Running to the toilet with diarrhea is no fun, and in some cases can be a serious health concern. Diarrhea sidelines the average U.S. adult about once a year—although if you have food sensitivities or suffer from certain conditions, you may get it more often. What can you do about it, and can any foods help or hurt? That depends, says David Katz, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University and a member of EatingWell's advisory board. He says nutrition can sometimes be the fix, but not always. Read on for the scoop on runny poop.
- Acute diarrhea lasts only a few days. Food poisoning is often the culprit, although other things—the flu, parasites, even some antibiotics and other medicines—can send you racing for the nearest bathroom. If you're visiting a place where the food or water is contaminated, you may get struck with travelers' diarrhea (so long, sightseeing selfies!), even though people who live there are unaffected.
- Chronic diarrhea lasts four weeks or longer. It can be a sign of something more serious, like Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, celiac disease or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). If you're experiencing chronic diarrhea, talk to your health care provider (see "When to See a Doctor" below).
Besides having runny, watery poop, you may feel cramping, stomach pain or nausea. Depending on the cause, you may have a fever or chills.
What to Eat
Most likely, you aren't going to feel like eating much—who wants to eat after feeling trapped on the throne? With acute diarrhea, the key is getting over whatever caused the problem in the first place, which usually means waiting things out. "Food isn't the solution," Katz says.
Once you are ready to try food, go easy. For years, many experts recommended the BRAT diet (bananas, rice, applesauce and toast)—all soft, bland foods once touted as easy on kids' tummies. Research shows, though, that while it probably won't hurt you, the BRAT diet won't help much, either. "There's not much evidence to support it," Katz says.
If you have chronic diarrhea, what you eat—and don't eat—can help. "Adjusting your diet will make the biggest difference in chronic diarrhea," Katz says. Cut out foods you may be sensitive to, like milk or nuts, for a while, and then gradually add them back. Your doctor may suggest keeping a "diarrhea diary" to track which foods seem to trigger your symptoms.
You may want to consider probiotics—foods with "good" bacteria that some research suggests may help prevent diarrhea. Probiotics are sometimes used to treat irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and other chronic digestive conditions. You can find them in dairy foods like yogurt and aged cheeses, and in nondairy foods like sauerkraut, kimchi and tempeh. They're also available as supplements. Check with your doctor first, though, before trying probiotics in any form.
What to Avoid
Once your appetite returns, be kind to your stomach! Use common sense and avoid high-fiber foods like beans, raw vegetables or fresh fruits like apples or peaches—they can be hard on your system. Alcohol, caffeine and dairy products can all make diarrhea worse, so nix the cocktails, coffee and ice cream while your stomach recovers. Ditto for greasy or spicy foods.
Finally, beware of hidden culprits. Diet sodas, sugarless gum and candy made with artificial sweeteners like sorbitol may trigger an unexpected trip to the toilet.
What to Drink
Sip water—lots of it—to replace the fluids you're losing out the other end. How do you know if you're drinking enough? Use the pee test. In general, you should pee about every three hours, and the urine should be a pale straw color. "If you don't need to pee or if your pee is dark, you need to drink more," Katz says. Just about any food will help replace lost electrolytes, but if you don't feel like eating, he recommends drinking something with sodium and potassium, like a sports drink. Soft drinks are OK, too, as long as they're caffeine-free, although they aren't a great choice from a nutrition standpoint.
When to See a Doctor
Get medical help right away if you have diarrhea along with a fever or severe stomach pain, or if you feel too sick to drink anything. You want to rule out any serious problems like diverticulitis (an inflammation or infection in the colon) or appendicitis, says Katz. Otherwise, see your doctor if you don't start to feel better in a day or two. If you have chronic diarrhea for more than three or four weeks, call your doc.
Diarrhea is no fun, but here's the good news: It usually clears up on its own in a few days. Give yourself time to rest and recover, and your poo problems will soon be, well, behind you.