Deep Breathing Exercise for Nausea

Image Credit: Sally Plank

Deep Breathing Exercise for Nausea

One of the most common fears patients express when facing surgery is postoperative nausea, which can range from minor queasiness to protracted periods of vomiting. Feeling sick to one’s stomach and throwing up after surgery is a common problem, affecting between a quarter and a half of those placed under general anesthesia, and more than half of those at high risk (women who don’t smoke and have a history of motion sickness).

I’ve explored the science behind treating nausea with ginger (see Natural Nausea Remedy Recipe), but if you’re too nauseous to eat, what do you do? Well, people are often sent home with anti-nausea rectal suppositories. Surveys, however, show that cultural and sexual attitudes may make a number of people sensitive to anything involving the rectum. Though the wording of the question researchers asked was, “are you happy to have a drug put in your back passage?” I can imagine many of the respondents thinking “well, maybe I wouldn’t so much mind, but wouldn’t exactly be happy about it,” especially when you’re feeling sick and throwing up.

For women who’ve had a C-section, they might not want to take drugs at all if they’re breastfeeding; so, researchers decided to put aromatherapy to the test. Research has shown that essential oils of both spearmint and peppermint are effective in reducing nausea and vomiting after chemotherapy, but this was after swallowing them.

Would just the smell of peppermint help with nausea? I explore this in my video Peppermint Aromatherapy for Nausea. Researchers had women take deep whiffs of peppermint extract (like you’d buy at a store) and it seemed to work. Eighty percent of the mint-sniffers felt better within just a few minutes, compared to no improvement in the placebo group who sniffed water with green food coloring, or the control group who didn’t sniff anything.

The study was criticized for being small and for not using pure peppermint oil. Peppermint extract is peppermint oil plus alcohol. Maybe it was the smell of alcohol that made people better? And, that’s actually not too much of a stretch. In 1997, researchers reported a simple, innocuous, and inexpensive treatment for postoperative nausea and vomiting—the smell of isopropyl alcohol, which is what is found in those alcohol wipes, the little prep pads that nurses swab you with before shots. They found that they could just effectively tear one open and wave it under someone’s nose and relieve nausea and vomiting in more than 80% of folks after surgery. It has since been shown to work as well as a leading anti-nausea drug, and may even work faster, cutting nausea in half within 10 to 15 minutes, rather than 20 or 25.

So, was it the alcohol, the peppermint, or both? Researchers decided to put it to the test. They instructed patients to take three slow, deep breaths, smelling alcohol, peppermint, or nothing. The smell of peppermint cut nausea in half within five minutes, and so did the alcohol. But, so did smelling nothing! So, maybe it had nothing to do with the scent; maybe it was just the instruction to take slow, deep breaths. That would make it a really cost-effective intervention. Maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising, given the proximity of the vomiting and breathing centers within the brain.

And indeed, controlled breathing was found effective with or without any scent. So, next time you feel nauseous, inhale deeply through your nose to the count of three, hold your breath to the count of three, and exhale out the mouth to the count of three. Do that three times.

Ironically, the researchers continued to advocate using those nasty smelling alcohol pads even though they themselves showed they weren’t any more effective than breathing alone. Why? Since isopropyl alcohol has a readily detectable odor, patients are more likely to think that their post-operation nausea and vomiting is being actively treated when they inhale alcohol vapors rather than just engaging in breathing exercises.


What do you think of still using the alcohol pads even though they were shown to offer no additional benefit? I have a whole video on such questions: The Lie That Heals: Should Doctors Give Placebos?

For those who can swallow, I offer more about powdered ginger in my video Dangerous Advice From Health Food Store Employees.

There’s more on aromatherapy here:

What about actually eating the peppermint? 

Of course, the best way to avoid postsurgical nausea is to try to avoid surgery in the first place. Those that eat healthy may be less likely to go under the knife. See Say No to Drugs by Saying Yes to More Plants.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Discuss

Michael Greger M.D., FACLM

Michael Greger, M.D. FACLM, is a physician, New York Times bestselling author, and internationally recognized professional speaker on a number of important public health issues. Dr. Greger has lectured at the Conference on World Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, and the International Bird Flu Summit, testified before Congress, appeared on The Dr. Oz Show and The Colbert Report, and was invited as an expert witness in defense of Oprah Winfrey at the infamous "meat defamation" trial.


9 responses to “Deep Breathing Exercise for Nausea

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  1. I have nausea post surgically that has kept me in the hospital for extended amount of time ( up to 12 hours! ) when all I really want is to go home. The anti-nausea ear patch was like a miracle for me. NO nausea at all although it dies involve chemicals in the body, it certainly worked wonders for me. Just another choice to request if the essential oils listed above don’t help.

  2. Back in the Dark Ages (1950s), when everybody smoked, even in hospitals, my dad – a 20-year smoker in his 40s – was coming out from anesthesia in a tiny hospital that didn’t have a recovery room or even private rooms. Someone walked by smoking a cigarette just as he was feeling nauseated. He associated the nausea with the smoke and it worked as aversion therapy. He never smoked again!

      1. Unfortunately we didn’t think that way, but you’re right. It wouldn’t be that hard to set it up as a therapy if you were a doctor or something. Give people something, a drug perhaps, to nauseate them, then trap them in a small room with a lot of disgusting cigarette smoke.

  3. Peppermint and spearmint works IF they are organically grown. Unfortunately, a huge amount of the animal carcinogen and probable human carcinogen Glyphosate (I.e., Roundup, when which is legally allowed in everything not organically grown, including toothpaste (exception: Dr. Bronner’s, which has more than half organically grown peppermint and spearmint). Otherwise, the legal limit is 200 parts per million! That includes essential oils! Plus, at less than 1/10 of a ppm, Glyphosate destroys the beneficial bacteria in the gut in humans and animals. (M.Greger et al, 2012).
    Read; The Effect of Glyphosate on Ptential Pathogens and Beneficial Members of Poultry Microbiota In Vitro)

    “The presented results evidence that the highly pathogenic bacteria as Salmonella Entritidis, Salmonella Gallinarum, Salmonella Typhimurium, Closyridium perftinhens and Closyrifium botulinum are highly resistant to glyphosate. However, most of beneficial bacteria as Enteroccus faecalid, Enterococcus faeci, Bacillus bafius, Bigofobacterium adolescents and Lacto bacillus app. Were found to be moderate to highly sucrptible to glyphosate. Also Campylobacter app. were found to be susceptible to glyphosate…”

    More at: http://www.netwerkvlv.nl/downloads/2012-Krüger,%20M-glyphosate %20effects.pdf

  4. Peppermint and spearmint works IF they are organically grown. Unfortunately, a huge amount –200 parts per million of the animal carcinogen and probable human carcinogen Glyphosate (I.e., Roundup, when which is legally allowed in everything not organically grown, including toothpaste (exception: Dr. Bronner’s, which has more than half organically grown peppermint and spearmint). Otherwise, the legal limit is 200 parts per million! That includes essential oils! Plus, at less than 1/10 of a ppm, Glyphosate destroys the beneficial bacteria in the gut in humans and animals. (M.Greger et al, 2012).
    Read; The Effect of Glyphosate on Ptential Pathogens and Beneficial Members of Poultry Microbiota In Vitro)

    “The presented results evidence that the highly pathogenic bacteria as Salmonella Entritidis, Salmonella Gallinarum, Salmonella Typhimurium, Closyridium perftinhens and Closyrifium botulinum are highly resistant to glyphosate. However, most of beneficial bacteria as Enteroccus faecalid, Enterococcus faeci, Bacillus bafius, Bigofobacterium adolescents and Lacto bacillus app. Were found to be moderate to highly sucrptible to glyphosate. Also Campylobacter app. were found to be susceptible to glyphosate…”

    More at: http://www.netwerkvlv.nl/downloads/2012-Krüger,%20M-glyphosate %20effects.pdf

  5. I have a question about prolia. I have been taking it for 8 months and am having side effects. Chills, tired, weakness, calcium was low , but is okay now. I am 78 and not on any other meds.
    I walk with a weight vest and am active. I am also having a problem staying asleep at night.
    This medication scares me. What should I know about taking this medication. I appreciate your help!
    Thank you-Ann

  6. I have a question about prolia. I have been taking it for 8 months and am having side effects. Chills, tired, weakness, calcium was low , but is okay now. I am 78 and not on any other meds.
    I walk with a weight vest and am active. I am also having a problem staying asleep at night.
    This medication scares me. What should I know about taking this medication. I appreciate your help!
    Thank you-Ann

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