“In confirmed diarrhoea, vomiting, when it comes on spontaneously, removes the diarrhoea.”
Hippocrates may have been the “father of medicine,” but his thoughts on diarrhea were decidedly wrong. His words do illustrate, however, that mankind has been dealing with this unpleasant ailment for millennia. Indeed, one of the great equalizers of the human experience is diarrhea. It happens to the best of us!
We’ve all been in those uncomfortable situations when the feeling starts; perhaps sitting on the couch, watching a show—or worse, being out and about and living your life … and then an internal gurgling sensation starts to come from deep inside. You might think at first it’s just indigestion or some momentary wave of discomfort. But then suddenly you’re keenly aware that it’s not a passing feeling. Then it becomes a mad race to the bathroom, and you just hope it isn’t already occupied.
Yes, diarrhea can be a major disruption in your daily life. Sometimes it seemingly creeps up without warning, and you’re not sure why. So what is happening to your body? And what do you do about it?
What is Diarrhea?
So what precisely is diarrhea? While there are gradations and degrees of severity, diarrhea is defined as a gastrointestinal condition with loose or watery stools. Essentially any time you pass stool that isn’t fully formed or solid, it can be categorized as diarrhea.
If you have the condition for a short time—say one or two days for example—it would be considered acute diarrhea; this type tends to resolve itself after enough time. If your diarrhea lasts more than a few days, it could be an indicator of a deeper problem. If it lasts for weeks or continues to be a problem on a regular, recurring basis, then it would be considered chronic diarrhea.
It’s also worth noting what diarrhea is not, since there are a number of other gastrointestinal conditions and sensations that people may confuse or conflate with diarrhea. Here are a few other symptoms which may accompany diarrhea but are different and can happen independently of diarrhea:
- Rectal urgency: the sensation of having a sudden strong urge for a bowel movement
- Incontinence: being unable to control bowel movements or to delay them until a toilet is available
- Having a bowel movement directly following a meal
- Rectal tenesmus: the sensation of having an incomplete bowel movement
Why Does Diarrhea Develop?
When diarrhea begins to be a problem, it’s natural to wonder something along the lines of: what did I eat? Do I have food poisoning? The truth is that there are a number of possible explanations for what can cause diarrhea. Some incidences of diarrhea can be environmental—in other words, external factors like diet or infection—and some can be related to genetics.
In practical terms, diarrhea happens when there is a larger-than-normal amount of water in the stool. When your digestive tract is operating under normal, healthy circumstances, food that has been processed by the stomach and small intestine—with assistance from the gallbladder, pancreas, and liver—then proceeds to the colon; in the colon, water is absorbed from the remaining waste matter until a solid stool is formed. But if not enough water is absorbed, or if the processed food moves through the gastrointestinal tract too quickly, the stool won’t be solid and it will be passed in a loose or watery form.
There are a variety of possible reasons why the colon might not be absorbing enough water or why the digested food is moving too quickly through the intestines, but here are some of the most common causes:
- Ingesting food or water that has been contaminated by bacteria
- Ingesting food or water that has been contaminated by parasites
- Inflammatory bowel diseases (IBDs) that affect the gastrointestinal tract
- Viruses like norovirus, rotavirus, or the flu
- Sensitivities or intolerances to certain types of foods—a classic example is lactose intolerance
- Some medicines, including cancer drugs, antibiotics, or magnesium-containing antacids
Lifestyle Dos and Don’ts When You Have Diarrhea
There are some more serious possible causes of diarrhea, and if it lasts more than a few days, you should consult a gastroenterologist for a comprehensive exam. But for the vast majority of people, this affliction is mild and temporary, and it will resolve itself eventually.
But if you can safely rule out one of the more serious conditions, then it’s helpful to know some basic dos and don’ts to treat diarrhea when you’ve been experiencing the symptoms:
- Hydrate: since one of the fundamental issues with diarrhea is the lack of absorption of water in the colon, this means that your body is not getting all the water it needs for regular, healthy functioning. So it is vitally important to stay hydrated when you have diarrhea.
- Eat properly: there are definitely foods that are a better idea for your gastrointestinal system when you have diarrhea. One of the best choices is the so-called “BRAT diet,” which consists of bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast; these choices will help solidify your stool. You can also turn to boiled potatoes, oatmeal, or chicken soup for some other healthy choices.
- Consider probiotics: probiotics are known as “good” bacteria—the kind of bacteria that some studies have shown to improve gastrointestinal health. You can take a probiotic supplement, but they can also be found in fermented foods like yogurt, cottage cheese, pickles, or sauerkraut.
- Utilize anti-diarrheal medications: over-the-counter medications like Imodium (which contains loperamide) or Pepto-Bismol (which contains bismuth subsalicylate) can be extremely helpful in the short term at treating the symptoms of diarrhea.
- Eat the wrong foods: especially high fiber foods should be avoided when you have diarrhea. Also, greasy, oily, or fried foods will be similarly unhelpful. Some other foods and beverages to steer clear of alcohol, coffee, berries, dairy products, and leafy green vegetables.
- Drink very hot or very cold beverages: avoid extreme temperatures to avoid nausea in addition to your diarrhea.
- Exercise strenuously: intense exercise can make your dehydration worse or even lead to greater distress in your gastrointestinal tract.
If you follow these guidelines and home remedies, your acute diarrhea should resolve itself in short order. In most circumstances for most people, your body should be able to respond well to the kinds of adjustments that will encourage your digestive system to function better.
When Should I Contact a Doctor?
It is important for general gastrointestinal health to be mindful of your bowel habits and note any changes over time. If you have tried the methods above and still have symptoms after a week, you should consider seeking out a gastroenterologist. These specialists are specifically trained to diagnose and treat all manner of bowel health issues. It is also important to note that children and infants are much more prone to dehydration and diarrhea should be reported to their pediatrician. Chronic diarrhea in children could be a symptom of a number of GI conditions. The pediatric department of GI Associates is specially trained to diagnose and treat children and infants.
Some additional symptoms to look out for include blood or pus in loose stools, severe abdominal pain, stool that is black or tar-like, fever greater than 102 degrees, or signs of dehydration. These symptoms may in fact point to a more extensive problem, and your doctor can work with you to determine what other conditions may be at work.
What to Do About Nutrition When You Have Diarrhea
If you are concerned about your diarrhea symptoms—or about your digestive health in general—make an appointment to see a specialist. The professional doctors and staff at the GI Associates Endoscopy Center are experts in bowel health and will provide excellent medical advice.