We can develop diarrhoea to differing degrees and for many different reasons. It may be a side effect of cancer treatment such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy; a result of medication such as antibiotics and painkillers; and emotional issues like anxiety and fear. You may also find that you get a quick bout of diarrhoea if you’ve been treated for constipation, before the gut settles. If you suspect it’s a side effect of the constipation treatment, wait a day or two before making any big changes to your routine and diet.
- Reduce roughage. Wholegrain cereals, wholemeal bread, fruits, vegetables, legumes and lentils – as healthy as they are – can be too much for the gut in large quantities. To settle your digestion, lean more towards white rice, pasta, white fish, chicken, and a few cooked (not raw) fruits and vegetables. Avoid wind-inducing vegetables and pulses, like Brussels sprouts, cabbages, beans and lentils, and instead opt for root vegetables such as carrot, swede and parsnip.
- Avoid spices. There is no reason why a gut can’t tolerate spices, but the heat of a chilli or other strong spices may cause loose stools before you become used to them. You may be advised to steer clear of spicy foods when you’re undergoing chemotherapy or radiotherapy but it can often be down to what you’re used to, especially if you’ve always eaten a spicy diet.
- Watch fat intake. If you start adding a lot more oil, butter or cheese to your diet, or eat a very rich meal, you may find that the change in fat levels triggers short-term diarrhoea.
- Cut back on dried fruits. The same may happen if you suddenly start incorporating dried fruits. Although great foods for us to eat, they still contain a concentrated dose of sugar – the increase in sugar levels, like the fat increase, can unsettle the gut.
- Avoid dairy products temporarily. When you are recovering from diarrhoea or a sickness bug, the body can become temporarily intolerant and therefore doesn’t like dealing with dairy. Cut out dairy products for a few days, until you begin to feel better.
- Take probiotics. The exception to this non-dairy rule is usually live probiotic yoghurt, as these contain natural bacteria such as lactobacillus and Bifida which may help you recover from diarrhoea. This is especially a good idea if you have had to take antibiotics, as the antibiotic frequently strips out all the good bacteria from the gut at the same time as zapping the bad ones. Having a small pot of live probiotic yoghurt each day for a couple of weeks at least can help re-colonise the guts with healthy bacteria. You could also consider taking a probiotic supplement as this can also help you recover more quickly from diarrhoea-causing bugs and improve your ability to digest food.
- Eat pectin-rich fruit. Although too many fresh fruits are hard for an unsettled gut to deal with, pectin - a form of soluble fibre found in fruits and vegetables, especially apples, carrots and bananas, plus rice - can help to reduce diarrhoea by absorbing water and important minerals in the bowel. So you could try a raw carrot stick or some apple still with its skin on; grate them if it makes eating easier.
- If you suspect food poisoning it’s best to keep to water only or simple dry foods, like rice cakes, plain dry toast and plain rice. See your doctor if you are worried or already undergoing treatment. As you start to feel a little better, then opt for a rice cake or two, some freshly cooked rice, dry toast or a mashed banana. Another staple is a little mashed potato, but don’t add any oil or butter.
- Diarrhoea can cause severe dehydration, so it’s essential to keep your fluid levels topped up. Sip regularly at water and other drinks, rather than trying to take a large glass in one go.
For more information on a nourishing healthy diet, see Nutrition Basics.