While diarrhea is not a life threatening condition, it still causes a disruption to our daily lives. About 1.7 to 5 billion people suffer from at least one bout of diarrhea each year and everyone will experience this gastrointestinal (GI) disorder at some point in life.
Sometimes people use the term diarrhea to mean a stomach upset that causes frequent visits to the toilet. However, the hallmark symptoms of this condition include frequent bowel movements accompanied by loose or watery stool, stomach cramps, nausea, and gas.
For healthy adults, diarrhea is not life threatening although it can be unpleasant and uncomfortable. If it affects children, elderly persons, or the chronically ill, it can be dangerous. But with proper rest and intake of fluids, most cases resolve within a few days.
In more severe cases, diarrhea can become a chronic condition caused by viral and bacterial infections or an underlying health problem. If you have to frequently dash to the toilet because of diarrhea, read on to learn some of the triggers and ways to cope.
What Causes Diarrhea?
Diarrhea occurs in one of two ways. It can be due to poor absorption of water in bowel contents, which happens when food you ingest passes faster than usual or in too large an amount through the colon. Watery stool may also form when extra fluids from the small intestines get into your colon.
Diarrhea can be acute (short term), lasting less than 14 days, or chronic (long term). Finding out the cause of your gastrointestinal problems will take some investigative work. This is because many factors like contaminated food or medicines can trigger diarrhea. The list below describes all the possible causes of diarrhea.
- Bacterial, Viral and Parasitic Infections
Diarrhea is one of the symptoms of viral gastroenteritis, a bowel infection best known as the stomach flu. Other viruses that upset the stomach and trigger watery stool include the rotavirus, norovirus, or adenovirus.
Food poisoning is the general term used to describe diarrhea caused by bacterial infections. This condition is quite common among travelers. Bacteria such as Salmonella, Campylobacter, Esherichia coli (e-coli), Clostridium difficile (c-difficile), and shigella can result in diarrhea.
Several types of parasites also give rise to this digestive disorder, the most common ones being Giardia Lamblia and cryptosporidium.
Microorganisms that bring about diarrhea usually find their way into our systems through contaminated food and unclean water.
Viral infections are highly contagious, traveling easily from unwashed hands to unwashed hands. Washing hands, drinking boiled, filtered or distilled water and eating cooked food are some of the steps you can take to prevent diarrhea caused by infectious bacteria, viruses or parasites.
- Underlying Medical Conditions
People who have conditions such as appendicitis, irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, chronic pancreatitis, bowel cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, diverticular disease, diabetes, or hyperthyroidism sometimes experience bowel movements with watery stool after eating.
The trigger foods vary from one person to the next or may depend on the digestive disorder an individual is suffering from. For instance, celiac disease is a digestive condition that triggers diarrhea when a person eats foods containing gluten or wheat.
- Food Intolerance
Watery diarrhea may also be the result of food intolerance. For example, it might strike due to abuse of alcohol. In addition, some people have difficulty digesting foods such as gluten, wheat, yeast, or various forms of sugar like lactose, fructose, sorbitol or mannitol. In such cases, the offending foods or beverages may be avoided to prevent diarrhea.
Certain medications can cause diarrhea as a side effect. For example, supplements containing magnesium, antacids, laxatives, statins, high blood pressure medications, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, as well as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory and chemotherapy drugs may lead to watery bowel movements.
Antibiotics disrupt the microbial balance in the digestive system by destroying both good and bad bacteria. This disturbance creates ideal living conditions for bacteria called clostridium difficile, which are also known to cause diarrhea.
It’s prudent to check whether diarrhea is listed as one of the possible side effects on the patient information leaflet that comes with pharmaceutical drugs. If so, you can consult your doctor for alternative medications. The good thing about medicine-related diarrhea is that it stops once intake of medication ceases.
Diarrhea can be a post-surgery side effect as well. People who undergo procedures such as gall bladder removal or gastrectomy (also called partial or full stomach removal surgery) usually experience diarrhea when recovering.
Stress can bring about a brief spell of diarrhea. It’s also a common trigger for people who have a sensitive or overactive bowel. Such individuals experience cramps and rumbling in the stomach when nervous or under some kind of emotional distress. Consequently, these reactions prompt the intestines to act up.
What to Eat When You Have Diarrhea?
Choosing what to eat when suffering from diarrhea can be tricky because some foods tend to aggravate the stomach upset. To help you cope until diarrhea runs its course, it’s worth trying the BRAT or BRATTY diet.
BRAT is an abbreviation for bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast. On the other hand, BRATTY is a short-form word for bananas, rice, applesauce, toast, tea, and yogurt. Many pediatricians recommend either one of these bland diets because the chosen foods are either easy to digest, have a slightly constipating effect, help to bulk up the intestines or restore good bacteria in the gastrointestinal system.
Bananas are rich in potassium, which is a key mineral that restores electrolytes lost during severe spells of diarrhea. There’s also a good amount of Inulin in bananas. This soluble fiber is a prebiotic substance that promotes growth of probiotics (good bacteria) in the intestinal system.
Because of how easy rice is to digest, it is high on the list of foods to eat when suffering from diarrhea.
- Brown Rice and Toast
Brown rice increases dietary fiber, which will bulk up stool and reduce diarrhea. Toast from whole wheat also has the same effect as brown rice. Burned toast tends to work great at soothing mild cases of food poisoning.
Furthermore, it’s believed that charred toast neutralizes toxins in cases of alcohol or food poisoning, which is actually how medicinal charcoal works.
When eating toast to soothe diarrhea, avoid using jam and margarine as these foods tend to worsen the symptoms. Instead, opt for applesauce. Applesauce is rich in pectin, a soluble fiber that supports absorption of liquids in the intestines in order to firm up stool.
- Yogurt and Tea
The BRAT diet is devoid of adequate fluids and protein. However, the BRATTY diet bridges this nutritional gap when tea and yogurt are added.
Yogurt with live active cultures also contains probiotics, which will restore good bacteria in the GI tract after antibiotic use or when the microbial balance in the stomach is disrupted by a bacterial case of diarrhea. To stay hydrated when treating diarrhea, decaffeinated green tea is a great option as it provides numerous other health benefits.
Foods to Avoid When Recovering From Diarrhea
Besides knowing what to eat when suffering from diarrhea, it’s equally important to be aware of which foods to avoid.
Caffeine has a laxative effect on the gastrointestinal system. For this reason, caffeinated drinks like coffee, strong teas and energy drinks should be avoided.
- Sweet Food
Desserts, gum and candy are high in sugar, which can trigger diarrhea or make it worse. Carbonated sugary drinks will have the same effect in people who are sugar intolerant. Such drinks and foods such as beans produce gas, which aggravates bloating when suffering from a bout of diarrhea.
Although yogurt increases friendly bacteria in the gut, milk should be avoided, especially if you have lactose intolerance. Other foods that make diarrhea worse include dried fruits, alcohol as well as spicy, fried, or fatty foods.
Home Remedies to Get Rid of Diarrhea
If the cause of diarrhea is not determined as dangerous or requiring medical intervention, home remedies can often reduce symptoms or resolve the problem. In the following section, you can find out some of the home remedies to follow while battling diarrhea.
- Eat Foods that Eliminate Diarrhea or Soothe Symptoms
Diet plays a huge role in your recovery when experiencing diarrhea. Here are some natural foods you can eat to fight off the infection and get relief from the symptoms.
- Salted Crackers
When suffering from a stomach upset that’s accompanied with diarrhea, it’s best to eat foods that are gentle on the tummy. While salted crackers are easy to digest, be sure to wash them down with plenty of fluids too.
- Peppermint and Ginger
Peppermint’s antispasmodic properties keep stomach cramps at bay thus soothing abdominal pains that often accompany a stomach upset. This herb also reduces intestinal gas.
Ginger, on the other hand, is good for treating food poising since it calms irritated bowels and helps to get rid of cramps.
Peppermint and ginger are best enjoyed in tea preparations. To make either peppermint or ginger tea:
- Pour boiling water in a teacup and add one of teaspoon of grated ginger or a few peppermint leaves.
- Let the tea steep for five minutes then sieve the tea into another cup and enjoy your peppermint or ginger ale tea.
- Chicken Broth/ Steamed Chicken
Chicken will provide your body with essential amino acids when enduring a bout of diarrhea. The protein it offers completes what the BRAT diet lacks. In addition, steamed or boiled chicken is bland and easy on the digestive tract. You can also opt for chicken broth instead to combat the dehydrating effects of diarrhea.
Blueberries are a time honored remedy for diarrhea in Sweden. Scientists suggest that the therapeutic effect of these berries on an upset stomach comes from the tannins content they contain.
Tannins act as an astringent compound, thereby contracting tissue, reducing inflammation, and bringing down the secretion of mucus and other liquids in the intestines.
Blueberries also have antibacterial properties because of the include anthocyanosides and are a rich source of soluble pectin fiber. Therefore, eating dried blueberries or drinking blueberry smoothies can provide some relief from diarrhea.
- Mashed Potatoes or Pasta
Starchy foods like mashed potatoes or plain pasta should be part of your diarrhea-friendly diet. These foods are easily digestible and act as binding agents that firm up stool.
- Carrot Soup
Carrot soup is one of the best home remedies to rehydrate children who have lost fluids through diarrhea. It also replenishes essential nutrients lost during diarrhea.
To prepare carrot soup:
- Peel and chop 500g of carrots into fine slices.
- Boil the carrots for about 15minutes in a pressure cooker.
- Strain the liquid and add a pinch of salt.
- To get relief from diarrhea, eat this soup once or twice daily.
- Apple Cider Vinegar (AVC)
Apple cider vinegar has antimicrobial properties that help to fight off bacteria, which may be possibly causing diarrhea. Additionally, the anti-bacterial properties of AVC also calm intestinal spasms.
To combat diarrhea with this natural remedy, stir two teaspoons of the vinegar in a glass of water and drink. You can drink this mix several times a day, sipping in small quantities to avoid upsetting your stomach.
- Marshmallow Root Supplement or Slippery Elm Powder
These herbs are a great choice if you prefer using natural remedies to treat diarrhea instead of chemical based drugs. However, marshmallow root supplement and slippery elm powder will only sooth diarrhea symptoms caused by an inflamed GI tract.
You can use both marshmallow root supplement and slippery elm powder to make herbal tea.
- Astringent Herbs
When the small intestines secrete too much fluid, thus leading to watery stool, an astringent herb can provide some relief. Such herbs dry out the mucous membranes located in the intestines, which in turn help to reduce loose stool.
You can use astringent herbs to make herbal tea or prepare them for consumption as per the manufacturer’s instruction. The most common options include extracts of bilberry, blackberry leaf, carob powder, Agrimony and raspberry leaf.
If you’re under medication, pregnant, or have any existing medical condition, it’s important to consult a doctor before trying any herbal remedy for diarrhea.
- Black Seed Oil
Black seed oil carries many medicinal properties. It’s used to treat multiple digestive disorders like diarrhea, colic, gas, and constipation. When using black seed oil to treat diarrhea:
- Add a teaspoon of the oil to one cup of plain yogurt.
- Consume this mixture twice every day to get some relief from diarrhea symptoms.
- Fenugreek Seeds
Due to their high content of mucilage, fenugreek seeds are very effective at soothing diarrhea symptoms. Mucilage prevents irritation on nerve endings along the GI tract by covering mucous membranes.
To make the most out of this antidiarrheal ingredient:
- Combine a teaspoon of fenugreek seeds with one tablespoon of yogurt and chew on them.
- Optionally, mix one cup of yogurt with one-half teaspoon each of roasted fenugreek and cumin seeds. Drink this mixture up to three times every day to get relief from diarrhea.
- Psyllium Fiber
Psyllium is a soluble fiber that can be used as a bulking agent to firm up stool and provide some relief from diarrhea. Simply add one teaspoon of Psyllium fiber in a glass of water and drink this mixture once or twice per day.
- Chamomile Tea
Chamomile has calming effect on the entire body. Therefore, brewing yourself a cup of chamomile tea will be very helpful if you suffer from stress-related diarrhea.
This herb is also good for treating intestinal inflammation and has antiseptic properties. Chamomile calms and relaxes muscles along the intestinal tract as well, thus reducing spasms and pain from stomach cramps.
It’s safe for both healthy children and adults unless they have an allergy to ragweed. For the best results, drink up to 3 cups a day but gradually in small amounts to help your intestines absorb the chamomile tea.
- Zinc Supplement
Zinc is a micronutrient that plays a supportive role in the transport of electrolytes and water in the intestines. Researchers have found that taking this mineral helps to improve the outcome when treating diarrhea.
According to the World Health Organizations (WHO), the recommended dietary allowance for zinc is 10mg and 20mg every day for children and adults respectively.
- Stay Hydrated
Diarrhea robs the body of fluids and essential electrolytes. As such, drinking plenty of fluids is necessary to prevent dehydration. Adults should consume at least three liters of water or more to make up for fluid loses that happen with diarrhea. Plain water is good but you also need to drink beverages that contain electrolytes like potassium, sodium, and chloride.
In addition to drinking water, diarrhea patients should also drink herbal teas, ginger preparations, acid-free fruit juices, as well as vegetable, beef, and chicken broths to replenish electrolytes lost through diarrhea.
Alternatively, there are over-the-counter oral re-hydration solutions that also function as electrolyte replacement formulas. A few examples include Ricelyte, Pedialyte, and Rehydralyte, which can be obtained at your local drugstore without a doctor’s prescription.
Whatever you choose to drink, avoid stressing your digestive system. Take small, frequent sips of fluids throughout the day to keep your stomach settled. Guzzling down plenty of fluids all at once can make diarrhea symptoms worse, especially if your case was due to a “stomach bug.”
Lastly, stay away from alcoholic and caffeinated drinks when treating diarrhea, as these diuretic beverages have a dehydrating effect.
- Hot Water Compresses
In situations where abdominal cramping triggers diarrhea, soothing the stressed out muscles would be the best remedy. A hot water compress can relax the cramped up muscles and provide immediate relief from diarrhea.
Simply place the heating pad over your abdomen and let it stay in place for 5 to 10 minutes. Ensure to place a towel or cloth in between your bare skin and the heating pad to avoid burning yourself.
- Get Plenty of Rest
One of the best things to do when recovering from diarrhea is to get ample rest. If you can, call in sick and get a few days of bed rest. Resting speeds up recovery since this grants the body a chance to focus its energy and resources on fighting off any responsible virus.
Additionally, if anxiety is the aggregator of your diarrhea, it’s wise to get plenty of rest. This will reduce nervousness and eliminate or minimize any stress-related diarrhea.
When to See a Doctor
Medical intervention is not often required to treat diarrhea. However, booking a doctor’s appointment is necessary if:
- Home remedies fail to work and symptoms persist longer than 3 to 4 days in adults or more than 24 hours in young children.
- There is severe pain in the rectal area or abdomen, which might signify a more serious medical problem.
- You have blood in stool, a high fever, or are showing signs of dehydration such as light-headedness, extreme weakness or a dry throat and mouth
Seeking medical help even before trying any home remedy for diarrhea is advisable. By taking this step, your doctor will be able to perform proper diagnosis and determine the cause of diarrhea before prescribing appropriate treatment.
If diarrhea is due to an existing health problem, your doctor can advise you on the best treatment to control the condition.
Medical Options for Treating Diarrhea
Your doctor can prescribe different medications to treat diarrhea. The appropriate treatment will depend on the underlying cause. Some of the drugs that help to treat watery diarrhea include:
- Loperamide and Diphenoxylate
These drugs are anti-motility medications. In other words, Loperamide and diphenoxylate slow down contractions in the bowel organs, thus creating more time to absorb water as waste passes through the colon.
Racecadotril is an alternative drug for Loperamide, which reduces the amount of fluids secreted by the small intestines. Children over 3 months of age can safely take this medication in tandem with oral re-hydration.
- Bismuth Subsalicylate
This medication works as an antacid and anti-inflammatory. It’s usually sold under the brand names Pepto-Bismol and Kaopectate. Bismuth compounds also help your body to manage fluids better.
Antibiotics are usually prescription medications and you doctor will only recommend them when dealing with bacteria or parasite-related diarrhea. Viral infections tend to be unresponsive to antibiotics.
Analgesic medications such as Paracetamol and ibuprofen do not treat diarrhea per say, but they can provide relief for painful abdominal cramps, fever, and headaches.
- Intravenous Fluids
Patients who are at risk of severe dehydration due to diarrhea may be hospitalized and given fluids intravenously.
For individuals who can use prescription and over the counter antidiarrheal drugs, it’s important to note that these medications may be contraindicated in some situations. Therefore, make sure to consult your doctor or pharmacist to ensure they are safe to take.