Alternative Medicine Cabinet: Fight Food Poisoning

Bounce back faster with these gentle cures.
By Victoria Dolby Toews, MPH

From fine dining to take-out Thai, Americans eat out much more than they used to—an average of four times every week. Food poisoning is also on the rise—it’s second only to the common cold in how frequently it strikes. Some 76 million Americans suffer from it each year.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the four most common contaminants include Campylobacter (from undercooked poultry or raw chicken cut on a board shared with raw veggies), Salmonella (often from unwashed hands), E. coli (undercooked beef or unwashed hands), and norovirus (again, unwashed hands). Depending on which germ lurks in your food, symptoms can develop in as little as a few hours to as much as several days later.

When it comes to food poisoning, “the best thing to do is let nature take its course—as long as you don’t have bloody stools, abdominal pain, a fever, or dehydration,” says gastroenterologist Patricia Raymond, MD. Your body’s trying to evacuate the bacterial invader, she says, so bucking the system by using antidiarrheals can be counterproductive. Worse, Raymond says, “antibiotics can prolong your diarrhea.”

Drink plenty of fluids (such as water, diluted juice, or weak tea) to counteract the dehydrating effects of vomiting and diarrhea. To make your own electrolyte solution, Raymond suggests combining fresh squeezed citrus (for taste), 1 liter of water, 1 teaspoon of salt, and 4 teaspoons of sugar. Also, stock your cabinet with the following items to tame food-borne illness:

Calcium. Taking calcium supplements regularly might keep you from coming down with food poisoning in the first place. In a study published in the journal Gastroenterology, half of the 32 human volunteers consumed extra calcium daily, and all were exposed to E. coli. The calcium group recovered a full day earlier than those given a placebo. Researchers theorize that calcium increases the number of healthy bacteria in the gut and that these in turn fight off the infection-causing germs. Take 800 to 1,000 mg of calcium phosphate (a common form of calcium found in many dietary supplements) daily, separated into two equal doses.

Probiotics. When friendly bacteria take up residence along your gut wall, disease-causing bacteria have trouble finding a foothold. Numerous studies confirm that consuming foods with Lactobacillus and other friendly bacteria or taking supplements containing these good bugs makes it less likely that salmonella and other germs will make you sick. But if you do get sick, your illness will be less severe, and you’ll recover more quickly.

After a bout of diarrhea caused by food poisoning, many of your helpful bacteria have been washed out. Holly Lucille, a naturopath in Los Angeles, recommends taking at least 6 billion live organisms of various strains of probiotics daily, from either supplements (powder, capsules, tablets, liquid, or chewables) or foods such as active-culture versions of yogurt, kefir, cottage cheese, or other dairy products.

Activated charcoal. A great go-to remedy when you’re in the throes of food poisoning agony is activated charcoal. The toxins actually stick to the surface of charcoal like a magnet and stay firmly attached until they are expelled from the body in the feces. “Keep activated charcoal in your medicine cabinet in cases of food poisoning,” says Lucille. She recommends mixing 1 to 3 ounces of activated charcoal with at least 8 ounces of water. Just as with nasty germs, medicines and supplements will stick to the surface of charcoal, so don’t take any two hours before or after using charcoal—otherwise the medicines or supplements will pass through your body before they can do any good. Don’t be alarmed when activated charcoal harmlessly turns your stools black.

Ginger. This tasty herb can be very soothing to a tummy unsettled by “off ” food. According to gastroenterologist Raymond, “ginger, taken as ginger tea or beer, candied ginger chunks, or even dried in ginger snaps, may help with queasiness. It helps with nausea from motion sickness, pregnancy, and postoperative states as well.” While a number of studies demonstrate that ginger makes queasy people feel better, no one knows exactly how it works. Researchers hypothesize that ginger settles the GI tract directly (as opposed to telling the brain to not feel nauseous). Take 500 mg in capsule form every few hours as needed.