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Monday’s medical myth: peanuts stop motion sickness

At the start of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, the ever-resourceful Ford Prefect buys four packets of salted peanuts, ostensibly to prevent motion sickness. We sometimes get them on flights too…

Peanuts may alleviate some symptoms but they won’t cure your motion sickness. Jetstar Airways

At the start of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, the ever-resourceful Ford Prefect buys four packets of salted peanuts, ostensibly to prevent motion sickness. We sometimes get them on flights too. But do they work or is it just science fiction?

Motion sickness is a common problem, not just for hitchhikers. Planes, boats, cars and even our television screens are moving faster and more frequently than ever before. And so are our stomachs.

Nausea is triggered in some people when there is a mismatch in what their senses are telling them about the world around them. When taking off in an aircraft, for instance, the vestibular system in the ears detects the plane’s acceleration and tells the brain you are moving. But the eyes send a different message.

The same sort of mismatch can occur when watching a moving image on the big screen or in virtual environments (known as cyber sickness) – it looks like you’re moving, but your senses are telling you that you’re sitting still.

Given the right (or wrong) stimulus, almost everyone can be made to feel unwell. Some people are troubled by motion sickness more than others, especially children and those who also get migraines. Women may be more vulnerable to travel sickness than men, especially Asian women. Infrequent travellers may also have more problems, as habituation usually improves tolerance for bumpy take-offs or landings.

We become nauseous when our vestibular system detects we’re moving but the eyes send a different message. vajlentka

The simplest way to reduce motion sickness is to synchronise your senses. If you’re in a car, look forward rather than out the side window, where things are moving fast. (I know I’m always worse in the back seat). Fixing on a stable visual reference point, such as the horizon, also helps.

Avoid things that exacerbate the conflict of your senses, such as reading or texting in a moving car.

Another allopathic trick is to counteract the motion sickness. Feelings of queasiness are partly a result of the sympathetic nervous system being activated (the same fight or flight response that makes you feel sick when nervous). So things that activate the opposing parasympathetic system – slow, deep breathing, cooling your face and listening to relaxing music – can lessen the effects of motion.

Eating a (small) meal five to 45 minutes before the stimulus can also reduce the severity of motion-induced nausea and vomiting. So if budget-conscious airlines don’t feed us, it’s hardly a wonder we are sick of flying.

It’s thought that activating the parasympathetic nervous system, specifically at the stomach level, stimulates normal rhythmic activity and suppresses the rapid, irregular contractions associated with feeling sick (known as gastric tachyarrhythmia).

Roasted, salted peanuts are a tasty snack. Euro Magic

This effect partly depends on what you eat. Tasty, protein-rich snacks seem to be the best. This may be because protein, more than other nutrients, stimulates the stomach hormone, gastrin, which triggers regular stomach contractions.

Peanuts, of course, are protein-packed legumes and they’re much tastier when roasted and salted. But while Ford Prefect might be right to suggest his motion sickness could be lessened by eating salted peanuts, it has never been proven.

Although there are benefits to eating protein, it doesn’t prevent all the symptoms every time. And peanuts clearly have their own risks for choking, asthma and anaphylaxis, which have led to calls for them to be banned on all planes, as well as schools.

But if peanuts are not the answer, what is? You could take medication or abandon car, boat and air travel. Maybe a talented chef could come up with a tasty, protein-rich alternative to snack on after we board. But it wouldn’t be the same as that little bag of salted nuts.

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6 Comments sorted by

  1. jamie jardine

    Acupuncturist

    My children suffer from motion sickness, to the point that it's difficult to go anywhere. My sister once suggested that they sit on newspapers because that is supposed to help, haven't tried that one yet, nor had I heard of the peanuts thing. You're other suggestions sound sensible maybe I'll try that out whilst sitting them on newspaper feedin them peanuts, that ought to do it..

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    1. Barry Oliver

      Associate Professor at University of Queensland

      In reply to jamie jardine

      So how come those elastic bands with a button you put around you wrist work?
      I have an Asian female friend who hadn't travelled much and as soon as she got onto a winding road- car sick. I gave her a wrist band with button...worked a treat! Mind you, I have noticed she has become conditioned and doesn't need it anywhere as much now, so its a bit hard to tell if it was as effective as it seemed. Mind over matter maybe but still think they were effective but don't know why...

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  2. Ian Goss

    logged in via Facebook

    A non-oral placebo, Barry? Can we please have a link to one of these buttons—I had not heard of them?

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    1. Barry Oliver

      Associate Professor at University of Queensland

      In reply to Ian Goss

      Just do a web search on 'sea sick band'. There are a few different manufacturers. I think you could probably make one easily by using a piece of wide elastic with a raised button maybe .5cm high and 1cm dia. place it three finger widths up the wrist. The place is called the Nei-Kuan point.

      I found a reference for the efficacy of the wristband (see below), not sure about quality of the research though, newspaper and peanuts might be just as good, or you may find unless you spend lots of money on a commercial wrist band the placebo effect isn't as strong and peanuts and newsaper are just as good!

      Lee A, Fan, LTY (2009). Lee, Anna. ed. "Stimulation of the wrist acupuncture point P6 for preventing postoperative nausea and vomiting". Cochrane database of systematic reviews (Online) (2): CD003281. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD003281.pub3. PMID 15266478

      The above reference came from doing a search on the Nei-Kuan point and found it under acupuncture wikipedia.

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  3. Account Deleted

    logged in via email @drdrb.net

    No no. Ford had the peanuts to counter protein and salt loss from the teleportation device. I don't think our airlines are offering teleportation yet, though I'm sure it will be unpleasant and overpriced when they do.

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    1. Garth Newton

      Manager, Communication, ITD at NSW Department of Education and Communities

      In reply to Account Deleted

      Yes, "matter transference beam" to be precise. Ford says:
      "if you've never been through a matter transference beam before you've probably lost some salt and protein. The beer you had should have cushioned your system a bit."
      Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Chapter 4.

      So, I guess Douglas Adams had it right for travel sickness as well. What we all need is a couple of beers to go along with that little bag of salted nuts.

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