Seasickness - a nutritionists take on prevention and remedies

By TWS resident Nutritionist Quincey Cummings


You may have heard the saying, "the best form of medicine is prevention!" I believe this approach also applies to seasickness. The dreaded Mal de Mer can strike down even the most seasoned sailors, but there are simple precautions you can take to become more resilient and better prepared for your next passage. We'll also explore some easy, natural remedies for the seasick crew.

rough sea causes seasickness


But first, let's dive into the physiology of why we get seasick?


Seasickness is partially caused by conflicting sensory input from the inner ear (your balance center) and visual perception. Simply put, your eyes and your feeling of balance are not in agreement, and it can feel very disorienting! The chain reaction of seasickness involves high levels of cortisol—the stress hormone—and histamine dumped into the bloodstream. Histamine is a naturally occurring enzyme in the body released by mast cells, and its beneficial functions include digestive stimulation, blood vessel dilation, and memory development. In the right amount, histamine does a lot of helpful things in the body! When we experience an allergic reaction, the body releases very high amounts of histamine in response, leading to symptoms like itchy skin or anaphylaxis (throat swelling and breathing difficulties) in severe cases. Histamine is also released in stressful situations. We've all felt various degrees of nervousness preparing for a passage or building anxiety when the weather and sea state become uncomfortable.


Anyone who has experienced the misery of seasickness will tell you it's one of the worst feelings in the world. It turns out, various studies have shown there are also foods you can eat (or avoid) and behaviors you can practice reducing histamine levels and stress, and thus reduce the risk of feeling seasick!

STAY HYDRATED!

Hydration status directly affects histamine concentration in the bloodstream, and being dehydrated can cause many uncomfortable symptoms from fatigue to digestive ailments. Amanda Swan of The Essential Galley Companion has been leading sailing expeditions and training for thirty years. When asked, "How can one prepare for a sailing expedition?" her first recommendation is to take an offshore sailing course, and number TWO is "Learn to stay hydrated as hydration is a key to minimizing seasickness and fatigue."


In the days leading up to a passage, be vigilant about water intake. Carry a reusable water bottle with you, or set reminders on your phone throughout the day to hydrate. While sailing, keep your water bottle with you while on watch and consider making a thermos of warm herbal tea. If you keep a log while underway, use that action as a reminder to hydrate (check the bilge for water and also check yourself for water) Add a squeeze of fresh lemon to add flavor if you find plain water boring and remember that sparkling water is just as good as still for hydration. Try to avoid flavored sports drinks, which generally have a lot of sugar and artificial coloring, and opt for coconut water to get your electrolytes. Bonus points if you harvest your own coconuts! You can also find a simple, DIY Electrolyte Drink Recipe here.

AVOID FRIED OR HEAVY FOODS AND FOODS HIGH IN HISTAMINE

Heavy or fried foods are more difficult for the body to digest. These foods move slower through the digestive tract and require more energy and fluid to break down (circling back to proper hydration). In many cases, fried foods can cause a range of digestive upsets, not anything you want to deal with while on a boat. Avoid excess meat (especially cured meats, like salami or bacon, which are especially high in histamine), cheese, and heavy cream-based sauces. You don't necessarily need to go full vegetarian before or during a passage, but I do recommend increasing your intake of fresh vegetables and fruit for fiber and a variety of nutrients. You may find you have increased energy, sharper thinking, better digestion, and more regular bowel movements (if you've spent much time on long passages, you know this last point is critical!)

REDUCE ALCOHOL / COFFEE

Avoid excess alcohol or coffee in the days leading up to and during your passage. Yes, both are liquids, but caffeine and alcohol are diuretics and can contribute to dehydration. If you choose to have coffee in the morning, have a large glass of water first. Consider a lower-caffeine option like black or green tea or a mix of decaf and regular coffee for your brew. Try a dandelion root beverage that has a coffee-like bitter taste, but no caffeine or acidity. Balance out each drink of alcohol with a glass of pure water. Alcohol, especially red wine, is very high in histamine, which we know is a likely cause of seasickness. Save the bottles of champagne or tequila shots for your arrival in the next port, rather than drinking the night before a passage. Your stomach and head will thank you!

GET YOUR DAILY DOSE OF VITAMIN C

Vitamin C is a natural antihistamine and helps soothe symptoms of allergies as well as seasickness. This essential nutrient is found in fresh fruits like citrus, mango, pineapple, papaya, and all berries. It's also found in many vegetables like bell peppers and broccoli. Vitamin C is very sensitive to heat, so eat fresh, uncooked fruits and veggies to get your daily dose.


Vitamin C supplements are easy to find at natural food stores. It's generally safe to take in high doses (the only real negative side effect is loose bowel movements) and is safe for kids. I recommend a chewable tablet form for combatting seasickness because that is the quickest way to get Vitamin C into the bloodstream. Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) can be absorbed through the mucous membrane inside your mouth, allowing the benefits of Vitamin C to act faster versus going through digestion. This becomes very important if you or your seasick crew cannot keep food, pills, or liquids down.

TRY GINGER: JUST HYPE OR ACTUALLY WORKS?

While many scientific studies on ginger for preventing and treating seasickness only show minimal positive effects, ginger IS high in Vitamin C, which we now know reduces histamine levels in the blood that contribute to seasickness. Ginger is warming and soothing for digestion, which can help reduce feelings of nausea and digestive discomfort. It's also a very safe herb that can be used by kids and pregnant women. Ginger tea and ginger chews are great to have aboard as a remedy for all kinds of digestive issues. Ginger candy and chews can also provide quick energy in the form of glucose, which can help reduce fatigue if it's not possible to keep solid food down.


TRY A HERBAL TEA BLEND FOR SEASICKNESS

A warm cup of tea can be incredibly comforting, especially when the weather is chilly. There are many herbs and herbal tea blends that can help reduce stress while keeping the mind alert. Rather than a caffeinated tea, consider using adaptogenic herbs like holy basil (tulsi), Rhodiola, and ashwagandha. Adaptogens are a class of plant compounds that help the body adapt to stressors and provide balanced energy, quite different than a jolt of caffeine. I make my own adaptogen + vitamin C blend from organic herbs that I order from Mountain Rose Herbals (Affiliate Link).


ENJOY A CUP OF VEGGIE OR BONE BROTH

Broths not only contribute to good hydration but are also packed with nutrients that the body can easily use for energy and healing. Broths are easy for the body to digest and can be very beneficial, especially if solid food is unappetizing or cannot stay down. If you have a freezer aboard, consider storing small containers of homemade broth to warm up for when seasickness strikes. Broths packaged in tetra packs from the grocery store can be kept in your pantry storage for a long time. Look carefully at ingredients before buying, and look for brands that have natural food ingredients. Added "flavors," yeast extract, or MSG should be avoided, as these can cause headaches for some and will contribute to dehydration.

REST AND SLEEP

As any sailor can attest to, preparing to release the lines takes a lot of work! From checking the rig, stowing everything away in impossibly small spaces, testing navigation equipment, oh yes, don't forget provisioning and food prep. The lists go on and on, and your departure date is fast approaching. It can be tempting to "burn the midnight oil" and sacrifice a good night's sleep to get just ONE more thing crossed off the list.


Prioritizing a good night's sleep will not only help you feel better and think more clearly, but it can also reduce your risk of getting seasick. Remember how histamine has many positive functions in the body? It also plays a functional role in your sleep-wake cycle, known as the circadian rhythm. Blood levels of histamine are higher during wake hours and drop to nearly ZERO during sleep! This is why the best remedy for an already seasick crew member is to have them lie horizontal and try to "sleep it off." Find them a comfortable and secure space to rest, preferably on the low side at midships.

DEEP BREATHING AND MEDITATION

When the waves of stress or seasickness start to build, take a moment for a few deep breaths. If you can, sit in the cockpit and gaze at the horizon. When in stressful situations, like sailing on big seas or feeling nauseous, most people tend to take shallow breaths, which starves the brain of oxygen and leads to anxiety and poor decision making. Focusing on a few cycles of deep breathing can be an effective method to reduce cortisol and feelings of stress, which in turn may help with combating seasickness.

Medical practitioner and psychotherapist Russ Haris has a saying that many sailors can relate to all too well - "Slow breathing is like an anchor in the midst of an emotional storm. The anchor won't make the storm go away, but it will hold you steady until it passes".


To learn more about managing the stresses at sea, head over to Dr. Hayley North, our resident neuroscientist's article HERE to learn all the nerdy facts to combat stress and anxiety at sea!



Happily enjoying the first solid food after a bout of mal de mer!
Happily enjoying the first solid food after a bout of mal de mer!

Everybody is different, and every passage is different. Do the best you can to keep yourself and your crew hydrated, well-rested, physically fit, and prepared with your favorite remedies easily at hand. Even if the seas are less-than fair, these simple steps can make you more resilient and equipped to handle whatever ol' Neptune throws at you!




​Quincey Cummings​

Quincey is a holistic nutritionist and co-captain aboard her Kelly Peterson 46, Esprit. She spent much of her childhood in Southeast Asia and she's had the great fortune to travel to many countries. Her culinary tastes reflect a fusion of worldly cuisines. She holds a degree in Nutrition and Human Development and is a certified Nutritionist. She delights in sharing two of her greatest passions; sailing and great food! Her desire is to inspire other cruisers to nourish themselves every day with delicious meals they can create in small, moving spaces.



Together with her partner they liveaboard and cruise the Southern California coast and the Channel Islands, with plans to venture further south and into the Trade Winds.


You can find more delicious, cruising-friendly recipes on her Galley Blog

www.FairwindsNutrition.me

@fairwinds_nutrition


Advertisement | Want to advertise with us?

did you find this inspiring, helpful or entertaining?

Why not help us financially to keep the dream alive by donating a few bucks to support those salty sailors who created this