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.
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
Rotavirus, Norwalk virus
E. coli, Vibrio cholerae, Campylobacter, Shigella
Helminths (intestinal worms)
Lactose intolerance, celiac sprue, medication side effects
Ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease
Pancreatic deficiency, biliary disease
Zinc deficiency, vitamin A deficiency, enteral feedings consisting of liquid nutritional formulas delivered straight to the bowels
Irritable bowel syndrome, short bowel syndrome, cancer
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.
The primary function of a diarrhea diet is to assist in preventing dehydration and replenishing lost electrolytes.
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.
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:
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:
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
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International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders, PO Box 170864, Milwaukee, WI, 53217, (414) 964-1799, (888) 964-2001, Fax: (414) 964-7176, firstname.lastname@example.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, email@example.com, http://www.digestive.niddk.nih.gov .
Monique Laberge, PhD
Revised by David Newton