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Watch out, travelers: Jet lag and exhaustion can make you vomit

On Thursday evening in Bern, Switzerland, Myanmar’s Nobel Peace Prize award-winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, discontinued her press conference after 15 minutes. Suu Kyi paused the questioning as a sickened look crossed her face. She grabbed a bag and vomited into it. She left the conference apologizing for the sudden eruption, um, interruption.

She began the press conference by noting she felt exhausted and struggled to adjust to the time difference. Can fatigue -- plus a bad case of jet lag -- really make you throw up?    

“A combination of exhaustion and experiencing a big time difference could certainly lead someone to vomit. This may be even more true if they are very warm or under a great deal of stress,” says Dr. Rachel Vreeman via email. Vreeman is co-author of the book “Don’t Swallow your Gum!: Myths, Half-Truths, and Outright Lies About Your Body and Health” and an assistant professor of pediatrics in the Children's Health Services Research Program at the Indiana University School of Medicine.

Exhaustion causes a variety of symptoms, some more common than others. People suffering from a lack of sleep might feel tremors, headache, concentration problems, elevated blood pressure, achy muscles and psychosis.

“Exhaustion can absolutely make someone feel nauseous and even lead to vomiting. Sometimes, the body responds to fatigue -- especially extreme fatigue -- with symptoms of nausea. Stomach upset, including nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, can also be symptoms of jet lag,” says Vreeman.

Extreme fatigue sparks intervention from two opposing systems in the body -- the parasympathetic nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system helps people in tough situations by triggering the flight or fight response, which throws the body into alert mode. The parasympathetic nervous system controls at-rest functions like digestion and salivation.  

“Depending on which system is reacting the most to the stress and fatigue -- your sympathetic system that creates a flight-or-fight response or your parasympathetic system, which causes you to do things like salivate and have relaxed bowels -- you might experience nausea and vomiting in a particular situation,” Vreeman says. 

According to an AP article, Suu Kyi experienced recent bouts of illness when traveling. The slight, 66-year-old political activist felt weak and threw up twice while campaigning for parliament.

Suu Kyi is not alone when it comes to public purging. When George H.W. Bush visited Japan in 1992, he famously spewed on the lap of Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa during a state dinner. Bush claimed to be exhausted from an earlier tennis bout and perhaps afflicted by the flu.

Athletes frequently lose their lunches -- some more than others. Pete Sampras and Michael Jordon both spewed on the court, but it seems that former Philadelphia Eagle, Donovan McNabb made blowing chunks a habit. McNabb puked at the end of the fourth quarter during Super Bowl XXXIX. The quarterback said he felt nauseated all game, but teammates claimed McNabb threw up frequently during games and blamed it on exhaustion. 

Vreeman says if a person vomits once because of exhaustion, it doesn’t mean it will occur again. People can prevent the negative effects of exhaustion by sleeping more, staying hydrated, and wearing comfortable clothing. If it seems that jet lag is the problem, people can take sleep aids or melatonin to reduce the impact of time change.