher Locke, meanwhile, about 30 percent of people appear to be “immune” to motion sickness and, he says, “So far, we're unable to predict who gets it and who doesn't."7

Your Body Gets Used to Motion Over Time

Another curious thing about motion sickness is your body’s ability to habituate to it over time. Research shows, for instance, that sailors become less susceptible to motion sickness with regular sailing.8

In fact, your body may become so used to the motion that you can experience "mal de débarquement,” French for disembarkation sickness (or land sickness) after getting off a ship (or car, train, plane, etc.)

This is good news for people who are in for long travels by ship, car, or plane, but less helpful for those who feel sick virtually any time they’re in a moving vehicle. Even amusement park rides and video games can be triggers for some people.

As a result, some resort to medications for motion sickness, many of which have a sedative effect. Others work by reducing nerve activity in your inner ear, and carry side effects that may be worse than the motion sickness itself, like blurred vision and disorientation.9 Before resorting to medication, know that there are many natural tricks you can use to settle your stomach and lessen the effects of motion sickness.

Tricks to Beat Motion Sickness

If you know you’re prone to motion sickness, focus your eyes on the horizon or another fixed point. If you’re in a car, be the driver or pretend you’re the driver. Whatever you do, don’t read and don’t close your eyes.

According to Dr. Sujana Chandrasekhar, director of New York Otology and ENT surgeon at the New York Head and Neck Institute:10

"Closing your eyes shuts off a very powerful override. If you open your eyes and focus, either on a single point in the distance, or focus as if you're driving the car, you can actually override the incorrect interpretation of the ear input."

However, one of the best natural remedies for motion sickness and nausea is ginger. To make a tea, simply slice off a small amount of fresh ginger and steep it in hot water for 30 seconds up to several minutes. Ginger is very potent, so taste it at regular intervals of about 30 seconds—it can get very strong fast!

Alternatively, for a quicker solution, just take a half teaspoon of fresh ginger, finely dice it, and swallow it. It has worked every time I have had the need for it. It probably is the most consistently effective herbal food that I have seen work nearly every time. And best of all it is natural and virtually free.

In addition to ginger, the University of Maryland Medical Center also suggests using peppermint and black horehound, which is actually a traditional remedy for motion sickness.11 These herbs can be taken as dried extracts in the form of capsules, powders, or teas, as well as liquid extracts or tinctures.

 To make a tea using dried herb, put about one teaspoon of the herb into a tea strainer and place it in a cup of hot water. Other natural solutions for motion sickness include:

  • Acupressure, which is the practice of pressing or massaging certain points on your body, which can stimulate your body's self-curative abilities. For motion sickness, try pressing on the inside of your forearm, two thumbs' width above your wrist crease, between the two tendons. The point is actually located below surface level so pushing deep is more effective. You can even use the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) for nausea.12
  • Aromatherapy: Pleasant odors have been shown to alleviate motion sickness.13 Try rose, peppermint, or lavender essential oils, for starters.
  • Pleasant music: People exposed to pleasant relaxing music reported reduced severity of visually induced motion sickness (VIMS). Researchers concluded, “Pleasant music can be an effective, low-cost, and easy-to-administer method to reduce VIMS.”14
  • Mind-Body Therapies: Relaxation techniques (deep muscle relaxation and mental imagery), cognitive behavioral therapy, and deep breathing are all effective at relieving motion sickness.15

All of these make sense since it’s been suggested that distracting or stimulating your other senses may make motion sickness disappear. As mentioned, at the very least you can take heart in knowing that most cases of motion sickness get better on their own over time and with increased exposure to motion. Anxiety about motion sickness may make it worse, so use EFT for relief as needed in that regard.

As the University of Maryland Medical Center reported:

Although motion sickness usually goes away after the motion stops and causes no lasting harm, it can be devastating for people whose jobs involve constant movement, such as a flight attendant, pilot, astronaut, or ship crew member. People who don't travel often may get used to movement during a trip lasting several days. Even those who travel often may find that symptoms get better as they are more often exposed to motion. However, people who get anxious before a journey often have worsened symptoms of motion sickness. They may need help such as biofeedback and relaxation training.”