Diarrhea is a common type of gastrointestinal upset or infection. It causes frequent and excessive discharging of the bowels in the form of abnormally watery stools and stomach pains. If you or one of your children has recently developed diarrhea, the first question you’re likely asking is “Can you tell me how to stop diarrhea fast?”
If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms described above, you might be affected by an acute case of diarrhea. Acute diarrhea lasts one or two weeks while you’re temporarily sick. Or you might have chronic diarrhea, which persists for longer than several weeks. You have diarrhea is you have very loose or watery stools three or more times within 24 hours.
Believe it or not, acute diarrhea can be one of your body’s best defense mechanisms against a temporary infection or virus. Although they’re uncomfortable and unpleasant to deal with, short-term diarrhea symptoms help rapidly expel harmful substances out of your GI tract before they have a chance to cause even more trouble or complications. (1)
Chronic diarrhea symptoms, on the other hand, are a bit different. They tend to come and go depending on other dietary and lifestyle factors. This includes the state of your immune system and the level of stress you’re dealing with.
Research shows that chronic/persistent diarrhea occurs in approximately 3 percent of people traveling to developing countries (also known as traveler’s diarrhea). Acute diarrhea is usually easy to treat without medication or serious intervention.
However, chronic diarrhea is more problematic. It can cause dehydration and nutrient deficiencies if it isn’t properly addressed. (3) What causes chronic diarrhea? Digestive diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, SIBO (a disorder of the small intestine) and ulcerative colitis often cause chronic diarrhea.
The good news is there are several steps you can take to naturally treat both types of diarrhea. Below you’ll learn about steps you can take to thicken your stool, rehydrate and overcome symptoms of diarrhea.
Diarrhea is a natural reaction to dehydration, infection or toxins that need to be expelled from the digestive system. Examples include certain types of bacteria, parasites, food allergies or other microbes. One of the risks associated with diarrhea is that it can make you even more dehydrated and ill if you’re already sick. This is because it makes the body lose too much water and minerals, including electrolytes like sodium, too quickly.
If you’re not already familiar with symptoms that are typical of diarrhea, here are the most common:
- Frequent bowel movements, including going to the bathroom more than one to two times daily
- Watery feces, or “loose” stools
- Abdominal pains, cramping and sometimes stomach bloating
- Sometimes nausea and vomiting
- Stomach pains and sometimes loss of appetite, trouble eating enough and/or weight loss
- Increased thirst, due to losing more water than usual when going to the bathroom frequently
- Sometimes symptoms of a fever depending on what’s causing diarrhea (such as an infection or illness)
- Symptoms of dehydration, which can include weakness, brain fog, upset stomach, dizziness and blood pressure changes
The key to learning how to stop diarrhea symptoms once they’ve started, and also preventing them returning in the future, depends on the underlying causes of the condition. Diarrhea can develop for various reasons, including dehydration, illnesses or food poisoning. Children, infants, adults and the elderly may all develop diarrhea for different reasons. This includes difficulty digesting foods properly, leaky gut syndrome, emotional stress linked to IBS, or not drinking enough water.
What causes watery diarrhea in adults most often? Causes and risk factors for diarrhea in adults include: (4)
- Bacterial infection. This can be passed from person to person, or picked up from contaminated surfaces.
- Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), which means that due to an imbalance of good and bad bacteria in the small intestine the body can’t digest and absorb nutrients properly.
- Food allergies, such as lactose intolerance (a type of sugar found in dairy). Experts believe that lactose intolerance is one of the most common reasons both children and adults suffer from diarrhea, especially when it’s chronic. What’s tricky about lactose intolerance is that it might not start until your adult years, or emerge due to hormonal changes like pregnancy.
- Drinking contaminated water, which can contain parasites, bacteria, etc.
- Food poisoning, due to eating a food contaminated with some type of harmful microbe.
- Dehydration (not drinking enough water or losing too much water from vomiting/illnesses or other causes).
- Poor digestion and related conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), or autoimmune diseases like Crohn’s disease.
- Overeating or drinking lots of liquids too quickly.
- Eating too much unripe or overripe fruit.
- Eating too much greasy food that is difficult to digest properly.
- Excessive caffeine or alcohol consumption, which can lead to dehydration and indigestion.
- Emotional stress and anxiety.
- Due to side effects of taking certain medications, especially antacids. Experts think that antacids are the most common cause of drug-related diarrhea because they contain magnesium, which can make stool too watery. If you take these meds to control acid reflux symptoms, it’s best to try and tackle the underlying causes of indigestion. Or if you must take medications, try those that don’t contain magnesium and lower your dose. Motility medications — medications to help stimulate the intestines in order to relieve constipation — may result in diarrhea.
- Other supplements and medications including antibiotics, quinidine, lactulose and colchicine can also cause diarrhea. Taking too much vitamin C and magnesium in supplement form can do the same. (5)
And what is the cause of diarrhea most often in children and infants? Causes can include: (6)
- Rotavirus, also known as viral gastroenteritis or stomach flu, which is the most common cause of diarrhea in children ages 2 and younger. However, viral gastroenteritis can also affect adults.
- Food allergies, including an allergy to milk (lactose intolerance) or other common culprits like peanuts, eggs, etc.
- Reactions to formula, or sometimes from breastfeeding if the mother consumed something that is hard to digest.
- Not consuming enough liquids, or consuming too much (such as juice).
- Bacterial infection, such as from touching dirty surfaces, toys, or other people and then putting their hands into their mouths. Infants in day care centers have been found to have a higher risk of contracting bacteria that can cause intestinal infections that lead to diarrhea.
- Taking antibiotics, which can cause changes in the gut/digestive system due to killing off healthy bacteria.
Remember that it’s normal for infants and babies to have bowel movements that are softer than those of adults. Their stool might also become different colors at times and their bowel movements may happen more than once daily (especially in infants), but this usually isn’t cause for concern. Talk to your doctor if your baby’s diarrhea lasts for more than several days, especially if you also notice signs of dehydration like: fewer wet diapers, dry eyes when crying, dry mouth, sunken eyes or lethargy, an usual foul odor in three or more diarrhea stools, rectal bleeding or blood in the stool, or severe diarrhea while taking antibiotics. (7) Babies with diarrhea may also have a fever, seem very fussy, or seem disinterested in eating.
How to Stop Diarrhea: Conventional Treatments
Unless you’ve had diarrhea symptoms for more than one to two weeks, especially if you aren’t sure why they’re happening and they don’t seem to be getting any better from treatments described above, it’s usually not necessary to see a doctor. If you do decide to get a professional opinion, your doctor will likely recommend some of the following treatments for diarrhea:
- Anti-diarrheal medications: These medications, also known as anti-motility medicines, can help shut down diarrhea symptoms quickly, but this isn’t necessarily always a good thing. Because diarrhea is one of your body’s natural mechanisms for shedding toxins or microbes that have made their way into your GI tract, not allowing this “purge” to happen might mean that harmful bacteria stay inside your body longer. For this reason many doctors are now recommending that you “wait out” acute cases of diarrhea without taking anti-motility medications if you can, as long as you’re not at risk for complications and try to combat dehydration naturally.
- Following an elimination diet: If you’re suffering from chronic diarrhea symptoms, then your doctor will likely recommend you try pinpointing which foods are problematic for you to digest by following an elimination diet. This means you avoid certain foods, such as dairy products, for a given period of time to determine if symptoms get better. Once you add the suspected food back into your diet you can track whether symptoms return and then make a judgement call about whether you should avoid the food for good.
- Staying hydrated and eating light, bland foods until you feel better (more on these treatments below).
How to Stop Diarrhea Naturally: 5 Home Remedies
1. Eat Soothing Foods and Those That Are Easy To Digest
What do you eat when you have diarrhea? Here are some of the top foods that can help you stop diarrhea symptoms:
- Eat lightly — the more food you consume, the harder your digestive organs have to work. You likely won’t have too much of an appetite while you have diarrhea, so try to eat small amounts spread throughout the day.
- Simple foods that are easy to digest — stick with a diet of bland foods like simple whole grains, apples, bananas and rice the first few days. These foods are easy on the digestive system and can provide some fiber to help add bulk to stools.
- Flaxseed oil — this has been shown to reduce the duration of diarrhea.
- Fruits and vegetables — these provide water, fiber and electrolytes. Try making a smoothie or sorbet with fruit, and steaming veggies to make them easier to digest. Monitor your symptoms to make sure they don’t get worse, however, as some people react badly to too much natural sugar.
- Raw honey and ginger — some people find that a small amount of honey and ginger root added to herbal tea (see below) helps soothe their stomach and reduce irritation.
What foods cause diarrhea? The following are foods to avoid when you have acute diarrhea, or suffer from chronic symptoms that keep returning:
- Conventional Dairy — Processed dairy can be hard to digest and can make diarrhea worse. However, raw cultured dairy, such as yogurt or kefir, is high in probiotics which can support bowel function.
- Any potential allergens — As mentioned above, diarrhea can result from food allergies like gluten, nuts, shellfish and dairy. (8)
- Processed fats and oils — Too much fat can upset your sensitive stomach and make the diarrhea worse. This can include fats from packaged products with refined vegetable oils, fast foods, cheesy foods, processed meats or fried foods.
- Added sugar and artificial sweeteners — Bacteria love to eat sugar, and sugar reduces immune system and digestive functioning in many cases.
- Caffeine — Caffeine can stimulate muscles in the digestive tract, increasing bowel movements and cramping.
- Carbonated, sugar drinks
- Potentially foods with FODMAP carbohydrates, if they make your symptoms worse. Reactions vary from person to person, but problematic foods might include: pears, oats, beans/legumes, wheat, corn, soy, potatoes and any type of bran.
2. Stay Hydrated
Want to know how to stop diarrhea symptoms like dizziness or weakness that are tied to dehydration? Drinking enough water is critical when you’re losing so much in your stool. To keep dehydration symptoms from getting worse when you have diarrhea, try to drink 16 ounces of fluids about every hour. You can also get fluids through drinking homemade bone broth, which will additionally provide many nutrients you’re in need of (like amino acids and electrolytes). Herbal teas including ginger, peppermint, oat bark, licorice/fennel or pomegranate tea (non-caffeinated) may also help soothe your stomach.
Although it’s not a good solution for everyone, drinking coconut water (a natural source of electrolytes), fresh vegetable juice or sucking on homemade fruit ice pops can also be a good way to get more water and nutrients into your system. However, don’t consume too much juice, or too much liquid too quickly, if you notice this worsens the diarrhea. You can judge if you’re losing too much water by paying attention to the color of your urine, as well as how thirsty you are. If you’re not having to urinate often, but when you do your urine is very dark yellow, drink more water. Drink so that your thirst seems about normal and your urine is light yellow.
3. Get Enough Rest
Avoid too much exercise or strenuous physical activity when you’re dealing with diarrhea. Chances are you will feel weak and a bit run down and you might not be sleeping well while your symptoms persist. Give your body a chance to recover by getting enough sleep (8 hours per night or more), taking it easy, and trying to keep your stress levels down.
4. Try These Supplements
Certain supplements can help improve overall gut and digestive health, allow you to process the foods and nutrients you’re consuming more easily, and soothe an upset stomach. I recommend trying some of the following:
- Probiotics (50 billion units daily): Probiotics help fight infection and can help re-colonize the gut with healthy bacteria. These are available in supplement form and also in cultured/fermented foods.
- Digestive Enzymes (2 before each meal): These enzymes will help with nutrient absorption.
- Glutamine powder (5 grams 2x daily): Glutamine is an amino acid that helps repair the digestive tract, especially important for people with chronic diarrhea. It’s available in supplement form and also naturally in bone broth.
- Aloe Vera Juice (1/2 cup taken about 3x daily): Aloe is healing to the lining of the digestive system and easy to break down.
- Raw Sprouted Fiber from Flax and Chia seeds (2-3 tablespoons daily): Soluble fiber found in seeds can help thicken stools and reduce the frequency of diarrhea.
5. Use Essential Oils
Studies have found that peppermint essential oil can reduce bowel inflammation and soothe the digestive tract, reducing loose stools. Studies have also found that peppermint oil has active ingredients including menthol or monoterpine, which has anti-spasmotic properties due to its ability to block calcium channels within the intestinal smooth muscles. This helps stop cramping, frequent elimination and pains.
One review found that 8 out of 12 placebo-controlled studies showed statistically significant positive effects in favor of peppermint oil compared to control groups/placebo. (9) Certain studies have found that use of peppermint oil seems to be most effective in relieving abdominal pain in diarrhea in people with diarrhea-predominant irritable bowel syndrome, which is often caused by multiple factors and can be hard to treat. One double blind randomized placebo-controlled study involving 74 patients with IBS found that after six weeks of using peppermint oil three times daily, abdominal pain and quality of life was markedly improved compared with a placebo group not using peppermint. (10)
How to Stop Diarrhea in Infants and Children
Infants are especially susceptible to dehydration that can happen along with diarrhea. Plus, they’re more likely to have diarrhea due to allergies or illnesses since their immune systems aren’t yet fully developed or strong. It’s estimated that 3 percent of infants are allergic to proteins found in dairy. This includes the dairy found in most formulas, as well as dairy obtained from breast milk if the mother is consuming dairy. Symptoms to look out for that indicate a milk protein allergy include vomiting and developing a rash, in addition to diarrhea. It’s not safe to give infants or young children anti-diarrheal medications that are meant for adults. Rather, it’s recommended you try these treatment methods instead:
- Give the infant/baby more liquids that normal. Offer lots of liquids. Try to offer breast milk or a bottle with water more often; however, remember that sugary drinks like juice can make diarrhea symptoms worse, so avoid these.
- Most pediatricians now recommend trying to give infants/babies a source of electrolytes when they’re experiencing diarrhea, especially lost sodium.
- Give them probiotic foods. Cultured or fermented foods like kefir, yogurt, cultured veggies or supplements and even oral drops all contain probiotics. They help restore healthy bacteria in the digestive tract and can be useful for reducing many forms of digestive upset.
- If your baby develops skin irritation and diaper rash due to you having to change their diaper often, be very gentle. Use a washcloth and warm water to clean them, instead of wipes and lots of drying soap. Let their skin air dry. Then apply an ointment or moisture barrier for protection, like petroleum jelly or zinc oxide.
- Diarrhea should go away within one to three days if the child starts to get better. If it does not go away, call their doctor. You’ll want to rule out other health problems and make sure they aren’t suffering from an intestinal or yeast infection.
It’s usually best to try treating acute diarrhea on your own for several days, tracking if your symptoms improve with help from the recommendations above while you wait it out. However, visit your doctor if diarrhea occurs in infants or young children for more than several days in a row, the elderly, anyone who is underweight and already suffering from health problems, or someone who develops more serious symptoms including: (11)
- Blood or mucus in your stool
- Weight loss
Pay attention to signs that you’re becoming dehydrated and take steps to drink more water and obtain electrolytes. If you become dizzy, very weak or confused, then consult with your doctor to avoid complications.
- Diarrhea is a common problem that occurs when your bowel movements (or stools) become very loose, frequent and/or watery. It can be either acute (short term) or chronic, lasting more than two to three weeks.
- Diarrhea is caused by factors including food allergies, an infection or virus, dehydration, stress and certain medications.
- Natural ways to help get rid of diarrhea include drinking enough fluids, consuming bland foods and getting enough rest.