When my sisters and I were kids, the bulk of our travels were done by car, with the three of us jammed into the back seat. We’d fritter away time ticking off street lights as they whizzed by, noticing how they would become less frequent the farther we got from the city.
For a period, both long and short excursions were invariably marked by my middle sister’s carsickness. With the constant and ominous threat of a potential upchuck, my baby sister and I practically became certified barf mediums: We developed a sixth sense for identifying when “I have a funny feeling” went from mild queasiness to a seconds-to-spare hurlfest. We would signal to our parents, quickly followed by the sound of screeching tires and a symphony of slamming doors. Luckily for all of us, she outgrew this phase, and we motored on with a long-lasting love for the open road.
Turns out, she isn’t alone. A recent study published in Human Molecular Genetics found that roughly one in three people is highly susceptible to motion sickness. Further research shows that women tend to suffer more frequently than men. The difference remains a bit of a mystery, but several theories range from the timing of menstrual cycles to a history of migraines. Although experts can’t pinpoint why some get sick and others don’t while performing identical activities, the accepted culprit stems from one body part: the ear.
“One of the ways our ability to experience balance is managed through our inner ears,” says Dr. Cory Torgerson, an ear, nose and throat specialist and a professor of otolaryngology at the University of Toronto. “The vestibular system [located in the inner ear] is designed to provide spatial orientation between our body and the world around us.” This built-in monitor is one of the main ways that we maintain balance.
So what triggers the hurl response? Dr. Roohi Qureshi, a physician and founder of the all-natural skincare line Leaves of Trees, explains it this way: “When the brain receives sensory information from different sources that doesn’t correspond, this mixed message can give rise to the feeling of motion sickness, activating the vomit button.”
Common Culprits of Motion Sickness
Topping the list of offenders is reading while travelling. If your eyes are turned down, engulfed in your latest book club pick, your brain mistakenly presumes that you’re at a standstill, but the inner ear rightly senses that your body is in constant motion. “Your brain receives conflicting information from your eyes and inner ear while reading in motion,” says Dr. Qureshi. This reaction can occur when travelling by car, boat or plane or even veering down an amusement-park ride.
If you’ve been tapped as navigator and need to read a map or be on a device, try bringing it up to eye level and take frequent breaks to look at the passing scenery.
Speaking of maps, whenever possible, choose the most direct route and keep twists, turns and elevation changes to a minimum. It’s also wise to make regular stops for fresh air and to get a break from the constant motion, says Tim Pendlebury, a tour director who spends 170 days on the road each year.
One of the best solutions is also one of the easiest: Stare at the horizon. All you need to do is fix your gaze on something that’s not moving, such as a building or a mountain. This will ground you, helping you stay anchored while your body is in motion.
And if you can, be in the driver’s seat. If you can’t, your next best bet is to ride shotgun. When you’re sitting in the front, you
can see and anticipate what lies ahead. If possible, close your eyes and nap.
Also, keep the temperature of the vehicle cooler rather than warmer, says Pendlebury.
Food can both help and hinder. It’s generally agreed that travelling on a full stomach is a poor idea, but you should be adequately hydrated. This doesn’t mean hitting the mini-bar beforehand, though, as alcohol can lead to dehydration. “If you’re prone to motion sickness, dehydration won’t necessarily cause carsickness, but it can worsen symptoms,” says Dr. Qureshi.
If all else fails, pack a gag bag: Stock up on mints (a natural remedy), chewing gum and ginger tea, candy or snaps. Include foods that are light and dry. Munching on, say, plain crackers when you start to feel unwell can help with nausea.