Diarrhea is a condition affecting millions daily and is an extremely bothersome, often chronic condition that not only weakens the entire body, but carries with it psychological and sociological issues and understandably a source of embarrassment when out of control.
There are dozens of prescription and over-the-counter medications which can help alleviate diarrhea, but if the condition persists for more than 48 hours, it may be the result of several different and more serious issues and lead to dehydration and electrolyte imbalances – which can even be life threatening in children, the aged, the sick and those with weakened immune systems. In 2009 diarrhea caused the death of 1.1 million people over the age of five. Therefore recognizing and treating them will be detailed further here, but first, some definitions.
The World Health Organization defines diarrhea as the frequent passing of loose, watery stools, 3 or more times a day, usually lasting 1 or 2 days. Although diarrhea is a common ailment and does not necessarily indicate a serious condition, in the event that symptoms last for more than 48 hours, medical attention might be required to resolve both the diarrhea itself and its attendant symptoms.
Diarrhea is typically not considered a disease, but rather a symptom of a latent disorder. As food passes through the digestive organs, water is absorbed by the wall of the large intestine. Diarrhea occurs when water is not reabsorbed into the intestines, but instead eliminated with the stool, causing fecal matter to become loose. Depending on the age, health, and medical condition of the individual, diarrhea can develop into a serious problem. In populations such as the very young or the elderly, or in diabetics, diarrhea can incur serious consequences in addition to the disruption of electrolyte levels, including semi-starvation and acidosis, a condition that causes acid levels in the blood to abnormally rise.
Types of Diarrhea
Secretory diarrhea: includes a dramatic rise in fluids while fluid absorption diminishes. In this double whammy, the body also eliminates essential salts and minerals further compromising immunity.
Osmotic diarrhea: is a state where too much water is drawn into the bowels as a result of celiac disease emanating from the pancreas; also some laxatives or the ingestion of too much magnesium or vitamin C (from lactose) can lead to this condition.
Exudative diarrhea: happens with the presence of blood and pus in the stool, a symptom associated with inflammatory bowel diseases , like Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis or from the dreaded E. coli food poisoning.
Motility-related diarrhea: takes place when food moves too rapidly through the intestines and not given enough time for essential nutrients to be properly absorbed. This happens after a vagotomy (nerve replacement), from diabetic neuropathy or during the onset of menstruation.
Inflammatory diarrhea: is a result of damage to the mucosal lining, leading to a passive loss or protein rich fluids and a diminished ability to absorb lost fluids. Bacterial, viral and parasitic infections, as well as inflammatory bowel diseases can be many of the root causes.
Causes of Diarrhea
Diarrhea is caused by a myriad of conditions, which can include bacterial infections acquired through food poisoning, or infections such as Giardia, which are induced by ingesting water contaminated with fecal matter. Food intolerances, allergic reactions to certain ingredients in foods, caffeine , alcoholic drinks, rancid foods, unripe fruits, certain beans, and an inability to digest certain artificial sweeteners such as xylitol, sorbitol, and mannitol can cause diarrhea. In addition to these causal factors diarrhea can also result from lactose intolerance , incomplete food digestion, reactions to blood pressure medications, heart medications, cancer medications and antibiotics, as well as intolerance to substances such as the magnesium found in antacids. Diarrhea can also be the result of more serious primary conditions such as colitis or irritable bowel syndrome, both of which are frequently diagnosed IBSs.
Symptoms of Diarrhea
Diarrhea causes a variety of symptoms, which may include cramping, bloating , abdominal or rectal pain, nausea, fever, or bloody stool. In the event one’s stool appears dark or black or shows traces of mucus, one should consult their physician or health care provider to ensure that there isn’t a more serious underlying condition that requires immediate attention. Dehydration, which is the most frequent symptom of prolonged diarrhea, induces symptoms such as thirst, dry mouth, reduced urination, dry or wrinkled skin, light-headedness and fatigue . In the event one is suffering these symptoms, it is recommended to consult a health care provider immediately.
Treatment of Diarrhea
Diarrhea in mild cases can be treated by increasing one’s intake of liquids and letting the body naturally dispose of poisons, bad bacteria, and toxins. In this situation, frequent treatment courses suggest refraining from taking medications for approximately two days, while the first day should be devoted to resting the bowels and restricting one’s caloric intake to fluids only. Some drinks to consider are water, carrot juice, carob drink, aloe vera juice, and hot herb-teas like green tea, raspberry leaves, blackberry root, slippery elm bark, ginger for cramps, and Pau d’ arco tea. Specific foods such as brown rice are also recommended, which can help bind the feces and also offer B vitamins. Consuming foods that are high in fiber is also a frequent suggestion. Typically it is advised to avoid dairy products because they can antagonize the bowels, aggravating diarrhea and potentially causing a loss of necessary enzymes to digest lactose. Limiting one’s intake of fats , greasy foods, sweets, wheat, gluten, rye, oats and barley is recommended. As one’s condition improves, adding soft, bland foods such as bananas, boiled potatoes, toast, crackers, baked chicken without the skin and cooked carrots is also suggested.
Diarrhea that is chronic may indicate an infection, an allergic reaction, or the presence of parasites. Allergy testing and a stool sample can be taken by a doctor to determine if these causes are present. If severe rectal or abdominal pain is being experienced or in the event one shows signs of dehydration or bloody or black or tarry stools, it may indicate a more serious condition. In the event one develops a fever in excess of 101 degrees, suffers from reduced urination – or if the condition lasts for more than 2 days – it is suggested a physician be consulted immediately.
© H.I.C Digestive Health 2011
[i] NIH (nddic) publication, No. 07-2749, National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse.
[ii] Wohl, M.G. MD & Goodhart, R. S. MD, D.M.S., Modern Nutrition in Health and Disease – Dietotherapy.
[iii] Wohl, M.G. MD & Goodhart, R. S. MD, D.M.S., Modern Nutrition in Health and Disease – Dietotherapy.
[iv] NIH (nddic) publication, No. 07-2749, National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse.
[v] Balch, James F. M.D., & Balch, Phyllis A. C.N.C., Prescription for Nutritional Healing.
[vi] Wohl, M.G. MD & Goodhart, R. S. MD, D.M.S., Modern Nutrition in Health and Disease – Dietotherapy.
[vii] Kadans, Joseph M. N.D., Ph.D., Encyclopedia of Medicinal HERBS.
[viii] Kadans, Joseph M. N.D., Ph.D., Encyclopedia of Medicinal HERBS.
[ix] Kadans, Joseph M. N.D., Ph.D., Encyclopedia of Medicinal HERBS.