By Karen Eisenbraun, CHNC
An upset stomach can strike at any time, and a sudden bout of nausea may have you racking your brain to remember what you ate or where you may have picked up a stomach bug.
Nausea can be caused by many different things and is often a symptom of another medical condition. If you’re experiencing persistent nausea or nausea that makes it difficult to get the nutrition you need, you should see a doctor. If, however, you’re experiencing occasional or short-term nausea, one of these common causes may provide an explanation. While nausea can definitely be linked to something you ate or to a virus, many causes of nausea may surprise you.
Nausea is often a symptom of stress and anxiety. With many people currently experiencing higher levels of anxiety and depression due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it isn’t surprising if you’re experiencing unusual stomach symptoms as well.
Stress triggers a cascade of physical symptoms throughout the body: it can have negative effects on cardiovascular health, blood sugar, hormone levels, the reproductive system, and—yes—digestion. The gut is lined with highly sensitive nerve cells. When you eat, these neurons sense that food has entered the gut, and trigger intestinal contractions that help move the food along the digestive tract. When you’re feeling stressed, the brain sends signals to those nerves, causing contractions beyond what’s required for normal digestion. The result can be intestinal problems such as abdominal pain, nausea, or diarrhea.
If you’re experiencing gastrointestinal distress due to stress, you may want to consider therapy. Many therapists have started offering teletherapy during the pandemic to help people who need treatment during the current health crisis. Research has shown that for many people, online therapy is just as effective as in-person treatment. Practicing meditation can also help ease anxiety.
Being dehydrated can cause symptoms such as dizziness, muscle cramps, weakness, and nausea. If nausea leads to vomiting, it can cause further water loss, making symptoms even worse.
To prevent dehydration, make sure to drink plenty of water and other fluids throughout the day. You may need to take in extra fluids if you exercise, spend time outside in the heat, or have severe diarrhea.
Drinking alcohol can also cause dehydration. Alcohol is a diuretic, which causes your body to expel fluids at a faster rate. If you’re drinking alcohol, it’s a good idea to drink at least one glass of water for every alcoholic beverage.
While migraines are typically characterized by debilitating headaches, they can also cause symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and sound.
If you’re prone to migraines, keep a journal to see if you can identify your triggers. Common migraine triggers include dehydration, severe heat or other extreme weather conditions, stress, changes in barometric pressure, hormonal changes, intense physical activity, changes in sleeping patterns, and certain foods, including caffeine, chocolate, alcohol, cured meats, and foods containing monosodium glutamate.
You may also notice certain symptoms that appear 1 to 2 days before a migraine hits. These symptoms often include depression, low energy, irritability, and frequent yawning. When you feel a migraine coming on, try taking an over-the-counter (OTC) pain medication and drinking lots of water. If OTC medications aren’t strong enough, talk to your doctor about prescription migraine medications.
One not-so-surprising cause of nausea is food poisoning, which can be caused by bacteria, parasites, and viruses transmitted through food. Symptoms of food poisoning may also include stomach cramps, fever, diarrhea, and gas.
Most people with food poisoning recover with no issues, although it may take several days for the illness to pass. While you’re riding it out, be sure to drink plenty of fluids.
Nausea is a common side effect of many medications, including birth control pills, antidepressants, vitamins, and OTC medications. Often, nausea is caused by taking pills on an empty stomach, which can irritate the lining of the stomach.
If you’re taking any medications—even vitamins or supplements—make sure you follow the directions and take them with food if necessary. Even a small snack, such as some crackers, might be enough to ward off nausea. Just be sure to eat first; eating after you take your pills won’t usually help.
Nausea accompanied by pressure in the ear could indicate an ear infection. Sensors in the inner ear help you maintain your sense of balance. An infection in the inner ear can affect the fluid levels in the ear, causing dizziness and nausea, as well as other symptoms such as ear pain, changes in hearing, headache, and fever. Antibiotics may be needed to fight the infection.
Many of the conditions above can be improved or prevented with home care. If you’re able to identify the source of your nausea, take steps to avoid it in the future. Avoid migraine triggers, drink plenty of water, and always cook food thoroughly.
Also avoid anything that could further irritate the stomach lining, including alcohol or spicy foods. If you’re able to eat, stick to bland foods. Ginger has properties that may improve symptoms of nausea. Try drinking ginger tea or ginger ale, or chew on a piece of candied ginger.
If you have nausea that lasts for more than two days—especially if accompanied by vomiting—it’s important to seek medical attention. Other signs that you should see a doctor include severe symptoms such as chest pain, blurred vision, confusion, or blood in your vomit or stool.
Karen Eisenbraun is a Certified Holistic Nutrition Consultant. She holds an English degree from Knox College and has written extensively about topics related to holistic health, clinical nutrition, and weight management.