Mal De Mer: 10 Tricks For Beating Seasickness For New Ocean Travelers
By: Scott Way
Seasickness, or the more scholarly sounding ‘mal de mer,’ is nature’s way of reminding us that, try as we might, we are land dwelling creatures by design. Motion sickness is a common affliction for boaters, and if you’ve ever watched someone turn green then you know it’s a scourge you can’t ignore. There are hundreds of old sailors’ remedies about dealing with mal de mer, but behind all the dubious potions, old wives tales, and the placebos, there’s some good science too.
Before diving into the effects, consider first the cause. Seasickness typically only occurs in large bodies of water like oceans or seas when you can't see the shoreline, so it's not a common occurrence on small lakes or rivers. Seasickness is a discrepancy between what your eyes see and your body feels. Any inconsistency between the motion your eyes detect and the movement your inner ear (or other sensory nerves) pick up will confuse your brain. This causes it to respond by sending distress signals. One of the first symptoms will be a sudden urge to empty your stomach, followed by a host of other things that are equally un-fun. So how do you prevent this battle of the senses from happening? And what should you do once the physiological trickery has set sail?
If you find yourself on a boat (or a car, train, or plane) the movement will be picked up by sensory nerves throughout your body. Your feet and hands can detect incredibly subtle motion, so they’ll know when the train starts to move on the tracks, or your hands will feel the bumps in the road through the arm rests in your car. Your inner ear will sense changes in gravity as you rise and fall with a wave, or the change in physical forces as a boat rocks side to side. As long as the size and intensity of the movements match what your eyes are interpreting, you won’t become seasick. But if your eyes detect small motion but your inner ear feels like it’s cresting a 10 foot wave, your brain is going to become suspicious. Motion sickness is basically a roller coaster ride in your vestibular system, which is a fancy way of saying your body has an entire sensory department for detecting the loop-de-loop.
The key to dealing with seasickness is knowing what to do BEFORE it kicks in, and what to do AFTER you’ve turned pale. A little preventative action can mean the difference between a day of fun in the sun or a day hugging porcelain and praying for solid ground, so here are 5 tips you can utilize before leaving the dock, and 5 actions to take after your stomach does its first backflip.
The most common remedy for combating seasickness is to take some ginger. This can mean ginger ale, over the counter ginger supplements, or eating actual ginger root. This remedy is probably the most popular because it’s the readily available and can be picked up from just about any grocery store, corner store, or pharmacy. Studies have shown that ginger works better than a placebo, even though the exact causes aren’t entirely known, so at least you know there’s some legitimacy to the method. Since taking ginger is relatively harmless and can only increase your odds of staying in ship shape, take some (in any form) half an hour before hitting the water. One to two grams is a moderate dose that should provide good effects for any adult.
2) Sea Bands/Wristbands
Another popular remedy is using an acupressure band to apply pressure to the pulse in your wrist. The science is murky at best, but ask ten sailors and you’re bound to hear several proclaim that wearing one can legitimately reduce the effects of nausea and other physical symptoms common with motion sickness. There are two types of sea bands, acupressure and magnetic. Both utilize the same concept, but the premise with the magnetized version is they somehow amplify their intended effect due to magnetism. If given the choice, go with an acupressure bracelet from your nearest pharmacy and wear it like a watch, putting the pressure point about 1-2” above your wrist. They’re relatively cheap and can be found on Amazon, so it’s worth a shot. Since the risk is low and the reward is high, a seaband could keep you smiling even if your boat gets caught in an endless cycle of 3 foot rollers.
Over the counter antihistamines are usually the best recourse for fighting the almighty seasickness, provided that 1) they’re safe for you to take based on your medical history, and 2) you take them at the appropriate time, in the appropriate way, so they work when you need them. Antihistamines like Bonine and Dramamine are the most popular as they don’t require a prescription and come in pill or patch form. Prescription drugs like Scopalomine are definitely stronger, but should only be prescribed for those with a known sensitivity to motion sickness (and are usually only prescribed for those with a sensitivity who need longer term protection, like the first couple days of a cruise). Antihistamines work by counteracting the effect of chemicals released by the brain during seasickness, so that means they must be taken before there’s evidence of symptoms. Once the floodgates of nausea are open, it’s too late. By the time you absorb the medication you’ll already be hanging over the port side rail dreaming about solid ground. Take the recommended dose of an antihistamine in pill or patch form before boarding the boat, but read the instructions for each individual medication carefully as lead times may vary. Some patches require putting them on hours before departure, whereas others are faster acting and only require 30-60 minutes to become effective. Be aware of the side effects too, antihistamines are known to cause drowsiness, fatigue, and dry mouth, among other symptoms, so factor those into your boating plans.
Being in ship shape before boarding might be one of the smartest ways to avoid mal de mer. It seems obvious, but there is good evidence to suggest that being well rested, well fed, and well hydrated before departure can be a huge help. That’s not to say you should be bloated with heavy food before going up the gangway, but having something in your stomach is better than going on board empty. Avoid spicy foods, fat-rich entrees, excessive alcohol, smoking, and foods with strong orders, and that should minimize the likelihood of your stomach going into revolt. If you’re extra worried or extra sensitive, simple foods limited in flavour tend to work best, like bread, saltine crackers, or pretzels. The carbohydrates will make you feel full, and they’re relatively easy to digest so your stomach is more likely to stay settled.
Make sure you’re hydrated when you board, and stay hydrated even if you start to show symptoms (or lose your lunch). Dehydration can worsen the effects, plus it’ll make your recovery period longer. Being well rested is also helpful, studies have shown that the human body responds better to external stresses when it’s not already depleted. If you’re run down before getting onboard, your body will be more prone to motion sickness since it’ll be too tired to handle the stimulus. Roll up to the dock after a good night’s rest with some light food in your stomach and your chances of a good day just improved.
5) Believe In Yourself
The placebo effect is very much real, but that may not be entirely what’s at play here (if you’re talking to an old mariner, that is). There’s an old tradition among seafarers that you won’t get sick if you simply claim you can’t! Proclaiming “I don’t get seasick!” out loud in the mirror three times is believed to be the ancient cure-all, and hearing this from a grizzled veteran can convince anyone there’s some truth to it. After all, if a sailor can survive unpredictable seas for weeks on end without getting sick, surely you can too. This might be a Jedi mind trick, but scientific studies have shown that the placebo effect can generate a significant improvement in a patient’s symptoms, so a little positive self-talk is worth a try. Say it like you mean it. Do or do not, there is no try.
WHAT TO DO ONCE IT’S BEGUN
If you’ve done the 5 things above and still find yourself feeling queasy, don’t panic. Even if your brain is having trouble understanding the conflicting information your senses are throwing at, it you’ve still some time to take action. If your stomach starts to churn in sync with some rolling waves, here are 5 things you can do to stop the momentum.
6) Find the Cause and Take The Helm
Finding the cause of a problem and removing it is how you fix anything, but motion sickness can be caused by one factor or several, so you’ll have to figure out what’s happening quickly once symptoms start. Depending on the boat you’re in (and your position in the pecking order) changing the boat’s heading is a quick solution. If the boat is positioned against the waves or current that it causes repetitive motion, a change in course will change the action of the boat. A repetitive harmonic rhythm is the most common cause of motion sickness, so if you break that rhythm you’ll be able to breathe again.
If it’s an option, taking control at the helm is also a great solution. If you’re on a recreational boat with friends or family and they’re willing to supervise, taking the helm does several things: 1) it will force you to focus your eyes on the horizon, which minimizes misreading sensory data between your eyes and inner ear, 2) it gives you the ability to steer the boat or change the heading to break the rhythm causing the illness, and 3) it’ll keep you busy and give you a sense of control over the elements, which often enough will ease your symptoms while you focus on driving the boat.
7) Get to Midships or Near the Waterline
Even if you can’t take over in the captain’s chair, there are several other ways to combat your symptoms. If you can, head to the midship of the boat, preferably near the waterline. If you’re on a large yacht or cruise ship, request a cabin at midship before departure because that's where you’ll feel movement the least. If you’re at the bow or stern, each crest over a wave moves those areas farther up and down like a seesaw than at the centrepoint. If you’re near the waterline it’s the same effect for side-to side motion, the rhythmic swaying being minimized compared to being up on deck. Requesting a cabin with a portal where you can see the horizon is also helpful. There is one big caveat here, though. This only applies when you’re on a large vessel. Hiding out in the cabin or galley of a small boat often makes seasickness worse and it won’t do much to reduce the motion, plus being in an enclosed space will confuse your brain even more.
8) Avoid Compounding Stimuli
It might be hard to determine what’s triggering your seasickness, so the quicker you remove potential irritants the better. A single stimulus might be the cause, or a collection of them, so if you notice several factors at play distance yourself from them as quickly as possible. If you’re on the bow deck feeling the pitch of the boat with each wave, and you’re near noxious odours from food, alcohol, or other passengers, and you don’t have eyes on the horizon, the combination could be the culprit. Or, since a single factor could be the root change your scenery and see what happens. You may find that the combination was the culprit and removing 1-2 triggers will ease the strain. Even if you slip up and have a greasy meal or some alcoholic drinks and start to feel queasy, remember not to compound the problem by adding more triggers. Head down into the cabin (preferably at midship) and minimize your exposure to sights, sounds, or smells that could be making things worse.
9) Equalize Your Sensory Queues
If you’re seasick and it’s looking like you’re in for the long haul, there are still things you can do to minimize the intensity and the duration. Equalizing your sensory queues is a big first step, which means putting yourself in a setting where your senses can be as calm as possible given the circumstances. Motion sickness is rooted in your body not feeling like it has control of its surroundings, so the more you can control the less symptomatic you’ll be. For example, if you become sick as a passenger in a car, taking your turn at the wheel regains your sense of control. Sitting in the passenger seat won't let your body control the car’s speed or movement, thus confusing your brain because you’re sitting still but the car is in motion. If you’re driving, your brain can correlate the car’s movements with your own (pressing the gas pedal, turning the wheel, etc). This gives your body a greater sense of control, and that mental trickery will often be enough to see improvement. If you’re on a boat and can’t take the captain’s job, equalize your sensory queues however you can. If possible, lie down so your body moves in unison with the boat, rather than fighting the motion while standing up. Reduce sights, sounds, and smells. Keep your eyes fixed on the horizon or on a fixed point to help create sensory congruence and match what your body is perceiving with the motion around you. Sailors use tricks like lying in a hammock on deck; the hammock stays relatively motionless while the ship rolls beneath you.
10) Ride It Out For The Future
You can do everything right, but like catching a cold sometimes no amount of preventive care can stop the inevitable. On the bright side, if you suffer through a bout of seasickness there’s good evidence to suggest you’ll handle it better the next time. The human body has a way of remembering past experiences, and much like the way it develops an immunity to a cold virus after its been exposed, your body will recognize the signs of motion sickness if they surface again. That’s not to say seasickness is a one time thing, some people have a sensitivity and are likely to get sick anytime they leave the mainland, but if you’re a regular boater it’s unlikely to last as long (or be as intense) as the first time. Stick to the 10 tips above and while there’s never a guarantee you won’t turn green next time you’re at sea, there’s a good chance some ginger ale and a little positive self-talk will help you weather the storm.