by Kris Parfitt
- The Capitol Hill Times -
Last week, I experienced a bout of sudden and violent food poisoning about an hour after eating what seemed like a healthy and safe dinner. It took about two days to recover. What is happening to the body when food poisoning hits? And what is the best way to recover quickly and with less discomfort? – Jean
Unfortunately, there isn’t a faster or less painful way to recover from food-borne illnesses. It takes time, rest, and a lot of liquids for the body to return to normal after a gastro-intestinal trauma.
Food poisoning symptoms are similar to the flu: fever, vomiting, diarrhea, and general malaise. Usually, if the discomfort is focused in the gut, it’s a foodborne illness. If an all-over body ache and headache accompany the symptoms, a virus (the flu) could be the culprit.
The general rule of thumb for food poisoning is: if it’s an ingested toxin, the symptoms are violent yet short lived, meaning they pass within 24 hours. If it’s a bacteria, it’s less violent but can last a few days. Regardless, the entire process leaves us feeling depleted, exhausted and like we’ve been hit, literally, in the gut.
The body induces a fever to kill the invading bacterial with heat. Some foodborne bacteria turns into a toxin like Bacillus Cereus Gastroenteritis, which is a plant-based food bacteria that grows on rice, pastas and other starchy foods when they are improperly cooled and stored. Another common bacteria that can develop into a toxin is Shigellosis. This bacteria is associated with ready-to-eat food items (foods that are already cooked or don’t require cooking) such as salads, sandwiches, desserts, ice, and beverages, and is found on foods handled by someone with poor personal hygiene practices, or by flies that are also landing on fecal matter, raw meat or dead carcasses.
With bacterial and toxic food poisoning the body’s eradication defense is vomiting and diarrhea. The presence of these two symptoms puts us at risk for hypernatremia (dehydration due to a loss of water) and isonatremia (dehydration due to equal loss of water and electrolytes.)
Electrolytes are salts found in extracellular fluids and help with fluid balance and blood pressure control. They are composed mainly of sodium, potassium and magnesium. When we expel fluids via vomiting or diarrhea we lose a large amount of liquids and electrolytes, which is why it’s important to stay hydrated during any bout of food-borne illness.
In order to have an appetite, the digestive juices need to be in working order. But during food poisoning they become inflamed, which causes a lack of appetite regardless of feeling hungry. After a gastrointestinal inflammation, it takes several days for the mucosa to heal and the enzymes required for digestion to return to normal working order. This is why it’s difficult to eat normal-sized solid meals for a few days after food poisoning.
The best foods to eat after the vomiting subsides is what is known as the BRAT diet – banana, rice porridge, apple sauce and dry toast. These foods are bland, easy to digest, and provide simple sugars to fuel the cells (the fruits and rice), and needed nutrients to help replace electrolytes, potassium, and magnesium (salt in the rice porridge and the banana), and offer pectin to solidify the stool (apple sauce) and replace bulk (rice and toast) and fiber (fruits).
After each expelling episode and during the recovery period, it’s essential to stay hydrated by drinking a lot of water and natural electrolyte-replacement drinks such as coconut water or an electrolyte-enriched drink such as a sports drink or water-dissolvable electrolyte tablets or powders. However, with the sports drinks and tablets or powders be wary of highly-processed sugars, flavor chemicals and food colorings, which can cause headaches, the feeling of an upset stomach, or nausea when consumed on an empty and inflamed stomach.
Chicken broth is also a good tonic when trying to absorb more nutrition, especially if it has been homemade. The minerals from chicken broth made from an actual chicken carcass is especially beneficial when our bodies are sick and inflamed.
Besides hydration and the continual attempts of nutritional absorption, the other best defense for food poisoning is rest. Sleep and staying in a prone inactive position is beneficial to recovery.
The only time that we should consider anti-expelling medication is if we absolutely cannot retain and absorb any nutrition. If after 12 hours the body is still expelling liquids up or out, consider taking an anti-nausea pill first while eating the BRAT ingredients. Allow the body to rest and sleep for a few hours. If travel is inevitable during the expelling or recovery time, consider anti-diarrheal medication. Keep in mind that the body is wired to extract any toxin or bacteria when experiencing food poisoning and that anti-expulsion medication should only be used for valid reasons (nutrition or travel) and not to suppress the inconvenience of the symptoms.
When is it time to see a medical professional? If a fever persists for a few days or hovers above 101º F, if blood is observed in vomit or diarrhea, or if dehydration causes extreme dizziness or fainting, then it’s time to visit the ER. Remember too that any recent travel adventures outside of the United States can put us at risk for hepatitis, giardia and other travel-related diseases that start out with similar symptoms.
The best prevention for food poisoning is to wash our hands whenever we use the bathroom (especially after a bowel movement), or if we have been handling items or mechanisms in a public environment. Practice proper storage, preparation, heating, and cooling procedures when cooking, and ensure that any food consumed has been prepared by an institution or person that is trained in proper food-handling practices.
Have a nutrition question for Kris? Send it to email@example.com.