Like constipation, diarrhea is something everyone has experienced: loose, watery, voluminous stools, accompanied by abdominal cramping, and frequent trips to the bathroom. Diarrhea is usually acute, lasting only a few days, but in some cases can become chronic, lasting more than a few weeks and possibly signifying a more serious condition. Persistent diarrhea can also lead to dehydration and loss of important minerals (such as salt).

When your digestive system is running smoothly, the food you've consumed travels through the GI tract as a liquid, until it hits the colon, where most of the liquid is absorbed (leaving behind a semi-solid waste). But if something happens to make the food pass too quickly through the colon (or to hinder the colon's ability to remove the liquid), you'll have watery bowel movements.

Acute diarrhea caused by infection is called gastroenteritis, which quite often is a type of foodborne illness (a.k.a. “food poisoning”) that can usually be traced to a virus. It can also be caused by some diseases (including AIDS), exposure to toxins, and by taking certain medications — most often antibiotics, which destroy both beneficial and pathogenic bacteria in your digestive tract and can set the stage for infection. Blood pressure drugs and antacid medications containing magnesium can also trigger diarrhea.

Many people have food intolerances and sensitivities that bring on an acute bout of diarrhea whenever the offending food is consumed. Some of the most common examples are lactose (in milk and other dairy products), fructose (a type of sugar), and artificial sweeteners.

Chronic diarrhea, on the other hand, can be a sign of a serious condition. See a doctor if your diarrhea lasts longer than three days or if you become dehydrated (you're feeling lightheaded and are passing dark urine), are running a fever that's higher than 102°F, have bloody or black stools, or are in severe pain.

Treatment Options

Conventional medical practitioners typically recommend OTC antidiarrheal medications such as loperamide (Imodium) and bismuth subsalicylate (Kaopectate, Pepto-Bismol). Loperamide slows the transit of fluids through your GI tract, and bismuth subsalicylate balances the fluids in your intestinal tract. If your diarrhea is being caused by an infection, a doctor might prescribe antibiotics as well.

Pectin, a type of water-soluble fiber found in many fruits, vegetables, and herbs, can be used as a stand-alone treatment for diarrhea (it seems to increase the absorption of salt and water in the GI tract). To get it as nature intended, eat lots of apples (Malus domestica).

Loperamide can cause constipation and cramping. Bismuth subsalicy-late can interact with other drugs and turn your tongue (and stools) temporarily black. Here are some herbal alternatives:

Barberry (Berberis vulgaris)

Barberry is a traditional herbal remedy for diarrhea and other digestive problems. It contains a chemical called berberine, which has proven antispasmodic, antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory power.

Cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum, C. aromaticum)

Cinnamon can be used to treat diarrhea and other types of GI distress. It contains chemicals and essential oils that have been proven to relieve diarrhea, gas, and bloating.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale)

This is a classic remedy for diarrhea that's accompanied by nausea. In the lab, it has demonstrated anticramping properties-and the ability to kill foodborne Salmonella bacteria.

Juniper (Juniperus communis)

A traditional Native American remedy for all sorts of digestive ills, including stomachaches and diarrhea, juniper contains several chemicals with antidiarrheal and antimicrobial properties.

Psyllium (Plantago ovata, P. psyllium)

Psyllium, which is typically used to treat constipation (it works as a bulkforming laxative), also fights diarrhea. Research shows it can be as effective as the drug loperamide.

Sangre de grado (Croton lechleri)

Research shows that sap of this South American tree can be effective against diarrhea caused by many types of infection.

Tea (Camellia sinensis)

Tea contains tannins and other polyphenols, which have been shown to relieve diarrhea as well as the drug loperamide.

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