Food Poisoning: Causes and Remedies

First World Wide Rights to Let’s Live Magazine, 2004

More than 5,000 Americans die every year from food poisoning. Airport security has received lots of press attention in the past few years, but perhaps we should be paying closer attention to our food and water supply. Admittedly, the people that die from food poisoning are usually in the under 5 and over 65 year old crowds. Nevertheless, a nice case of E. coli, Salmonella or Shigella can definitely keep you housebound for a week or so. Food poisoning is often due to one of these bacteria, but viral infections, such as the Norwalk virus, are increasingly common. The “stomach flu” is the most common cause of infectious diarrhea in the US and viral epidemics are spread through contaminated food or water.

The number one bacterial culprit in food poisoning is E. coli O157:H7 (the code for the major infectious “strain”). It is the most common cause of bloody diarrhea, and has a bovine reservoir. In plain English, that means it occurs in undercooked beef, particularly ground beef. E. coli O157:H7 can also be transmitted through the oral-fecal route (translation: poopy diapers and inadequate hand-washing). E. coli infection generally becomes symptomatic within 24 hours of ingesting the contaminated beef and typically begins with severe abdominal cramps and watery diarrhea that may quickly become bloody. Other symptoms include lack of appetite, vomiting, nausea, generally feeling bad and a fever. The water stools may last 1 to 8 days. Any symptoms beyond 8 days require immediate medical attention because occasionally E. coli infections progress to bleeding diseases, which can be fatal, particularly in the elderly, children or immuno-compromised patient. So-called traveler’s diarrhea, or “Turista,” is usually caused by E. coli O157:H7 lurking on the improperly rinsed toothbrush, in ice cubes made with local water or on food prepared with local water.

While very annoying, and occasionally fatal, food poisoning in an otherwise healthy person is usually self-limiting. This means treatment is not necessary except it is crucial to replace fluids and electrolytes lost through the water stools. There are also a number of simple measures you can take to reduce the duration and severity of the infection. First, figure out what you have. If the main symptom of watery or even bloody diarrhea is accompanied by sharp, unrelenting pain in the lower right part of your abdomen, and you have your appendix, please go to an emergency room to make sure your appendix isn’t on the verge of bursting. Also, cramps and loose stools after eating is a classic sign of lactose intolerance, and other food intolerances. Carefully review what you have eaten in the past 24 hours. Food poisoning can show up in strange ways. Recently someone I know became severely ill for a week after drinking water from a well into which a disoriented owl had flown into, and drowned.

Once you have determined you have eaten contaminated food or consumed suspect water, and your day is shot because you can’t go anywhere, call your mom or your best friend and get them to bring you bottled water and electrolytes. Ideally you would not do anything at all to stop the diarrhea for 24-48 hours. This is your body’s valiant attempt to expel the infection.

The take-home message here is that you will probably survive unscathed, but be vigilant about rehydrating. This means drinking clean water with electrolytes (basic minerals such as sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium, magnesium). You must replace lost fluids and electrolytes.

I’m not a big fan of sports drinks colored with artificial dyes and sweetened with corn syrup. Look for something more natural: Miracle Sports Water by Alacer is a great choice (Nicole, does GNC have a good “Gatorade” type drink?). You can get the electrolytes in packets to make up a gallon there are 5 packets in the little bright green box called “Electro Mix”. Drink 1/2 gallon daily for several days beyond the housebound diarrhea days.

If you can handle a short fast (24 hours of electrolyte water only) your digestive system would appreciate that. If not, here’s a sample menu for the first few “acute” days of food poisoning:

  • Breakfast: brown rice cereal (3-4 tablespoons GROUND or crushed rice in 2 cups water, stir continuously over heat until it becomes a cooked mash) with 1-2 teaspoons olive or flax oil.

  • Snack: raw grated apple or unsweetened applesauce. Green or black tea.

  • Lunch: veggie broth, simmering any or all in plenty of water: celery, parsley, zucchini, squash, pumpkin, carrot, potatoes, garlic. Blenderize and add 1-2 tsp. of olive or flax oil.

  • Snack: see “Snack” above.

  • Dinner: see “Lunch” above.

  • Please AVOID meat, nuts, legumes, sugar in any form, cold food, oranges, refined/processed foods, spicy/fried/fatty/”rich” foods, alcohol, caffeine and gluten (wheat is the most irritating to a troubled digestive system) for several days, even if you’re on vacation!

Basic Remedies for Food Poisoning

One of my favorite classic herbal combinations for gastrointestinal distress is called “Robert’s Formula” and contains Marshmallow, Geranium, Echinacea, Goldenseal, Hibiscus, Slippery elm and Phytolacca (a potent herb useful for promoting expulsion of bacterial infections through the lymphatic system). Another effective tea remedy is Chamomile with caraway and fennel seeds, equal part. Put 2 teaspoons of this mix per cup of boiling water and drink 2 cups several times daily. Be sure, when the episode of loose stools and feeling yucky resolves, to replace the healthy bacteria (flora) that live in your intestines. Look for a good acidophilus plus bifido bacterium product and take this according to the instructions on the label for at least 10 days. A month would be better. Consider, additionally, taking digestive enzymes with meals for the week after your food poisoning episode resolves. This will help get you back on track with proper digestive function. I particularly like a mixed enzyme product that contains protease (to digest protein), amylase (to digest carbohydrates), lipase (to digest fats) and cellulase (to digest fiber).

A few other basic remedies to alleviate the symptoms and expedite healing follow:

  1. Activated Charcoal

    Take 2 caps 2 to 3 times daily for up to a week. Activated charcoal is readily available in most pharmacies or grocery stores, and certainly in health food stores. It is not anti-microbial, but will help absorb the toxins created by the intestinal infection. It also helps to absorb the not-so-lovely odors that sometimes accompany rectal evacuations.

  2. Goldenseal (Hydrastis Canadensis)

    Take 20 drops of tincture or glycerite twice daily, or 3-4 caps twice daily. Goldenseal is one of the best disinfectants of mucous membranes. Your entire digestive tract, along with the lining of the bladder and the eyes, is a mucous membrane. This versatile herb is very bitter, so I prefer the glycerite form, especially for use with children.

  3. Mint (Mentha Piperita)

    Drink 3 to 4 cups of strong tea daily or take 2-3 enteric-coated caps of mint oil twice daily. The common mint, distinguishable from other herbs by its square, not rounded, stem, not only tastes delightful, but also is antispasmodic (soothes cramps), anti-emetic (reduces nausea and vomiting) and carminative (aides digestion). Almost always available, mint is also cooling so can help bring down a fever, even when taken as a hot tea.

  4. Slippery elm (Ulmus Fulvus)

    Slippery elm can be found in many herbal teas and throat lozenges. It is also available as a loose herb in most health food stores, or you may find it in capsule form. Take up to 8 capsules daily for a few days, or drink 3-4 cups of tea brewed with 1 tablespoon of herb to 1 cup boiling water. Slippery elm is very soothing to an irritated digestive system (and throat).

  5. Marshmallow (Althea Officinalis)

    Marshmallow is a relative of the Hibiscus flower. The powdered root was once used in a paste mixed with sugar to become a confection called “marshmallows” although the modern day white gooey blob contains none of the original herb. Marshmallow is soothing and healing to the stomach and intestines, and also increases immunity by stimulating white blood cell production. You will most likely find Althea in a tincture or capsule form in a good health food store and use double the recommended (maintenance) dose on the label for 2-3 days.

Homeopathic Remedies for Food Poisoning

The top five Homeopathic remedies for food poisoning include:

  1. Arsenicum: nausea, vomiting and diarrhea caused by spoiled food, especially bad meat, watery fruit or rancid fats; you cannot bear sight of food; you are worst about midnight.

  2. Antimonium: eruptive diarrhea; vomiting in any position, except lying on right side; nausea, retching and vomiting, esp. after food, with deathly faintness and need to rest completely; you are thirsty for cold water.

  3. Bryonia: every motion aggravates the pain and diarrhea; pains shoot from abdomen into the chest. Think of this remedy if the food poisoning was caused by contaminated fruit and you want to lie completely still to prevent cramping.

  4. Ipecac: given for constant nausea and vomiting (of food, bile, blood, mucus) with severe pains in the abdomen, radiating to all sides; swelling of stomach; flatulent; diarrhea with pain; you are not thirsty.

  5. Phosphorus: cutting, burning pains in the stomach; severe pressure in the stomach after eating food, then vomiting; unquenchable thirst; a weak, empty “gone” sensation in the whole abdomen.