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How to Manage Cancer-Related Nausea

How to Manage Cancer-Related Nausea

Reviewed by Jasper Clinical Board

Last updated 5/24/21


Nausea is the worst—relentless, consuming, and damaging to quality of life. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most common side effects of many cancer treatments. Because nausea can be triggered by signals from a specific part of the brain that is affected by cancer treatments, chemo, radiation, and surgery can throw even the strongest of stomachs into a tailspin. Many people undergoing treatment experience what doctors call “anticipatory nausea” in addition to acute post-treatment effects. Luckily, there are lots of safe, affordable, and effective tools to combat nausea that are backed by research. Try some or all of our picks, and you’ll soon learn what works for your body.

Ginger

Research has found that ginger, a traditional home treatment for nausea, is demonstrably effective at reducing chemo-induced nausea in clinical settings. Components of the spicy root work directly on your digestive system, increasing gastric tone, motility, and emptying, which in turn reduce the waves and spasms of nausea. This is great news, because ginger is safe, inexpensive, and (to many palates) delicious. 1000 mg of ginger (which translates to about a teaspoon of fresh grated ginger root) is the ideal therapeutic dose. For a quick stomach settler, grate and steep in just-boiled water for ten minutes, then add a little fresh lemon (which also helps with nausea by stimulating saliva production) to make an infusion. Sip it hot, or ice it and pop it in your water bottle to take on the go. 
If you’re looking for something a bit more grab-and-go, your mom might have prescribed Seagram’s Ginger Ale for a tummy ache, but these days there are a plethora of organic and health conscious products on the market, like Gin Gin candies, which contain 10% fresh ginger and can be dropped into hot water for an instant cup of ginger tea.

Anti-nausea bands

On your inner arm, close to your wrist, there is an accupressure point known in traditional Chinese medicine as Neiguan (aka Point P6). Pressure on P6, applied by a practitioner or a device, is remarkably effective at treating nausea. Within Chinese medicine, P6 is thought to work by stimulating what’s known as the pericardium pathway, an energetic connection that passes through the abdomen. Products that were developed for seasickness have been proven to work equally well on nausea caused by cancer treatments. Sea-Bands ($12.99) are tried, true, and budget conscious, and bracelet-style Blisslets ($29.99-48.99) are fun and stylish. 
 

Strategic nutrition

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How to eat is one of the big riddles of treatment, and eating can go from a pleasure to a chore in the midst of treatment-induced nausea. It’s easy to simply turn away from food and only eat when absolutely necessary, but good nutrition is supportive of recovery, and there are a few simple diet hacks that can help you stay nourished without terrorizing your stomach. Grazing on small mini-meals is gentler on the stomach than allowing yourself to get hungry and then trying to eat a regular sized dinner, because an empty stomach is prone to both acid buildup and hunger contractions that can trigger nausea. Incorporating healthy fats (like a spoonful of olive oil, a slice of avocado, or a sprinkle of coconut flakes) into every meal and snack will help with this, as fat promotes satiety.
In terms of what to eat, consider incorporating within the grazing paradigm a few safe staple items that carry a big nutritional punch, like bone broth, which is high in collagen protein (which, like all forms of protein, helps rebuild cells) and the amino acid glutamine (which is associated with improved gut health and reduced inflammation). Carbs are often easy choices (and if they’re what you are able to get down, by all means go for it), but because they tend to be high volume and low calorie, try to pair them with protein and fat if you’re able. This will maximize your mini-meal’s impact on cellular recovery while giving you more calories per bite. 
Beyond the above, opt for bland, easily digestible foods, which will go down and stay down more easily because they don’t cause irritation to the stomach or bowels—think soft, cooked, low-seasoning options like steamed sweet potatoes, boiled chicken breast, or scrambled eggs. You’ll also want to steer clear of anything fried, fatty, acidic or spicy, because digesting those kinds of foods is extra hard labor for your already-doing-its-very-best stomach. Tart and sour foods, on the other hand, are great for nausea because they increase saliva production, which in turn helps digestion and helps with the immediate symptoms of nausea. 
This is a lot to keep track of, but as you get into a rhythm of how to feed yourself during treatment, the new normal will become routine and will feel less overwhelming. No matter what you’re able to do with food, staying hydrated is super important, both for nausea (because dehydration can exacerbate stomach upset) and for your body’s ability to recover from your treatments (because hydrated tissues and cells have increased resilience). A good rule of thumb is to drink half your body weight in ounces, but if that is way more than you can handle, dropping a fizzy electrolyte tablet or subbing in some coconut water will help your sips pack an additional punch.

PMR

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Progressive Muscle Relaxation is a complementary therapy with proven efficacy at reducing chemo nausea. It is safe and simple, sort of like a body-oriented version of meditation. The central tenet of PMR is that systematically relaxing the body will reduce or eliminate distressing symptoms—including nausea. You can learn the technique with a practitioner (ask your doctor to refer you to one in your area) or on your own, and then practice at home or during treatments. 

The PMR body scan is a powerful tool—to try it out, just follow along: In bed or in a comfortable reclining position, close your eyes. Starting with your feet and moving methodically, tense and release the muscles in each part of your body. Move slowly upwards to the top of your head and then down into your arms and fingers. Don’t rush—you want to move through your body slowly—and aim to keep your attention on just one body part at a time. To redirect your mind when it strays from focused attention, simply return to the body part you’re working. Allow your breath to be relaxed, but keep it intentional. In case it happens to you, know that it’s super common and totally okay to fall asleep during PMR—that’s actually a sign that you have successfully relaxed!

Peppermint + spearmint oils

You probably know that your senses of smell and taste are connected, but did you know that your sense of smell also affects your digestive system? Because the olfactory system (aka your sense of smell) communicates directly with the endocrine system (which regulates gut and digestion signals), what you smell and how your belly feels are totally related. Inhaling cool, icy scents sends a message via your vagus nerve from your nose to your gut, telling it that everything is okay and it can go ahead and calm down. 
Because of all this cool science happening underneath the hood of your body, using essential oils of peppermint and spearmint can bring fast nausea relief that’s safe, inexpensive, and super-accessible (anecdotally, many patients also swear by pine or green apple scents). (You can stash a tiny bottle in your purse or pocket and whip it out on the go when you feel symptoms rising—it’s okay to sniff the oil straight from the bottle.) For topical use, be sure to dilute the oil with a carrier oil like jojoba or coconut—just mix a few minty drops in and apply to your pulse points. And for the home, a diffuser will turn your space into a fresh and cool sanctuary.

CBD 

Research has found that CBD, a non-mood-altering derivative of cannabis, can be helpful for nausea and vomiting. The cannabinoid is an antiemetic that is thought to work by signaling serotonin receptors in the brain, which in turn send signals to the gut. That said, this remedy is newer to hit the mainstream, so talk with your doctor to ensure that you won’t have any interactions with your medication. If you get the go-ahead, there are tons of products available, from sweets and candies to lotions, but CBD oil is the most versatile—you can take a few drops under your tongue or add it to food, smoothies, and lattes. It’s important to choose a high quality CBD product. All of Premium Jane’s CBD products are vegan, non-GMO, certified free of pesticides and other toxins, and lab tested for purity and safety. The mint-flavored tincture ($48/oz), in particular, is cool and soothing for a churning stomach.

The content on this website is intended to provide the best possible information for you, but should not be considered—or used as a substitute for—medical advice. If you have questions about your diagnosis or treatment, please contact your health care provider(s). For questions or comments about this content, please email us at support@jasperhealth.com.