Whether it’s a bout of Bali Belly or a preschooler with rotavirus, tummy bugs come in all shapes and guises.
Gastroenteritis (gastro) tends to be caused by viruses or bacteria that inflame your intestines, causing symptoms such as fevers and aches (like with influenza), as well as vomiting, nausea and/or diarrhoea. In most cases the acute symptoms stop within 24 hours, though it can take a number of days before feeling fully recovered.
However, not all gut upsets are as self-limiting as gastro. Parasites, such as protozoa, cause many of the nastier infections including giardia. These take longer to develop and treat. While common gastro may be better in 24-48 hours without medication, giardia can hang around for months or until effectively treated (usually with a powerful combination of antibiotics).
Food poisoning is often mistaken for gastro. Although the common viruses and bacteria that cause gastro can be passed on by poor food handling, with food poisoning nastier viruses like Hepatitis A or bacteria (e.g. salmonella) can be the culprit. When food that is stored incorrectly or been contaminated is the cause of the problem, eggs are responsible for approximately 1:5 cases of food poisoning in Australia.
Hospital acquired infections as a consequence of inadequate hygiene or antibiotic resistance, such as Clostridium difficile, are relatively common but difficult to treat. Recalcitrant infections that are unresponsive to conventional medicine can sometimes be treated holistically but see an experienced practitioner.
Treating tummy bugs
The most important thing is to keep hydrated. If you can’t hold down water without vomiting, have a fever or unstoppable, liquid diarrhoea you are at risk of becoming dehydrated. This leads to confusion and ultimately death. Babies, children, the elderly and those with a compromised immune system are most at risk of dehydration and serious complications.
If the inside of a baby’s lip is dry, it is a clear sign they are dehydrated. Seek emergency treatment at your nearest hospital.
Avoid sugary drinks and full strength fruit juices. Contrary to advice that can still be found on the internet, flat lemonade (or even the fizzy variety) is unsuitable as the amount of sugar in the drink can cause increased fluid loss via osmotic activity in the intestines.
The most suitable drinks include:
• Electrolyte formulas or sports drinks
• Chamomile or peppermint tea
Avoid caffeinated drinks and alcohol.
When you can face food again, take it slowly.
• Try eating well-cooked foods such as soup (broth or barley and vegetables).
• Orange vegetables are particularly good to restore the mucus membranes in the gut.
• If you only want bland food, white rice or soupy rice that has cooked for a long time in stock (Chinese congee) is excellent.
• Stewed apples with a little cinnamon are good for diarrhoea (but avoid fruit juice).
• Ginger, in a tea with honey or as tablets, helps calm queasiness.
• Carob powder – 1 tablespoon mixed with water, mashed banana or stewed apples is also useful for loose bowels
• Avoid fatty foods.
• Garlic is also a natural “antibiotic” but too much raw garlic (or garlic oil capsules) can cause diarrhoea.
• If you’ve been on antibiotics try sauerkraut or kimchi. These excellent sources of lacto-fermented foods that can help restore your gut flora.
Ginger, chamomile and peppermint teas can help ease some of the discomfort of gastro but are not anti-infective.
The number one herb to treat gut infections is golden seal (Hydrastis canadensis), however it has a few caveats. While golden seal can be effective in preventing and treating many cases of traveller’s diarrhoea, giadia and other infections, both high quality and correct dose are needed. In Australia I have found over the counter forms less effective than those that are available to practitioners (”practitioner only medicines). See an experienced herbalist, rather than self-prescribing, if you have high blood pressure, are on other medications or are treating children.
When you can hold down food without vomiting, consider taking the following in a liquid or tablet form (adult doses):
• Zinc – 25 mg elemental zinc once to twice a day.
• Vitamin C – 500 mg 2-4 times a day
Regardless of whether it’s a bacteria, virus or parasite your body is busy fighting an invader and needs all your available energy to do so. It is important to fully rest when you have gastro.
While you are feeling ill, don’t “soldier on”. Avoid going to work or school, as gastro is usually highly infectious.
If you are looking after someone with gastro be sure to wash your hands with warm soapy water for at least 30 seconds whenever you are in contact with them, before meal preparation and after any nappy changing. If you are dealing with a baby or toddler with gastro it is worth using latex gloves when dealing with their feces.
Restoring your gut after an infection
Probiotics encourage the growth of healthy gut flora and are highly recommended after an infection or antibiotic treatment. I prefer probiotics in capsules or powder that are lactose-free. Avoid the sweet milky cultured drinks, as you want to avoid all forms of sugar when fighting an infection or restoring flora.
Convalescence is a largely forgotten art. Follow my guidelines for convalescence until your strength returns.
A stomach and bowel that has been inflamed is more likely to react to foods that it previously had no problems digesting. Sometimes after these kinds of infections allergies or food intolerances begin. This may be caused by molecules of food that are usually too large to pass from the bowel into the bloodstream, slipping through a more permeable inflamed bowel wall. As the immune system doesn’t recognize the molecule it can create an antibody-antigen reaction, in other words a food allergy.
After a gut infection try to eat well-cooked, natural foods. Continue to avoid sugar, fats and alcohol.
How clean is your water?
If “gastro” keeps doing the rounds at home or work, take a look at your water supply and your general hygiene.
• Tap water – try boiling it for 5 minutes before drinking.
• Tank water – have you tested it lately?
• Water coolers – when was the last time the unit was pulled apart and thoroughly cleaned? You’d be unpleasantly surprised by what can grow behind the tap.
• Water filters – when were they last changed. Keep in mind that jug filters can’t actually filter out bugs, though reverse osmosis may, all filters need to be changed regularly according to the manufacturers recommendations. Under counter tap filters often get forgotten about (especially in workplaces).
• Drink bottles – bought bottles of water aren’t designed for multiple use. Regardless of the type of bottle, clean with hot soapy water DAILY. Don’t drink out of it if it has been sitting in a warm place (like in the car all day). Saliva contains lots of bacteria, just add heat and they can multiply to dangerous levels.
At home, make sure everyone who helps prepare meals and snacks washes their hands first.
What if you are often feeling sick but don’t respond to treatment?
If you don’t have a bug (your GP might do a stool sample and may repeat it if nothing is found but you continue to have symptoms), there are other common causes of chronic nausea, queasiness or diarrhoea.
If you feel this way after fatty food it may be an indicator that your liver or gallbladder are not functioning well. See your GP for tests.
Don’t forget good food handling techniques, especially when storing leftovers or at barbecues and picnics.
Stress can cause a range of gastrointestinal symptoms.
Another reason you may have these symptoms are food allergies. Talk to your naturopath to work with your diet.
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