When working out makes you sick to your stomach
You’re doing it! You’re working out, reaping all those benefits of exercise that have been drilled into your head.
So you’re pedaling your heart out or running like you’re escaping a zombie horde. You’re feeling accomplished, on cloud nine, until … your stomach starts to churn. You may even feel dizzy. Your feelings of accomplishment have turned to agony as you deal with a bout of nausea.
So why does this happen and, more important, how can you prevent it?
When you exercise, skeletal muscles in your legs and arms contract. To work most efficiently, they need oxygen. So your heart muscle contracts, too, increasing blood flow through your body. The hemoglobin molecules within your red blood cells carry oxygen to your working muscles.
To maximize the amount of blood being delivered to the active muscles, your body diverts blood away from inactive areas – such as your gut. This diversion is overseen by the “fight or flight” branch of your nervous system. Known as the sympathetic nervous system, it causes some blood vessels to narrow, limiting blood flow. You don’t have conscious control over this process, known as vasoconstriction.
But your contracting skeletal muscles have a special power to preserve blood flow. They’re able to resist the call for vasoconstriction that helps divert blood away from inactive areas. This resistance to the effect of the sympathetic nervous system is called “functional sympatholysis.” Physiologists like me continue to work to understand the specific mechanisms by which this can occur.
So why does limiting blood flow to the gut cause distress?
The relative ischemia, or lack of blood flow, can have different effects. It can change how cells are able to absorb what has been digested and how broken-down food moves through the gut. Taken together, the changes result in an unpleasant feeling you may know all too well.
The lack of blood flow is particularly challenging if the digestive system is actively trying to break down and absorb food, a main reason exercise-induced nausea can be worse right after you’ve eaten, especially if the pre-workout meal had a lot of fat or concentrated carbohydrates.
It’s no fun to exercise if you’re doubled over with stomach cramps or running for the bathroom. So what can you do to limit symptoms or get rid of them when they crop up?
While exercise-induced nausea is unpleasant to deal with, in general it isn’t a major health concern. Most symptoms should resolve within an hour of finishing exercise. If problems persist either for long periods after exercise or each time you work out, it’s worth having a conversation with your doctor.
Sometimes the GI distress during or after exercise can actually lead to vomiting. If you unfortunately do throw up, you’ll likely feel better but will also need to rehydrate and replenish the nutrition you lost.
If you’re looking to start an exercise regimen or up the intensity of your current workouts, seeking the advice of trained professionals who can tailor a plan to your needs is often a smart approach. Exercise physiologists or certified personal trainers can provide exercise programming of appropriate intensity, and registered dietitian nutritionists can discuss individual nutritional needs and strategies. Your primary care provider can help to screen for more serious medical issues and should be informed of your exercise routine as well.
Anne R. Crecelius is associate professor of Health and Sport Science at the University of Dayton and a 2007 graduate of UD's School of Education and Health Sciences. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.