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Achieve digestive balance

These articles are provided to help you take charge of your digestive health.

Cocoa supports healthy intestinal balance

Provided by Healthnotes, Inc.

By Jane Hart, MD

Many of us look for healthy excuses to enjoy chocolate, and now a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reports that chocolate’s main ingredient — flavanol-rich cocoa — may benefit health by improving the balance of healthy bacteria that live in the intestines.

Healthy chocolate and healthy bugs?

When the healthy “bugs” (bacteria) that naturally live in our intestines are out of balance, we are at increased risk for illness and chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes and obesity. Types of bacteria that support health include bifidobacteria and lactobacilli strains, which may help with immune system support and prevent the growth of bad bugs in the gut, and help synthesize certain vitamins that support the body’s functions.

In this study, 22 healthy participants were randomly assigned to consume a high-cocoa flavanol (494 mg cocoa flavanols per day) or a low-cocoa flavanol (23 mg cocoa flavanols per day) drink, daily for four weeks. Researchers measured the number of certain types of bacteria from the participants’ intestines before and after the intervention and measured blood markers associated with chronic disease.

Fabulous flavonals promote beneficial bacteria

People who drank the high-cocoa flavanol drink had increased numbers of bifidobacteria and lactobacilli in their intestines compared with the people who drank the low-cocoa flavanol drink.

Compared with people who drank the low-cocoa flavanol drink, people who drank the high-cocoa flavanol drink also had decreased numbers of a bacterial strain (clostridia) associated with chronic diseases such as colon cancer and inflammatory bowel disease.

Markers of health in the body (biomarkers), such as plasma triglyceride and C-reactive protein levels, also decreased significantly in the high-flavanol group compared with the low-flavanol group. This is an important finding because lower levels of both of these markers are important for preventing chronic disease.

The authors of the study comment, “Epidemiologic data has long supported that plant-based diets are strongly associated with improved gastrointestinal health. Although further research is required, the results of the current study suggest that the phytonutrient components of plants [such as cocoa] may be important contributors to these benefits.”

More facts about flavanols

  • Flavanol benefits. Flavanols are natural plant compounds that are important to a healthy diet. Prior research suggests that flavanol-rich foods including cocoa and chocolate, apples and red wine in moderation, may improve health. Specifically, studies have shown that flavanol-rich foods may help boost the immune system and reduce the risk of clotting, and improve cholesterol levels, vascular health and insulin sensitivity.
  • Choose your cocoa wisely. Remember that not all cocoa is healthful. Some cocoa on the grocery store shelves is loaded with additives. Read food labels and choose items with the highest amount of nutrients and the least amount of sugar, fat and other additives.
  • Eat a balanced diet. We cannot live on cocoa or red wine alone! It’s important that they are part of a balanced diet full of fruits and veggies and whole grains.

(Am J Clin Nutr 2011;93:62–72.)

Jane Hart, MD, board certified in internal medicine, serves in a variety of professional roles including consultant, journalist and educator. Dr. Hart, a Clinical Instructor at Case Medical School in Cleveland, Ohio, writes extensively about health and wellness and a variety of other topics for nationally recognized organizations, websites and print publications. Sought out for her expertise in the areas of integrative and preventive medicine, she is frequently quoted by national and local media. Dr. Hart is a professional lecturer for healthcare professionals, consumers and youth, and is a regular corporate speaker.

A probiotic for a common digestive problem

Provided by Aisle 7

By Maureen Williams, ND

When a person has a cluster of digestive symptoms with no apparent cause, they are often given the diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS. So far, consistently effective treatments for IBS have proven as elusive as its cause, but probiotics have shown some promise as a therapy. In a new study, the probiotic Saccharomyces boulardii improved quality of life for people with IBS.

The study, published in the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology, included 67 adults with IBS. The participants either had IBS with a predominance of diarrhea or a mix of IBS symptoms, rather than the type that has constipation as its predominant symptom. They were assigned to take either S. boulardii (200 billion cells per day) or placebo for four weeks. They kept a daily symptom record, and a quality of life assessment was done at the beginning and end of the study.

"Friendly bug" increases general well-being

People in the probiotic group improved in all measures of quality of life:

  • Depressed mood
  • Interference with activity
  • Body image
  • Health worry
  • Food avoidance
  • Social reaction
  • Sexuality
  • Relationships

In the placebo group, only depressed mood and health worry improved. Individual IBS symptoms, such as abdominal pain and discomfort, bloating and gas, stool urgency, and hard or watery stools, did not change significantly in either group.

A yeast that treats infections

Unlike the most commonly used probiotics, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacter species, S. boulardii is a yeast, not a bacterium. Because it thrives in the large intestine, it can grow and displace disease-causing microorganisms, and may also prevent their growth in other ways. S. boulardii has been found to improve antibiotic-associated diarrhea, traveler's diarrhea, and other types of acute infectious diarrhea and inflammatory bowel disease. These results add to the evidence that S. boulardii may also be helpful to IBS sufferers.

The study’s authors explained that the nature of IBS is complex and likely due to a variety of contributing causes. In the face of this complexity, the overall improvement in well-being seen in people taking S. boulardii was especially meaningful, even though the probiotic was not better than placebo in treating specific symptoms.

Taking the broad approach to IBS

People with IBS often find that a combination of therapies is more helpful than any single one. In addition to taking a probiotic, IBS-sufferers can safely try the following approaches to see what works best for them:

  • Identify food intolerances and sensitivities. Many people with IBS feel better when they avoid certain foods. A two-week elimination diet followed by individual food re-introductions might help you find out what foods aggravate your symptoms.
  • Take soluble fiber. Although fruits, vegetables, whole grain and legumes sometimes increase gas and bloating, soluble fiber from sources such as psyllium husk and acacia are usually helpful.
  • Relax. Stress is a major trigger of IBS symptoms. Psychotherapy and hypnotherapy for stress reduction have both shown promise in relieving IBS symptoms.

(J Clin Gastroenterol 2011;online publication)

Maureen Williams, ND, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Seattle, Washington. She has a private practice on Cortes Island in British Columbia, Canada, and has done extensive work with traditional herbal medicine in Guatemala and Honduras. Dr. Williams is a regular contributor to Healthnotes Newswire.

7 common myths about digestive health

Provided by Healthgrades

Did you know? 7 digestive health myths

How well do you know what goes on down below? Debunking digestive health myths means you’ll have a better chance at detecting tummy trouble when it occurs. That way you can discuss your symptoms with your doctor. Here’s how to separate digestive health facts from fiction.

Myth No. 1: Spicy foods and stress cause ulcers

A peptic ulcer — a sore in the lining of your stomach — is most often caused by a common bacterium called H. pylori. You can contract the infection through contaminated food or water or via mouth-to-mouth contact — such as by kissing someone who has it. Spicy foods and stress don’t cause ulcers, but they can worsen symptoms.

Myth No. 2: Drinking milk cures ulcers

People used to believe that drinking milk healed peptic ulcers. Since peptic ulcers are often due to the H. pylori infection, only antibiotics can kill the symptom-causing germ. Drinking milk may temporarily relieve pain, but it can also increase stomach acid and make symptoms worse in the long run.

Myth No. 3: Eating nuts leads to diverticulitis

Diverticulitis occurs when small pouches that bulge out from the colon — called diverticula — become inflamed. Doctors used to believe that nuts, popcorn and small seeds could block or irritate diverticula. However, there’s no scientific information to support this. What works? Eating a high-fiber diet to prevent constipation, which can cause diverticula.

Myth No. 4: Heartburn is nothing to worry about

See your doctor if you experience heartburn twice a week or more. You could have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Untreated, GERD can cause serious complications over time such as bleeding or ulcers in the esophagus. It can also lead to a condition called Barrett’s esophagus, which can increase your risk of esophageal cancer.

Myth No. 5: People with lactose intolerance can’t eat dairy

If you have lactose intolerance, you have a deficiency of the enzyme lactase, which breaks down lactose — a sugar in milk products. So you may experience stomach symptoms when you eat those foods. However, most people with lactose intolerance can handle some amount of lactose. Over-the-counter lactase replacement products help many people enjoy dairy. Ask your doctor about adding certain dairy products — a good source of calcium — back into your diet.

Myth No. 6: More fiber is always better

Dietary fiber is healthy and can ease symptoms of digestive conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Aim to consume 20 to 35 grams of fiber per day. But don’t bulk up your diet all at once; fiber can cause gas. Gradually increase your intake by 2 to 3 grams per day until you hit your target.

Myth No. 7: Gluten allergies are common

Celiac disease is an intolerance to gluten, a protein in wheat, rye and barley. One look at all the gluten-free foods at the grocery store can have you thinking celiac disease is extremely common. However, less than 1 percent of Americans have the condition, according to a recent study.

8 tasty sources of fiber

Provided by Healthgrades

Fill up — and stay healthy — with fiber

Dietary fiber does a lot of good things. It helps you feel full, keeps you regular, and may help prevent heart disease, diabetes and obesity. Sure, bran cereal is loaded with it, but you might be surprised to see what other foods can help provide your daily dose.

1. Navy beans

Beans are exceptionally rich in fiber, and navy beans, with 19 grams of fiber per cup, top the list of healthy legumes. Men need 38 grams of fiber a day. A bowl of hearty navy bean soup will go a long way toward getting you there.

2. Raspberries

Start your morning with a cup of sweet, flavorful raspberries. They're small in size but big in fiber; 1 cup provides 8 grams. Women should aim for 25 grams of fiber a day.

3. Artichokes

The average daily fiber intake of adults in the U.S. is only 15 grams, far short of the recommended amount. To get more, look to the artichoke. One medium artichoke or 3/4 cup of artichoke hearts provides 10 grams of fiber.

4. Pears

Pears, along with apples, dates, oranges and some other fruits, are high in soluble fiber. This type of fiber helps lower cholesterol by preventing its absorption by the digestive tract. A medium pear has about 5 grams of fiber. Remember, enjoy pears and apples unpeeled because the skin and underlying pectin are a major fiber source.

5. Almonds

Among tree nuts, almonds are the richest in fiber, making them a good snack choice. A 1-oz. portion (about 24 nuts) contains a respectable 3.5 grams of fiber.

6. Sweet potatoes

Flavorful sweet potatoes are worth eating all year round, not just at Thanksgiving. A baked sweet potato boasts nearly 5 grams of fiber.

7. Oats

Oatmeal and oat bran contain a soluble fiber called beta-glucan, which has been shown to lower cholesterol and risk for heart disease. A bowlful of oatmeal — 1 cup — nets you 4 grams of fiber.

8. Whole wheat pasta

Its hearty flavor and firm "bite" aren't for everyone, but with more than 6 grams of fiber in a 1-cup serving, whole wheat pasta is a great way to boost your fiber intake. And compared to white pasta's mere 2.5 grams per cup, it's really no contest.

Should you be taking probiotics?

Provided by Healthgrades

It might never have crossed your mind to take probiotics, those friendly microorganisms that are supposed to maintain order in your gut. Or perhaps you're a loyal fan and regular consumer of probiotic-enriched yogurt.

Regardless of your current habits or preferences, the question is do you need to be taking probiotics?

You may want to consider taking probiotics if:

You're taking antibiotics

If you've ever experienced diarrhea while taking a course of antibiotics, you've experienced an unpleasant side effect that affects 25% to 30% of people who receive antibiotics. However, it's a side effect that probiotics might just be able to prevent. Antibiotics can alter or eradicate much of the beneficial flora that populates your gastrointestinal tract, causing cramps and diarrhea. But research supports the benefits of taking probiotics to ward off the diarrhea when taking antibiotics, according to a 2012 study published in JAMA.

You suffer from eczema

Atopic dermatitis, or eczema, is a condition known for making your skin red, scaly and itchy. Anyone can develop it, although children seem to be more prone to doing so. Doctors typically advise people with eczema to avoid irritants and skin products with harsh chemicals, but there's also some evidence to suggest that consuming probiotics might help, too.

You suffer from acute infectious diarrhea

When a terrible stomach bug rampages through your household, it may be time to stock up on some probiotics. Studies show that certain types of probiotics — usually Lactobacillus GC and Saccharomyces boulardii — can decrease the severity of the situation. That is, you may experience fewer episodes of diarrhea while it runs its course. It might even shorten the overall amount of time you're affected by the diarrhea.

You have developed a vaginal infection

Just as the intestines harbor healthy bacteria, the vagina does, too. Some studies suggest that L. acidophilus can help cases of bacterial vaginosis, an infection that develops when the normal balance of "good" bacteria and "bad" bacteria is disturbed. More research is needed to determine whether this probiotic can effectively prevent or treat vaginal yeast infections.

Probiotics may not be right for everyone

But there's always an exception to the rule. There are some people who may not benefit from consuming probiotics. For example, doctors do not recommend giving probiotics to premature infants. And often, experts suggest that certain people, including the elderly, consume their probiotics in foods, rather than taking a probiotic supplement.

Other reasons that you may want to avoid consuming probiotics:

You have underlying health issues

While research suggests that probiotics are generally safe, experts caution that there's not a lot of long-term data on the safety of probiotics — and they suggest that you consider steering clear unless your healthcare provider gives you the green light. There are some minor risk factors for probiotic-associated infection, such as having a central venous catheter or a prosthesis, that might make your doctor want you to be more cautious.

You are immunocompromised or immunosuppressed in some way

If you have human immunodeficiency virus or inflammatory bowel disease, if you're being treated for cancer, or perhaps you have undergone organ transplantation, you may want to consult your doctor before loading up on the probiotic-rich yogurt or trying a supplement. These conditions are more likely to put you at risk for probiotic-associated infections.

The truth about dairy sensitivity

Provided by Healthgrades

In a world where 75% of the population is lactose intolerant, dealing with dairy can be downright confusing. It’s a great source of calcium and helps promote good bone health, but many experts say dairy products are harmful and should be avoided. Plus, everyone digests dairy differently. How do you know if the way your digestive tract handles dairy is normal or not? Let’s explore what dairy sensitivity really means.

Milk allergy or dairy sensitivity?

Sometimes it can be difficult to know if you’re allergic to dairy or just have a sensitivity or intolerance. True food allergies cause a reaction in your immune system that affects a variety of organs in your body. If you have a milk allergy, you will experience mild symptoms like a rash, hives, itching or swelling, or severe symptoms like difficulty breathing and loss of consciousness. Food allergies can be potentially fatal, so if you have a milk allergy you need to avoid dairy completely.

A dairy sensitivity, also known as lactose intolerance, involves your digestive system instead of your immune system. Symptoms can still range from mild to severe, but usually include nausea, cramps, bloating and gas. Lactose intolerance can be extremely uncomfortable, but it’s not life threatening.

Lactose intolerance means your body doesn’t have enough of the enzyme lactase to break down the sugar in dairy called lactose. Many people believe that when we reach around age 2 and stop being breastfed, our bodies quit producing lactase, which can lead to a dairy sensitivity as adults.

How to find out for sure

If you’re still not convinced that your tummy troubles are caused by dairy sensitivity, you can see your doctor for a hydrogen breath test. With this test, patients drink 25 grams of lactose and their breath is measured over a few hours. If lactose isn’t processed, then it will pass into the colon and ferment, causing the hydrogen level of your breath to rise. High hydrogen means you’re lactose intolerant.

A simple, but slower, way to find out is to stop eating lactose-containing foods and see if your symptoms go away. Keeping a food diary is helpful so if you do eat dairy, you can record how it makes you feel. Then you can pinpoint and cut out the foods that upset your stomach the most.

So you’re sensitive, now what?

Not every stomach is the same, and it may take some time to figure out what amount of dairy your sensitive system can tolerate. Here are some tips to keep lactose intolerance in check.

  • Avoid dairy products that are high in lactose: milk, cream cheese, ice cream, sour cream, cottage cheese and soft cheeses.
  • Yogurt contains bacteria that breaks down lactose, so some yogurts might feel okay to your stomach.
  • Try eating dairy with other foods. But be careful not to overload on dairy by combining dairy with foods that were made with milk, like cookies or pancakes.
  • Hard cheeses have less lactose so stick with classics like mozzarella, Parmesan, asiago and manchego.
  • See if lactose-free dairy products like Lactaid can satisfy your milk tooth without upsetting your stomach.
  • Try different portions. People with dairy sensitivity can often tolerate small amounts of dairy, but you’ll need to experiment to see how much is too much.
  • Make sure you get enough calcium and vitamin D. If you’re limiting dairy, you can get these nutrients from broccoli, oranges, pinto beans, spinach, eggs, liver and other fresh foods. You may also want to add supplements to your diet.
  • If you can’t quit dairy, use over-the-counter lactase enzyme tablets or drops to help you digest it better.

Look out for hidden dairy

Skipping out on milk, yogurt, cheese and other dairy products will surely soothe your dairy sensitivity. But beware of processed foods that may contain milk and lactose. Here are some common culprits:

  • Breakfast cereals
  • Soups
  • Baby foods
  • Processed meats
  • Sauces and gravies
  • Salad dressings
  • Baked goods
  • Puddings and custards
  • Chocolate and candy
  • Fried foods
  • Potato chips

Still struggling?

When you stop eating dairy you may initially feel worse and have a “dairy hangover” for your first dairy-free week. Stick with your elimination diet for another week or two to see real results. If you still have a hard time diagnosing your digestive problem or managing your dairy and vitamin intake, talk with your doctor or a dietician who can help you create a balanced diet that will feel good to your dairy sensitive body.

Herbal help for chronic digestive disorder

Peppermint can help relieve irritable bowel syndrome

By Maureen Williams, ND

Chronic digestive problems are often a sign of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), but sometimes other undiagnosed conditions are the real cause. Research suggests that people with an accurate diagnosis of IBS could benefit from taking peppermint oil.

Is it IBS?

IBS is a common digestive disorder marked by abdominal bloating and discomfort, gas and loose stools or constipation, or episodes of each. Its cause remains unknown, but stress appears to be an important contributing factor.

The typical treatment recommendation is a fiber supplement, but sometimes other medications such as antispasmodics and antidepressants are prescribed. Some people benefit from these therapies, but many people with IBS continue to suffer chronic digestive discomfort.

Because symptoms of other digestive problems are so similar, the IBS diagnosis is overused. Studies have found that anywhere from 5% to 50% of people diagnosed with IBS actually have another condition that could be responsible for the same symptoms. Lactose intolerance (the inability to digest the sugar found in dairy foods), small bowel bacterial overgrowth and celiac disease (an immune reaction to gluten) have all been identified in people diagnosed with IBS. Unlike IBS, there is a clear treatment path for each of these conditions.

The power of peppermint

The latest study included only people with IBS in whom other conditions had clearly been ruled out. The participants took either 450 mg of peppermint oil prepared in enteric-coated capsules (designed to dissolve in the intestine rather than the stomach) or placebo, two times per day for four weeks. At the end of the trial, 75% of the people in the peppermint group reported a 50% or greater reduction in IBS symptoms, and four weeks after finishing treatment almost half of them were still feeling better. By contrast, only 38% of those in the placebo group reported a similar reduction in symptoms at the end of the trial.

The volatile oils that give peppermint its distinctive aroma have antispasmodic and antibacterial properties that could account for some of its benefits in people with IBS. It has been used historically to treat colic, indigestion and gas. Peppermint can aggravate heartburn, but for most people the enteric-coated form is safe in this regard.

“This study shows that patients with IBS may benefit from a four-week treatment with enteric-coated peppermint oil,” the researchers concluded. “The improvement in symptoms lasts longer than the therapeutic period in almost half of the treated patients.”

(Digestive and Liver Disease 2007;online publication)

Maureen Williams, ND, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Seattle. She has a private practice in Quechee, Vermont, and does extensive work with traditional herbal medicine in Guatemala and Honduras. Dr. Williams is a regular contributor to Healthnotes Newswire.

Which type of protein absorbs the fastest and is the easiest to digest?

Provided by Healthnotes, Inc.

By Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD

Protein digestibility depends upon a number of factors, including the makeup of the protein itself, whether it’s taken as a liquid or solid, and whether it’s eaten with or without carbohydrates, fat or other foods. Another consideration is the amount of protein eaten at one time. The body best absorbs protein in amounts ranging from 15 to 30 grams in a single meal or snack. Unless you’re a serious body-builder, there’s no benefit to eating more than 30 grams of protein at once. Be sure to spread your protein out evenly throughout the day, which will enhance digestion and absorption. Regarding the type of protein, the following pointers can help you pick the best protein source to meet your specific health and fitness goals.

Whey protein is quick to digest and provides all of the amino acids, the building blocks of protein, including essential amino acids that the body can’t make itself. Whey protein makes its way into muscles most efficiently when taken immediately after a workout, ideally within 30 minutes, and when taken with carbohydrates. For fastest protein absorption, aim for a ratio of 1 gram of protein for every 2 to 4 grams of carbohydrates.

Casein protein is much slower to digest than whey, and leads to a lower but more sustained increase in blood levels of amino acids. While it might seem that slow-digesting proteins are inferior to those that get into the body more quickly, this isn’t necessarily true. For example, taking casein at night can help sustain amino acid levels through the long fast that occurs during sleep. A type of casein found in protein powders, called micellar casein, is one of the slowest-digesting proteins available.

Egg protein has a very high protein efficiency ratio (PER), which is one measure of how well our bodies can use any particular form of protein. Another reason people like it is the “Goldilocks factor” — it’s not absorbed as fast as whey, but is absorbed faster than casein. Egg contains all amino acids, including essential amino acids.

Soy protein is a high-quality plant protein and provides all essential amino acids. It’s prized by fitness enthusiasts because of its purported ability to boost nitric oxide levels in the body, which may improve blood flow. Although some men worry about soy’s effects on testosterone and estrogen, the latest research solidly supports that soy does not increase estrogen levels or decrease testosterone levels in men. Soy protein isolate is faster and easier to digest, while soy concentrates contain some carbohydrates, which slow absorption into the body.

Rice protein is less likely than other proteins to create allergic reactions. While rice protein does not supply all essential amino acids, it does have one advantage: It contains a high proportion of arginine, an amino acid that can dilate blood vessels. This may, in turn, enhance blood flow to muscles.

Casein, egg and soy are common allergens, so read labels carefully to make sure you are not purchasing a product that may trigger your food allergies.

Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD, an author, speaker and internationally recognized expert in chronic disease prevention, epidemiology and nutrition, has taught medical, nursing, public health and alternative medicine coursework. She has delivered over 150 invited lectures to health professionals and consumers, and is the creator of a nutrition website acclaimed by the New York Times and Time magazine. Suzanne received her training in epidemiology and nutrition at the University of Michigan, School of Public Health at Ann Arbor.

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