Whether your diarrhea is caused by allergies, food poisoning, a chronic condition like irritable bowel syndrome, or something else, diet and diarrhea are intricately linked.
Even if you have long-term conditions that affect the digestive system, the diet you eat can greatly affect your comfort levels.
When you’re experiencing an episode of diarrhea, there are certain foods that you can eat to help your digestive system get back on track. There are also certain foods that you should avoid.
Occasional diarrhea is a common occurrence. Most people will experience an episode of diarrhea at least once or twice a year that will disappear in a couple of days.
Luckily, there are many foods to eat that may help a person reduce the symptoms of diarrhea. There are also some foods to avoid when dealing with a bout of diarrhea, and some additional home care tips to consider.
Anyone who is experiencing persistent diarrhea should see a doctor, as a person may become dehydrated over time.
What is diarrhea?
Diarrhea is a bowel movement that is more liquid than solid or has a loose texture. It is a common problem and may occur a couple of times each year. Diarrhea will usually last no more than 3 days.
People with chronic digestive conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or Crohn’s disease, may experience diarrhea more regularly.
In addition to loose or runny stools, diarrhea is also associated with other digestive symptoms, including:
- abdominal bloating and pain
- a bubbly feeling in the intestines
- an urgent need to have a bowel movement
Avoid These Foods When You Have Diarrhea
As important as it is to know what to eat when you have diarrhea, you should also know which foods to avoid. Certain foods can travel through your intestines very quickly and aggravate your digestion, or worsen diarrhea in other ways.
Avoid the following for diarrhea relief:
Fatty foodsThese include foods that are fried, greasy, or covered in gravy, which can make diarrhea worse.
Milk, butter, ice cream, and cheeseEven if the diarrhea isn’t caused by lactose intolerance — a difficulty processing lactose, a sugar found in dairy products — stay away from these foods when you have diarrhea. You may be temporarily sensitive to dairy products, even if you usually have no problem with them. Probiotic-rich yogurt may be the one exception to this rule, as some studies have shown probiotics help rebalance intestinal flora and could shorten the duration of a bout of diarrhea.
Alcohol and sodasWhen you have diarrhea, you want to steer clear of foods and beverages that cause you to lose fluids. Alcohol can act as a diuretic, meaning it’s dehydrating, and should be avoided, Dr. Higgins says. Sodas with high-fructose corn syrup can also pose a problem if you have diarrhea. According to a study published in the June 2017 issue of Healthcare, large quantities of fructose can overwhelm your digestive system and lead to gas, bloating, or diarrhea.
Sorbitol and other artificial sweeteners
Some people find that artificial sweeteners have a laxative effect on their digestive system. If you have diarrhea, it’s best to pass on sugarless candy and gum, diet soft drinks, and sugar substitutes. According to Harvard Medical School’s Harvard Health newsletter, consuming sugars, including artificial ones, causes your intestines to produce more water and electrolytes, which can then loosen bowel movements and lead to diarrhea.
Foods that cause excess gasIt’s important to eat generous amounts of fruits and vegetables every day. But when diarrhea strikes, you want to avoid choices that are likely to increase intestinal gas, such as cabbage, beans, broccoli, and cauliflower, until you’re feeling better.
Foods that may be spoiledStay away from foods that may have been mishandled, including foods that have been out of the refrigerator for too long or improperly stored. Raw meat or fish can be problematic, too. Follow the old maxim, “When in doubt, throw it out,” and you may save yourself some stomach upset.
Foods to eatWhile recovering from diarrhea, a person should eat bland, simple foods that are easy to digest and will help absorb some water from the stool.
People with diarrhea should eat bland foods, as spicy or complex foods can irritate the bowels. Bland foods that may help with diarrhea include:
- hot cereals, such as oatmeal, cream of wheat, or rice porridge
- plain white rice
- bread or toast
- boiled potatoes
- unseasoned crackers
These foods may be especially helpful on the first day of dealing with diarrhea. Eating many small meals throughout the day can help keep the digestive system from becoming overworked.
Probiotic foods, such as yogurt and kefir, may help in some cases, but in others, probiotics may irritate the digestive system even more.
Probiotics aid digestion by improving the balance of good and bad bacteria in the gut. However, dairy products can irritate the digestive system, so a person may wish to try non-dairy sources of probiotics, such as miso or sauerkraut.
What to drink
Liquids are also vital to recovery. People with diarrhea must drink plenty of water throughout the day and should drink an additional cup of water after every loose bowel movement.
Drinking plenty of water helps prevent dehydration and flush any toxins out of the body.
However, as well as water, the body also loses minerals and electrolytes through diarrhea. People should try to drink liquids containing minerals and electrolytes to replenish those lost. Sources of electrolytes and minerals include:
- soup broth
- coconut water
- electrolyte water
- sports drinks
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What not to drink
Caffeinated beverages, such as coffee, tea, and soda, may overstimulate the digestive system and make symptoms worse.
Carbonated drinks may also irritate or contribute to other symptoms, such as bloating and cramps. People should also avoid alcohol while dealing with diarrhea.
While many sports drinks contain electrolytes that may help with dehydration, they often contain added sugars or artificial sweeteners. Coconut water or electrolyte-enhanced water are good alternatives.
In addition to following a diet that will help relieve diarrhea, there are several other remedies a person can take to make a swift recovery.
Other diarrhea treatments include bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto Bismol) and Ioperamide (Imodium). These drugs can help relieve occasional cases of diarrhea and may be helpful to have on hand in a medicine cupboard.
Pepto Bismol and Imodium are available for purchase over-the-counter or online.
People with diarrhea should also ensure they get enough rest, as putting the body in stressful situations while dealing with diarrhea may make matters worse.
Limit physical activity while diarrhea symptoms are presenting, as strenuous activity may put the body at a greater risk of dehydration.
Hydration is also vital when managing diarrhea. Drink plenty of water throughout the day.
When to see a doctor
Blood or mucus may appear in the stool in more serious cases of diarrhea. This is often accompanied by a fever and requires a visit to the doctor as soon as possible.
Untreated diarrhea can also lead to serious complications, including dehydration. A person with severe diarrhea may require hospitalization and intravenous electrolytes.
Anyone experiencing a fever of higher than 102°F or severe abdominal pains should visit a doctor.
Parents or guardians should carefully monitor any children with diarrhea. If symptoms do not clear up with 24 hours, they should call the doctor for guidance.
If a child shows any signs of dehydration, seek immediate medical care. Signs include:
- dry mouth
- dry diaper for longer than 3 hours
- weight loss
- crying without tears
Any additional symptoms should be reported to a doctor as soon as possible for diagnosis and treatment.
Many cases of diarrhea last only a few days and respond well to home treatments. Eating a simple diet, increasing fluid intake, and using over-the-counter medications as necessary can help reduce symptoms quickly.
In cases where the body does not respond to these treatments after 2 or 3 days, a person should visit their doctor for diagnosis and treatment.