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Travel sickness — what's the best cure?

Monday, November 6, 2006
Remember the family holidays where you'd pile into the family car and hit the road? It wouldn't be long before you'd be pulling over because someone in the car had to be sick, and we'd spend the rest of the trip stopping every few kilometres so they could do it again.

But what is it that makes us car sick? And more importantly, how do you stop it happening?

We're going to find out by road-testing three of the most popular remedies for travel sickness.

The test

Helping us out are the boys from St Stanislaus College at Bathurst in country New South Wales. Stannies has a proud rugby tradition — every second Saturday during footy season, the players are loaded onto buses and head off to tackle opponents from around the state.

But if the guys look nervous before they board the bus, it's not just because they might be facing a thrashing on the rugby field. They're more daunted by three hours of twists and turns on their bus ride over the Blue Mountains to Sydney.

Sixteen-year-old Fergus Frawley is particularly apprehensive. He's been getting travel sick since he was a toddler.

"When I feel motion sick I start to get a headache, feel restless, hot, stuffy. It gets worse and worse as it goes on," says Fergus.

Fergus isn't the only one — a lot of his team-mates suffer from motion sickness too. If they're going to get queasy, this trip will do it! But there'll be no travel sickness treatments on the way to the game. The guys will just have to do it tough.

So what causes motion sickness? The University of Melbourne's Dr Robert Di Nicolantonio believes it's kicked off when your eyes and your ears send mixed messages to your brain.

"Your eyes are saying you're not moving, but your ears are telling you something different — you're moving up and down, up and down. Mismatch. The brain is confused. Motion sickness," he says.

It works like this. Our body orientates itself using a set of fluid-filled canals near our inner ear, which are like our own internal gyroscope. As we move, the fluid moves and the canals detect this, translating it into information for our brain about our speed and direction.

Back on the bus, Fergus is getting worried: "We're getting into the hillier, bendy stuff so it will probably get worse now and I might start to feel a bit funny in stomach."

An hour and a half of twists and turns and the boys start feeling the heat.

Nausea sets in because the brain's decided there really is something wrong. "If there's a mismatch between the ears and eyes, and the brain trusts the ears more than the eyes, it thinks you've ingested or eaten something, which is affecting the way you see the world — it's some sort of poison or toxin or drug so the body's defence mechanism for that is to vomit it up," says Dr Di Nicolantonio.

Sure enough, the driver makes an unscheduled stop for some sick students. Then it's back on the bus — there's a match to be won.

An hour later, they're in Sydney on the rugby field and cheering the team on. Whether the Stannies boys win or lose on their return trip, they'll get to try our travel sickness remedies and see which ones go the distance.

After an 80-minute battle, Stannies has beaten St Pius hands down.

But having won the match, will they lose their lunch on the stomach-churning trip back to Bathurst?

It's time to test-drive three well-known travel sickness remedies.

Remedy number one is an over-the-counter travel sickness tablet. The active ingredient is "hyoscine".

"Hyoscine was one of earliest treatments for motion sickness. It acts very well in blocking at the tummy and brain — these mechanisms that give rise to motion sickness. [It's a] very effective drug," says Dr Di Nicolantonio.

Remedy number two is good old ginger.

"Ginger has a large number of compounds in it, which we're still trying to work out about, that do in fact modulate the brain and the stomach's perception of motion sickness," the doc says.

Remedy number three is something unusual — lemon. Fergus found out about this one from his father, Damian Frawley, a herbalist. "Both of us have suffered over the years from travel sickness, motion sickness. Both of us have found one of the most effective cures is to suck on a slice of lemon … breaks up the nausea, breaks up the feeling of wanting to vomit," says Damian.

Fergus agrees: "I just have a sliced up lemon, suck on it whenever I actually feel sick and makes me feel better straight away."

So how is a lemon supposed to stop travel sickness? As a full-time herbalist, Damian thinks he's got the answer.

"I believe the acidity in the citric acid is alkalised in your mouth and tends to have an alkalising effect on the stomach acid, which brings you relief from the feeling of nausea." Dr Di Nicolantonio also thinks lemons could do the trick, but for a different reason.

"That flavour is so bitter and so strong that it will be sufficient to trigger those higher brain regions, cortical regions, to suppress the motion sickness."

Results

Night's fallen and the boys are looking pretty good. But how are they feeling? Ginger's going great guns, so are the over-the-counter tablets and the lemon lads are feeling just fine. The boys had one other thing quelling their queasiness, according to our motion sickness guru. The psychological buzz of their victory on the rugby field!

"If you're distracted, then the upper, more advanced part of your brain is distracted and suppresses the nausea and vomiting reflex. If you're focussing on this nausea and motion sickness you're feeling, then you're going to feel much more severe," says Dr Nicolantonio.

So still on a high after their big win, the Stannies boys make it home in top shape with a perfect scorecard for all three remedies.

Conclusion

So all three remedies went the distance, but for our expert, Dr Robert, there's one clear winner: "Of all three of these preparations, hyoscine, ginger, lemon — hyoscine, without doubt, is the most effective."

If you're into natural therapies, like Fergus's dad, Damian, you're going to see things a little differently.

"As a herbalist, I'd always recommend people try natural products before they try drug-based interventions. You know these things have been tried and tested over many years. Generally they'll be just as effective and you won't suffer any side effects," he says.

Remember, where motion sickness is concerned, a little prevention goes a long way. Here are some helpful hints.

  • Eat lightly before travelling. Avoid a heavy meal or one that's high in fat.
  • Sit where you're as stable as possible, like in the front seat of a car.
  • Get plenty of fresh air on your face.
  • Avoid reading, because your eyes need to keep in constant contact with the surroundings.

Here's a tip if you're travelling by air — sit near the wing and you'll bounce around less. That should help keep things calm down below, and if you want to take a remedy, make sure you find the one that you're most comfortable with.

Fast facts

  • Rumour has it that most kids "grow out of" travel sickness as they get older. Fact or fiction? Fortunately, most kids do, because their body's "proprio-receptive system", which tells them where they are and how fast they're moving, isn't fully developed. As they grow, it matures, which is why fewer older folks suffer travel sickness.


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