By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
We all get it from time to time—nausea: that queasy, unsettled feeling in the stomach that usually precedes vomiting. And although no one wants to feel like they’re going to toss their cookies, nausea and vomiting play important roles in our survival and well being. Both are symptoms of multiple different situations or conditions—most are harmless, some more serious.
Causes of Nausea
When your tummy wants to rid you of noxious substances, it’s not shy. Whether you’ve got food poisoning or viral infection (“stomach flu”), have overeaten or drank too much alcohol and have a heck of a hangover, nausea can come knocking, often with unparalleled urgency. Motion sickness, seasickness, stress/anxiety, and even having a reaction to certain odors may also be to blame for the feeling that you’re about to lose your lunch. And most of the time with these common cases, the nausea is usually considered harmless, and it passes once the illness or offending situation comes to an end.
As many women can attest, the hormonal changes that occur during pregnancy can cause nausea, as well – sometimes for months. Anesthesia and certain drugs or treatments (most notably chemotherapy) can also lead to nausea symptoms.
Nausea can also, when accompanied by dizziness or lightheadedness, serve as a sign that you’re about to lose consciousness. Passing out may or may not be reason for concern; I always advise seeking medical attention, if even just to get a better idea of why it’s happening.
And although nausea due to stress often does not indicate an acute medical problem, it is something to pay attention to. If you’re having a tough time “stomaching” your feelings or the circumstances in your life, you may want to take a close look at what’s going on and make some changes before chronic stress gets the better of your health.
In all of the scenarios above, the cause of the nausea can be pretty easy to pinpoint. When your nausea is unexplained, though, or lasts more than a day or two, it can be a sign of a much more serious problem, including brain tumor or injury, gallbladder disease, gastrointestinal disorders, ulcers, and even a heart attack.
As a cardiologist, I am keenly aware of symptoms that may suggest a heart attack is imminent. Most everyone knows that crushing chest pain is a strong indicator of heart attack—but nausea happens to be one of the top symptoms of heart attack in women. And of course, with nausea being such a nondescript symptom, many women put off going to the doctor—which in the case of heart attack can be deadly.
This is why, if you can’t figure out why you’re nauseous or if the sensation doesn’t seem to go away, you should see your doctor immediately so that life-threatening conditions can be ruled out. You should also seek medical attention if the nausea is accompanied by other symptoms like rapid heartbeat, lethargy, confusion, headache, or other severe pain anywhere in the body. Nausea is, indeed, a messenger.
In acute cases of nausea, doctors can prescribe drugs that block nausea-triggering chemicals in the body. As with all drugs, though, these medications have the potential for side effects.
Most of the time, natural nausea treatments work just as well, and I prefer them over drugs because they have few, if any, side effects. When you’re dealing with nausea, the last thing you want to worry about is other bothersome symptoms.
Ginger is my favorite go-to nausea treatment. Decades ago in the coronary care unit, I started to giving my patients ginger tea to help lessen the nausea that often accompanied heart attacks. During a heart attack, stress hormones tend to spike, which causes anxiety, fear, and nausea in many patients. In addition, ginger helps settle the stomach in patients who get codeine, morphine, or other nausea-inducing drugs in the hospital.
Ginger also works to ease seasickness. Years ago when several family members and I went fishing in the Bering Strait, half our boat became sick from the rough seas. But my brother and I were drinking ginger tea, and we felt fine!
You can use commercial ginger teas, but I prefer making my own by peeling and chopping up ginger root into small pieces, then boiling for five minutes. You then strain and pour the liquid into a mug.
Acupuncture and Acupressure
Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese practice that involves penetrating the skin with fine needles to correct imbalances in qi (life energy) flow throughout the body. Some studies show that acupuncture is as successful as anti-nausea medication for relieving post-surgical nausea and vomiting. And a growing body of research indicates that acupuncture is an effective nausea treatment in cancer patients receiving chemotherapy and radiation.
If the thought of getting poked with needles makes you uneasy, acupressure, which uses finger pressure instead of needles, achieves the same result. In one study, acupressure lessened post-surgical nausea and vomiting in heart patients.
Whether you choose acupuncture or acupressure, the pressure point on the body found to remedy nausea is P6, which is located two to three finger-widths from the top crease in your wrist. For more information, check out this diagram and video demonstration on this Memorial Sloane Kettering Cancer Center page.
As any woman who wants you to take out the garbage will tell you, scents can be powerful things – for better or for worse. Aromatherapy is the custom of using essential oils to enhance physical and psychological well-being. Peppermint, ginger, and lemon seem to be the most beneficial nausea remedies. In fact, a recent study concluded that, “peppermint oil inhalation is a viable first-line treatment for nausea in postoperative cardiac surgery patients.”
Taking deep, full breaths can enhance the benefits of aromatherapy and further alleviate nausea. But even if you don’t like the smell of essential oils, deep breathing alone proves to be a powerful nausea treatment. In a study conducted on patients recovering from surgery, the participants were given gauze pads saturated in rubbing alcohol, peppermint, or saline solution (control). All worked equally well to reduce the nausea. Most patients—87 percent—reported being satisfied with how deep breathing relieved their discomfort and nausea symptoms.
Finally – and I hope it doesn’t sound flip – laughing can really be a wonderful nausea remedy. A genuine, hearty chuckle lowers your body’s stress response and at the same time releases endorphins that ease nausea. So next time you experience nausea, do, watch, or listen to something that tickles your funny bone. You might even help someone else out; as with vomiting (especially in situations like seasickness), laughter is contagious.
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- Lee A, et al. Stimulation of the wrist acupuncture point PC6 for preventing postoperative nausea and vomiting. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2015;11:CD003281.
- Kilian-Kita A, et al. Acupuncture: could it become everyday practice in oncology? Review Paper. Contemp Oncol (Pozn). 2016;20(2):119-23.
- Cooke M, et al. Wrist acupressure for post-operative nausea and vomiting (WrAP): a pilot study. Complement Ther Med. 2015 Jun;23(3):372-80.
- Ezzo J, et al. Cochrane systemic reviews examine P6 acupuncture-point stimulation for nausea and vomiting. J Altern Complement Med. 2006 Jun;12(5):489-95.
- Memorial Sloane Kettering Cancer Center web site. Acupressure for Nausea and Vomiting, accessed October 17, 2016.
- Briggs P, Hawrylack H, and Mooney R. Inhaled peppermint oil for postop nausea in patients undergoing cardiac surgery. Nursing. 2016 Jul;46(7):61-7.
- Goodnough K. Health center study shows nausea relieved by controlled breathing [press release]. University of Connecticut Advance. 2012 Feb.
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