For those of us susceptible to motion sickness, getting there is not the fun part of travel. All those reality TV clichés about the journey being as important as the destination fall by the wayside as the familiar pangs of nausea take hold, threatening to upset more than just your tummy.


And you're not alone. Nearly 80 per cent of us will experience motion sickness at one time in our lives, with up to one third regularly suffering from severe symptoms.

Motion sickness has been around for as long as humans have been mobile - in fact, the word nausea is derived from the Greek word for boat. Long before there were trains, planes or automobiles, Greek physician Hippocrates noted, "sailing on the sea proves motion disorders the body".

Common symptoms include nausea, vomiting, dizziness, sweating and a general feeling of discomfort. The cause? Well, the answer lies in between your ears - literally.

An ear-ie connection

The vestibular system of the inner ear is comprised of a series of tubes of fluid that slosh around inside your head, activating nerves that tell your brain which way is up. The fluid acts as the biological equivalent of a spirit level that regulates your sense of balance and makes sure you can see stable images when your head is moving.

Overstimulating your vestibular system - with movement in a car, plane or ship, for example - combined with confusion in your brain over what your eyes are seeing and what your vestibular system is feeling is said to cause motion sickness.

"It's a discrepancy between what the eye sees and what the ears feel," says Stephen Eddey, principal of Health Schools Australia. "On a ship, for example, you're inside and you can't see what's going on in your environment, yet your body is moving back and forward. That conflict between the vestibular system and the visual system causes motion sickness."

So if you're sitting in the back seat of a car, all you can see is the back of the seat in front of you. Your vestibular system senses the movement but your eyes can only see a stationary object - this confusion leads to nausea and vomiting. Similarly, flying in a plane during turbulence means you can feel the motion but can't see it, resulting in bewildered senses.

Generally, the more movement you sense and the more directions it involves (for example, vertical and horizontal), the greater the likelihood of experiencing symptoms of motion sickness - it's why windy roads, high seas and roller coasters are common culprits.

This is most apparent in the depths of space, where three quarters of astronauts experience what's known as ‘space adaptation syndrome', a form of motion sickness that occurs in spaceflights when they're free to move about in the weightless environment.

Solving the mystery

Why some of us can ride backwards in a boat on high seas with a full stomach without feeling nauseated, and others can barely stomach a short car trip on a straight road is puzzling to the medical fraternity.

"Why some people get it and some people don't is the million dollar question," says Eta Brand, media spokesperson and university trained naturopath for the Australian Naturopathic Practitioners Association. "Maybe it's a combination of genetics and the physiology of the vestibular system.

The other interesting thing to look at is wherever we have fluids in the body, and there are fluids in the inner ear, if a person has ongoing sinus congestion in the head, it may well be that there is an additional amount of fluid in that space, which may be connected to motion sickness."

Researchers at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego in the US reported that 70 per cent of research subjects with severe motion sickness had abnormalities of the vestibular system. Some studies hypothesise that it's possible to inherit a predisposition to the condition, and that this predisposition is more marked in some ethnic groups.

Prevention and cure

If you are prone to motion sickness, there are heaps of practical ways to reduce the symptoms. Always ride where your eyes will see the same motion that your body and inner ears feel - on a boat, sit outside and focus on the horizon; in a car, sit in the front seat (or drive if possible - this puts you in control of the motion) and look straight ahead; on a train, sit facing forward; and in a plane, sit by the wing (the stablest spot) and look out the window.

Make sure you have a light snack before you travel, but avoid spicy or greasy foods and alcohol, which may upset your stomach. Do not read or do anything that requires you to look down while you're in motion, and make sure fresh air flows freely and that the internal temperature isn't too warm.

If you're still feeling unwell, consider taking a preventative medication or herbal remedy. Ginger is the remedy of choice for many sufferers of motion sickness as its oils are thought to relax the intestinal tract and mildly depress the central nervous system. Some of the most effective forms of ginger are tablets, tea and candied pieces.

"The benefits of ginger have been borne out by numerous scientific studies," Eddy says. "Ginger helps by preventing rather than treating. If you're sick already, ginger won't help. I'd recommend a gram a day in the form of a tablet about half an hour before you travel." Ginger may also prove effective in combination with other natural remedies.

"If someone came to me before going on a flight, boat or a long car journey I would give them herbal remedies to start taking before their journey," Brand says."I might make them a remedy that includes ginger, Echinacea or calendula. I may also send them on their trip with some of that mix so they could put some drops in water and sip it as they go along."

Applying manual pressure - known as acupressure - to the Neiguan or Pericardium-6 acupuncture point (located about three finger-widths above your wrist on your inner arm) is also touted as a possible solution. Elastic wristbands that target this area are popular for sea travel and long car trips.

Perhaps the most well known remedy, over the counter medications (typically antihistamines) alleviate nausea, vomiting and dizziness. This type of medication will typically cause drowsiness and prevent you from being able to drive a car - but its effectiveness is virtually unquestioned.

The decision on whether to use over the counter medications or herbal remedies is dependent on your needs while you travel and, ultimately, what works best for you. "If you want to sleep on a plane you can take over the counter medications - they make you drowsy," Eddy says. "But if you don't want to be drowsy you may want to have the ginger - it's totally user choice. "As far as motion sickness goes, ginger is as effective - no question - but some people want to feel drowsy, to be knocked out, because they want to sleep or they're a bad flyer."

So with a little planning your journey can be almost as enjoyable as your holiday destination. Happy travelling!