Diarrhea Diet

Definition

A diarrhea diet is used to help alleviate diarrhea and replenish any fluids and electrolytes lost from this condition. Diarrhea is characterized by unusually frequent and loose (watery) bowel movements. More than four soft or watery bowel movements per day is considered abnormal. Diarrhea is classified into four subgroups: acute, intractable, osmotic, and secretory.

Origins

Diarrhea is a symptom that is not only uncomfortable but also potentially dangerous to health. Recurrent diarrhea is usually indicative of an underlying infection or condition. Acute diarrhea is one of the most common types of diarrhea. It usually resolves within three weeks and is caused by bacteria. Intractable diarrhea is chronic (ongoing) and has a greater nutritional impact. Osmotic diarrhea is caused by the presence of osmotically active particles in the intestinal lumen, which occurs due to malabsorption or maldigestion. Fluid loss can be great and lead to dehydration quickly. Secretory diarrhea occurs when a disease causes the secretion of large amounts of fluid into the intestines. The diarrhea diet is comprised of techniques known to help alleviate symptoms of diarrhea. However, people experiencing diarrhea should visit a doctor to find out the underlying cause.

Causes of diarrhea

Causes

Examples

Viral infections

Rotavirus, Norwalk virus

Bacterial infections

E. coli, Vibrio cholerae, Campylobacter, Shigella

Parasites

Giardia, Entamoeba

Helminths (intestinal worms)

Strongyloides

Allergic

Lactose intolerance, celiac sprue, medication side effects

Autoimmune

Ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease

Malabsorptive

Pancreatic deficiency, biliary disease

Nutritional

Zinc deficiency, vitamin A deficiency, enteral feedings consisting of liquid nutritional formulas delivered straight to the bowels

Functional

Irritable bowel syndrome, short bowel syndrome, cancer

Description

Diarrhea is a symptom of many diseases and conditions. Some possible causes of diarrhea include:

The underlying condition and the type of diarrhea that a person is experiencing will determine the best diet to help resolve the diarrhea. If a person is experiencing diarrhea due to lactose intolerance, for example, avoiding lactose in the diet and replacing fluid losses will help reduce the symptoms.

Some specific types of diarrhea may have their own dietary requirements, such as avoiding dairy products in lactose intolerance or gluten in celiac disease. Diarrhea caused by antibiotics can be reduced by consuming probiotics in foods or supplements. Foods that contain probiotics are usually labeled as having “live and active cultures.” Supplements should not be taken without first consulting with a physician.

Function

The primary function of a diarrhea diet is to assist in preventing dehydration and replenishing lost electrolytes.

Benefits

Following a diarrhea diet will help reduce the risk of dehydration, electrolyte loss, and nutritional deficiencies. The diet may also provide the intestines some time to recover and heal and will help in rebuilding beneficial bacteria in the gut. It may be necessary to rebuild the intestinal flora, especially if antibiotics were taken. Eating probiotic yogurt (with acidophilus) helps restore the intestinal flora so that digestion can occur as normal.

Precautions

Diarrhea diets do not provide the full range of nutrients required by the body and should only be followed for a short period of time. An anti-diarrheal diet may not be appropriate in all cases of diarrhea. If a person is having diarrhea, they should seek medical attention to find the root cause and receive appropriate treatment. If diarrhea is severe, food may be withheld for 24 hours, or the person may be restricted to a clear liquid diet. Chronic diarrhea can lead to nutritional deficiencies, so adequate replacement of nutrients is highly important. A high-calorie, high-protein diet with supplements is usually the most beneficial in these cases.

Infants, small children, and the elderly are at great risk for dehydration and usually need an oral rehydration solution. If electrolytes are not replaced and diarrhea is not treated, dehydration, hyponatremia (low serum sodium), hypokalemia (low serum potassium), and acidosis can occur. Very severe cases can lead to death. If the diarrhea is caused by fat-malabsorption, a deficiency in the fat-soluble vitamins can occur, as well as deficiencies in calcium, magnesium, zinc, manganese, selenium, and chromium.

Due to the amount of gastrointestinal infections in the world, the World Health Organization of the United Nations has developed an oral rehydration solution with common ingredients that is used for infants with less than 5% dehydration and no vomiting. If dehydration is greater than 5% in an infant, parents should seek medical attention.

For most people, any liquid should be adequate to bring fluid levels back to normal (rehydration). Too much water alone can be harmful, because water does not have any sugar or important electrolytes, such as sodium. A person's diet must include foods and beverages that restore electrolyte levels. Mineral water is recommended. For infants, a pediatrician may recommend solutions such as Pedialyte, which contains the necessary salts lost with diarrhea. Salt tablets should never be used as they may worsen diarrhea.

Diarrhea is often caused by foodborne or waterborne pathogens. The Mayo Clinic offers the following advice to prevent food contamination at home:

Risks

There are minimal risks associated with a diarrhea diet or with drinking liquids that replenish fluid levels as long as electrolytes are also provided. If diarrhea is not corrected and results in dehydration, vitamin and/or mineral deficiencies or loss of weight can occur. Signs of dehydration include:

KEY TERMS
Acidophilus—
Bacteria found in yogurt that, when ingested, helps restore the normal bacterial populations in the human digestive system.
Acute—
Acute means sudden or severe. Acute symptoms appear, change, or worsen rapidly. It is the opposite of chronic.
Bacteria—
Microorganisms found in the environment. Bacteria can multiply quickly in food, and can cause foodborne illnesses. Not all bacteria are harmful: some are used to make yogurt and cheese.
Celiac disease—
Digestive disease that causes damage to the small intestine. It results from the inability to digest gluten found in wheat, rye, and barley.
Chronic—
Chronic refers to a symptom or disease that continues or persists over an extended period of time.
Contamination—
The undesired occurrence of harmful microorganisms or substances in food.
Crohn's disease—
Inflammatory disease that usually occurs in the last section of the small intestine (ileum), causing swelling in the intestines. It can also occur in the large intestine.
Digestive tract—
The tube connecting and including the organs and paths responsible for processing food in the body. These are the mouth, the esophagus, the stomach, the liver, the gallbladder, the pancreas, the small intestine, the large intestine, and the rectum.
Diverticulitis—
Inflammation of small pouches (diverticula) that can form in the weakened muscular wall of the large intestine.
Dysentery—
Inflammation of the intestine with severe diarrhea and intestinal bleeding, resulting from drinking water containing a parasite called Entamoeba histolytica.
Electrolytes—
Chemicals such as salts and minerals required for various functions in the body.
Intestinal flora—
The sum of all bacteria and fungi that live in the intestines. It is required to break down nutrients, fight off pathogens, and help the body build vitamins E and K. Unbalanced intestinal flora can lead to many health problems.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)—
A chronic colon disorder that involves constipation and diarrhea, abdominal pain, and mucus in the stool.
Lactose intolerance—
A condition in which the body does not produce enough lactase, an enzyme needed to digest lactose (milk sugar).
Malabsorption—
Poor absorption of nutrients by the small intestine.
Microorganism—
A general term for bacteria, molds, fungus, or viruses that can be seen only with a microscope.
Pathogen—
A disease-causing microorganism.
Traveler's diarrhea—
Diarrhea resulting from eating or drinking food or water contaminated by infected human bowel waste. Travelers to developing countries of the world are especially at risk.
Ulcerative colitis—
Inflammation of the inner lining of the colon, characterized by open sores that appear in its mucous membrane.

Research and general acceptance

The Division of Digestive Diseases and Nutrition at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) supports basic and clinical research into gastrointestinal conditions, including diarrhea. Among other areas, NIDDK researchers are studying how the processes of absorption and secretion in the digestive tract affect the content and consistency of stool, the relationship between diarrhea and pathogenic bacteria, motility in chronic diarrhea, and chemical compounds that may be useful in treating diarrhea. Research has shown that consuming probiotics may decrease the duration of diarrhea and help rebuild healthy gut bacteria. Probiotic strains include Lactobacillus bulgaricus, Lactobacillus reuteri, Lactobacillus GG, and Lactobacillus acidophilus. Yogurt with live and active cultures contains two or more of these strains and may help with diarrhea. L. acidophilus supplements are also commercially available in powder, liquid, capsule, or chewable tablet forms.

See also Celiac disease; Crohn's disease; Dehydration; Digestive diseases; Electrolytes; Food contamination; High-protein diet; Irritable bowel

QUESTIONS TO ASK YOUR DOCTOR
  • What is the cause of my diarrhea?
  • Since my diarrhea appears to be caused by taking an antibiotic that I cannot stop taking, what dietary changes should I make to avoid the diarrhea?
  • How will my lactose intolerance affect the diet you recommend to treat my diarrhea problems?
  • What kind of diet do you recommend to deal with diarrhea for someone who is gluten intolerant?
  • What steps should I take on a trip to Africa to protect myself from developing diarrhea?

Resources

BOOKS

Banerjee, Bhaskar, ed. Nutritional Management of Digestive Disorders. Boca Raton, FL: CRC/Taylor & Francis, 2010.

Ericsson, Charles D., Herbert L. Dupont, and Robert Steffen. Travelers' Diarrhea. Hamilton, ON: B. C. Decker, 2003.

FC&A Medical staff. The Complete Guide to Digestive Health: Plain Answers about IBS, Constipation, Diarrhea, Heartburn, Ulcers, and More. Peachtree City, GA: FC&A Medical, 2006.

Guandalini, Stefano, and Haleh Vaziri, eds. Diarrhea: Diagnostic and Therapeutic Advances. New York: Humana Press, 2011.

Yarnell, Eric. Natural Approach to Gastroenterology. 2nd ed. 2 vols. Seattle, WA: Healing Mountain, 2011.

PERIODICALS

Hempel, Susanne, et al. “Probiotics for the Prevention and Treatment of Antibiotic-Associated Diarrhea: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” Journal of the American Medican Association 307, no. 18 (May 9, 2012): 1959–69. http://dx.doi.org/10.1001/jama.2012.3507 (accessed March 22, 2018).

WEBSITES

Mayo Clinic staff. “Diarrhea.” MayoClinic.com . http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/diarrhea/DS00292 (accessed March 22, 2018).

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). “Diarrhea.” National Institutes of Health. http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/diarrhea/ (accessed March 22, 2018).

ORGANIZATIONS

American Gastroenterological Association, 4930 Del Ray Ave., Bethesda, MD, 20814, (301) 654-2055, Fax: (301) 654-5920, member@gastro.org, http://www.gastro.org .

International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders, PO Box 170864, Milwaukee, WI, 53217, (414) 964-1799, (888) 964-2001, Fax: (414) 964-7176, iffgd@iffgd.org, http://www.iffgd.org .

National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse, 2 Information Way, Bethesda, MD, 20892–3570, (800) 891–5389, TTY: (866) 569–1162, Fax: (703) 738–4929, nddic@info.niddk.nih.gov, http://www.digestive.niddk.nih.gov .

Monique Laberge, PhD
Revised by David Newton

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.