Most of us will experience diarrhea a couple of times a year, whether it’s from a bacterial infection, a food allergy or simply something you’ve eaten that disagrees with you. Diarrhea usually is not serious and often disappears within a day or so.
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Mom’s advice is still the best when it comes to home treatments for diarrhea: eat chicken soup and saltines and follow the BRAT diet – bananas, rice, applesauce and toast.
You might think that eating will make your diarrhea worse, but your food choices can help to ease your symptoms and ensure your health doesn’t worsen as a result.
Salty and sweet
The biggest danger with a short bout of diarrhea is dehydration, or the loss of water and nutrients from the body’s tissues. You could become dehydrated if you have diarrhea more than three times a day and are not drinking enough fluids. Dehydration can cause serious complications if it is not treated.
The best way to guard against dehydration is to consume liquids that contain salt and sugar, says digestive disease specialist Donald Kirby, MD, Director of Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Human Nutrition. The salt slows down the fluid loss, while the sugar helps your body to absorb the salt.
“We tend not to want people to have salt in general, but when you’re having significant diarrhea, you want to make sure you’re getting salt and enough sugar to keep out of the emergency room,” Dr. Kirby says.
Over-the-counter rehydration solutions such as Pedialyte® will do the job, Dr. Kirby says. Or, follow Mom’s advice and have some chicken soup with saltine crackers or pretzels.
“Doctor Mom has been doing it for generations and it still works,” Dr. Kirby says. “In this case, Mother really does know best.”
The BRAT diet
Here’s another bit of good advice from Mom for treating diarrhea – eat the BRAT diet: bananas, rice (white), applesauce and toast.
When your health is good, physicians usually recommend whole-grain, high-fiber foods. But high-fiber foods could spell trouble when you have diarrhea. The BRAT foods are low-fiber and can help to make your stools firmer. Bananas also are high in potassium and help to replace nutrients your body has lost because of diarrhea.
Dr. Kirby says you also can add oatmeal, boiled or baked potatoes (peeled), or baked chicken with the skin removed.
“These are simple foods that people often tolerate very well,” Dr. Kirby says.
Another way to help your gut recover from a diarrheal infection is to consume probiotics — a food or dietary supplement that contains live bacteria, which replaces or adds to the beneficial bacteria usually found in the gastrointestinal tract.
While it’s wise to avoid dairy products when you have diarrhea, Dr. Kirby says, there’s one notable exception – yogurt or kefir, a fermented milk drink, that contain probiotics. These can restore the beneficial bacteria that your body flushes out with diarrhea. Just make sure the yogurt or kefir are low in sugar, as higher levels of sugar can potentially worsen symptoms or diarrheal losses (water and electrolytes) in some patients.
It’s time to call the doctor when diarrhea lasts longer than a few days, Dr. Kirby says. Also see your physician if you experience severe pain or your stool contains significant amounts of blood or pus.