Diet for Diarrhea
by Sue Kira, Naturopath & Clinical Nutritionist
Probably one of the most important things to do if you have diarrhea is to establish why you have it by first seeing your medical practitioner. If it is sudden you may have eaten something ‘off’ or with high levels of bacteria, like salmonella, or you may have contracted a stomach flu, or it may have been a reaction to a certain food, particularly if you get diarrhea intermittently (on and off) e.g. a common food to get ‘the runs’ is dairy or more specifically lactose.
If you have chronic diarrhea, you need to be tested to see if you have a parasitic infection or some other type of infection that your body is working to eradicate via the stool.
Chronic diarrhea can also be a sign that your channels of elimination are so backed-up with toxins that your colon literally has to move out all the food that you have been ingesting because it can’t handle any more toxicity. Your body may be using the stools to clear the channels of elimination.
Many people have a huge amount of toxic exposure from inside their colons.
These toxins come from pathogenic and commensal (co-existing) bacteria that have overgrown in their systems (somewhat like a toxic human sewer system).
Provided you have checked that there are no pathogens disturbing your colon, then diet is a great place to look at adjusting the ecosystem of your body so that you can have normal bowel movements again.
There are foods that can trigger diarrhea and foods that can help overcome diarrhea (provided all other pathogenic causes have been looked into and appropriately treated). A diet for diarrhea can help support the food side of your treatment.
If however you have a pathogenic cause, then talk to your practitioner, because a different therapeutic diet may be more suitable, such as SIBO Diet (small intestine bacterial overgrowth), Candida Support Diet, or Parasite Cleanse Diet as an adjunctive to your practitioner prescribed treatment regime.
Virtually any foods can be a potential trigger, especially if you have an allergy or intolerance to them, but by far the most common is lactose, gluten, sugar (not so much an allergen but sugar aggravates the colon). It also includes fruit, which is sometimes due to the sugar content and sometimes due to the type of fibre in fruit. Other fibres that can trigger diarrhea are found in grains. Click for information on the Allergy and Intolerances Diet.
Sugar from fruit, grains (when broken down) and other substances like soft drinks/sodas can feed the unfriendly bacteria in the gut and then the body uses the stools to try and eradicate them, literally flushing them out of your system.
Certain foods can travel through your intestines faster and potentially worsen the diarrhea you already have. One of these foods or substances may be your diarrhea trigger, so it’s a good idea to avoid them and then re-introduce these foods slowly when diarrhea has settled down.
Avoid these foods while you have diarrhea:
Fatty or rich foods
These include fried foods and foods that are greasy or feel heavy.
Milk and any dairy products
Even if your diarrhea isn’t caused by lactose intolerance (difficulty processing the sugar lactose that is found in dairy products) stay away from these foods during a bout of diarrhea. You may be temporarily sensitive to dairy products even if you normally have no problem with them.
Alcohol and caffeine drinks
When you have diarrhea, avoid foods and drinks that cause you to lose fluids. Alcohol and caffeine can act as diuretics, meaning they are dehydrating and should be avoided, especially with diarrhea.
Sorbitol and other artificial sweeteners
Some people find artificial sweeteners have a laxative effect on their digestive system. If you have diarrhea, it’s best to avoid sugar-less candy and gum, diet soft drinks or any sugar substitutes (even the natural ones like stevia).
Foods that cause excess gas
Generally it is important that you eat plenty of vegetables every day. However when diarrhea strikes, you want to avoid vegies that are likely to increase intestinal gas, such as cabbage, beans, broccoli, cauliflower, legumes and pulses like lentils and chickpeas and grains, especially those containing gluten, until the diarrhea has ‘passed’ and your stools are formed.
Foods that are not fresh
Anything not fresh can increase the bacterial imbalance already occurring in your digestive system.
Some vitamins and minerals
Magnesium and vitamin C are well known to cause loose stools, depending on the dose. Some people are more susceptible than others. Other vitamins and some drugs can have the same effect.
Traditionally, mothers of yesteryear would use things like unripened bananas, grated apples with cinnamon (I think it was the pectin in apples that helped), low fibre foods, vegetables like potatoes and sweet potatoes, white rice and good old chicken soup (great for hydration).
Eggs are well known to have a binding effect on the bowels, so are best to avoid with constipation, but with diarrhoea it could be time to bring them into play. Probiotic rich foods like unsweetened coconut yogurt and coconut kefir may help to balance the bacteria levels in your gut.
A diet for diarrhea is not considered a cure, it’s about supporting the body while the cause of diarrhea is established. The purpose of the diet is to eliminate foods considered detrimental, and include supportive foods, to help your body do its natural job of healing.
For this reason, a diet for diarrhea is free of gluten, dairy, grains, pulses and legumes and low in sugars and additives. The diet can include supportive foods to heal a ‘leaky gut’, good probiotic foods to nourish the digestive system with the right bacteria, along with some soluble fibres like chia and flax seeds to help clean the digestive system of toxins without causing irritation like grains can.
A serious complication of diarrhea is dehydration
When you have diarrhea for any length of time, you need to avoid dehydration by drinking plenty of water, preferably with a small amount of mixed mineral salt like an electrolyte mix or even a pinch of Himalayan salt in water.
Another good hydrator is a small splash of apple juice in a glass of water, as this acts like a wetting agent to allow your body to absorb the water better.
Ensure you drink enough water to keep your urine clear during diarrhea. If the urine is not clear, then you are dehydrated.
If diet and simple remedies don’t work and if symptoms persist for more than a few days, or include bleeding, gas or bloating, you should see your doctor or health care provider, so they can determine whether your diarrhea is caused by a more serious condition and recommend a course of treatment.
Important: While on the diet do not stop any medications or supplements previously prescribed unless advised otherwise by your medical or health care professional.
Client name and identifying information changed
Steven had been suffering from diarrhea for seven months. He wasn’t sure what triggered it in the first place, other than he’d been overseas but didn’t get sick at all. His adventures included lots of drinking spirits and eating lots of pasta and bread with cheese, which he normally didn’t have on a regular basis.
Although he resumed his normal diet when he returned home, he still suffered from diarrhea to the point that he had to work from home as he was constantly worried that he mightn’t get to the toilet quickly enough.
On testing, it appeared that his venture away with the change in diet triggered a ‘leaky gut’ and consequently he was highly reactive to certain foods. To get his digestive system back into shape we arranged a gluten free, dairy free, grain free, sugar and alcohol free diet. He was also encouraged to eat plenty of vegetables, meats, eggs and bone broths, along with some good multi-strain probiotics.
Within a few days his toilet visits had decreased and three weeks later he regained normal bowel movements. He then tried going back onto dairy products, which sent him straight to the loo, so he knew he had developed lactose intolerance.
Even without dairy his tummy was still unsettled after eating gluten foods, so he decided it was healthier for him to be gluten and dairy free. I gave him many great gluten and dairy free recipes and he was happy to make the changes to his diet.
Later he told me that without gluten and dairy he felt better than ever.