Surviving gastro: managing recovery when your whole family gets sick

Jul 6, 2022 | 0 comments

Some things in family life are unavoidable. Sadly, gastro is one of those things.

Our whole family was recently struck down by a particularly ugly case of gastro while we were away from home, visiting family, staying in an Air BnB.

Needless to say, it was quite the ordeal. Fortunately, my daughter (who is 2.5 y/o at the time) only got a mild case. But her Dad and I were totally wiped out by it, with unrelenting and intense symptoms (🤮 & 💩) for a solid 12 hours (which felt like a lifetime).

Luckily, thanks to my training and clinical experience, I knew what strategies to put into place so we all survived the experience unscathed and recovered well without any complications. And I want to share this info with you.

This article will cover:

  • What is gastro?
  • Managing gastro symptoms
    • Prevention
    • Acute symptoms – hydration strategies, food
    • Post-gastro recovery – food, probiotics, herbs
  • Building a gastro survival kit
  • When to seek help

What is gastro?

Gastro, or gastroenteritis, is an infection of the digestive tract that is most commonly caused by a virus, for example rotavirus or norovirus, or less commonly by bacteria or parasites. Gastro is the most common cause of childhood diarrhoea and accounts for a large portion of hospitalisations in children each year.  

Common signs and symptoms of gastro include:

  • Feeling unwell, sick or nauseous
  • Vomiting – typically starts within 24-48 hours of infection
  • Diarrhoea – can last for up to 10 days depending on the infection
  • Stomach pain
  • Fever 

Managing gastro

Like common respiratory infections, it’s almost inevitable that your family will be hit with a bout of gastro at some point, especially if your little ones are in a daycare or school setting.

Being armed with the tools to prevent (where possible), treat, and then recovery from these acute gut infections is an essential part of being a parent.

Here are some practical ways to support yourself and your littles using simple, everyday food, lifestyle, and supplemental strategies.

Prevention

Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could simply prevent our kids from bringing home all.the.bugs?

Obviously, this is a fantasy, but it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t attempt to control the spread and teach our kids about good hygiene. At the very least, this can help to reduce the frequency of illnesses and spreading bugs around the family.

Gastro bugs, in particular, spread very easily through the air, from person to person contact, from contaminated foods or drinks, or from contact with contaminated objects, for example, surfaces in the kitchen or bathroom, toys, cups and bottles, cutlery, or furniture.

To minimise the spread of gastro bugs, especially if there is an active bug in your family, ensure that:

    • Everyone in the family is washing their hands regularly with warm and soapy water, especially after using the toilet or before eating
    • You wash your hands before feeding your child
    • Everyone uses separate cutlery, utensils, plates, cups, and drink bottles
    • You wash your hands after changing nappies
    • You regularly clean potentially contaminated surfaces or objects with warm water and disinfecting solutions
    • If your child has gastro, try to isolate them from others to prevent the spread of bugs to your other kids, other children, or yourself – if possible, keep them at home until their vomiting and/or diarrhoea has passed
    • You cover or dispose of vomit immediately to prevent airborne spread of bugs

 

Managing acute symptoms

Preventing dehydration

One of the major concerns with gastro, particularly younger children or babies, is the high risk of dehydration. With frequently loose stools and/or vomiting and reduced intake of foods and drinks, the loss of fluids for their small bodies quickly adds up.

Look out for these signs and symptoms that your child (or you) may be becoming dehydrated:

    • Dry mouth, lips, and/or tongue
    • Not passing urine or has dry nappies, or very dark yellow urine
    • Eyes appear sunken
    • Hand and feet are cold, or their body may even be slightly sweaty
    • Appears more sleepy than usual
    • May appear drowsy
    • Restless, lethargic, and/or irritable

Signs of dehydration required immediate medical care.

Hydration strategies

Since dehydration is one of the main concerns for kids with gastro, our primary supportive strategy during the most acute phase of their illness is to maintain fluid intake and provide rehydrating remedies where needed.

Alongside the loss of fluids in diarrhoea or vomiting, we also get the loss of vital micronutrients and electrolytes such as sodium, potassium, magnesium, chloride, and calcium. These minerals are required to maintain many body processes such as the contraction of the heart and other muscles, as well as for the regulation of brain and nerve activity, among countless other important functions.

Water alone is not as effective at rehydrating as electrolyte containing drinks.

To maintain hydration & electrolytes and encourage fluid intake, try these strategies:

    • Drink clear fluids – water, herbal teas, broth, or electrolyte solutions
    • Continue to breastfeed your baby as per your normal routine, offer on demand if you don’t already
    • Make an electrolyte solution – see the two recipes below
    • Try rehydration formulas that contain glucose, sodium and potassium – these can be purchased at chemists and pharmacies. Choose a formula without any added colours – look for ‘colour free’ on the label or opt for lemonade flavour options as these are often the best choice to avoid additives.
    • Have a small drink every time you/they vomit or after every bout of diarrhoea – offer smaller sips at regular intervals, like every 15 minutes. Avoid consuming large volumes, as this may worsen nausea or trigger vomiting.
    • Use a syringe or spoons to offer fluids for little ones – this helps to ensure the amount of liquid is manageable for them.
    • Make icy-poles that they can suck on – you can add the electrolyte solution and freeze in moulds or ice cubes with sticks in them.
    • Make gut-soothing gummies or jelly – these contain a large amount of fluids and the gelatin is soothing and gentle on inflamed guts during gastro. See my gelatin gummies recipe here. You can make this recipe into more of a jelly consistency by using less gelatin.

Electrolyte solution recipes

Recipe 1

Ingredients:

  • 750mL of coconut water
  • 250mL orange juice*
  • ½ teaspoon sea salt

Directions: mix all ingredients together and take small sips (or offer your child small sips) throughout the day. Avoid consuming large volumes all at once, as this may worsen nausea or trigger vomiting. Small sips are best. 

* Opt for organic when you can access it or afford it, and choose an OJ that is 100% juice (no other additives) and not made from concentrate 

Recipe 2

Ingredients:

  • 1L filtered or boiled water
  • ½ teaspoon sea salt
  • ½ teaspoon of cream of tartar
  • 1 tablespoon sugar (try maple syrup or honey if your child is over 12 months, but any sugar will work here)
  • Juice from ½ a citrus fruit – lemon, lime, orange

Directions: mix all ingredients together and take small sips (or offer your child small sips) throughout the day. Avoid consuming large volumes all at once, as this may worsen nausea or trigger vomiting. Small sips are best.

Benefits of the ingredients:

  • Water helps with rehydration
  • Coconut water naturally contains electrolytes that might be lost in vomit or loose stools
  • Orange juice provides easily accessible carbohydrates for energy, with small amounts of electrolytes
  • Sea salt provides sodium, an important electrolyte lost in gastro fluids
  • Cream of tartar is a good source of potassium (potassium bitartrate), another electrolyte. It is a good alternative to use when you don’t have or can’t access coconut water
  • Citrus juice – promotes the absorption of the electrolytes

Food

During active gastro symptoms, it’s unlikely you or your kids will be interested in food.

When you start to recover and your interest in food returns, slowly begin to resume normal food intake as soon as possible. Research indicates that the reintroduction of food sooner, rather than later, is associated with decreased duration of illness.

However, it is important to be mindful of the types of foods you reintroduce, particularly after a more severe or intense bout of gastro because there is likely some residual damage to the digestive system after an intense infection.

This can leave our digestion more sensitive than usual and not able to process or tolerate foods that are harder to digest.

It’s not uncommon for little kids to have a bad bout of gastro that unfortunately leaves collateral digestive damage (caused by the immune system’s inflammatory response to the infection, it’s unavoidable) which leads to more complications down the line, like food intolerances, digestive symptoms (like bloating, pain, altered bowel motions), and immune system dysregulation.

The same path is possible for adults too.

A slow and mindful reintroduction of foods can be helpful to avoid this.

 

Some nutritious options for these early stages of reintroducing food might include:

Well-cooked foods – these foods are easy for a sensitive, post-infection gut to digest and break down, offering more nutritional value to support an active immune system and a healing body. For example, make one-pot soups or stews, or steam and then mash veggies like carrots, sweet potato, potatoes or pumpkin.

Green bananas (i.e. unripe bananas) have been found to reduce the severity and duration of diarrhea in children with gastro. Green bananas can be cooked and then mashed before eating. Green banana flour is available at health food stores and in the health food aisle of the supermarket, it can be added to smoothies and baking.

Bone broth – contains high amounts of micronutrients and electrolytes, as well as gelatin and collagen for healing a possibly inflamed gut lining. Use bone broth to cook veggies or make soups for combined benefits, or simply heat a small cup of broth with a pinch of sea salt and give your child small mouthfuls frequently.

Make gut-soothing gummies or jelly (see recipe here) – as they recover, you can add other ingredients to the recipe, for example, ½ cup of raspberries or blueberries.

 

Try to avoid the following where possible:

Raw vegetables, large servings of vegetables, raw nuts and seeds, or legumes – as these foods are all more difficult for the digestive system to handle and can exacerbate any post-infection discomfort

Dairy products – the enzyme lactase is needed to break down the sugar found in dairy, lactose. Cells lining the digestive tract produce lactase and, in cases of gastro, these cells can be damaged and lactase levels can decline, making the digestion of lactose-rich dairy foods difficult. This transient lactose intolerance can worsen diarrhea. Avoid large amounts of dairy until diarrhea has passed.

High sugar foods and drinks – although our body needs some sugar (glucose) in the blood to support metabolism and energy, large amounts can increase the risk of worsening dehydration when coupled with low electrolyte levels in gastro. Avoid a large intake of fruit juice, soft drinks, or cordial. Dilute fruit juices down to a ratio of around 1 part juice to 3 parts water, for example, mix 1 tablespoon of juice with ¼ cup of water or 2 tablespoons with ½ cup, etc. Avoid processed and refined foods, breakfast cereals, muesli and snack bars, and confectionaries during this healing phase.

Gluten-containing grains – whether you or your child is gluten sensitive or not, gluten can be a tough protein for any digestive system to break down and can add further inflammation to the gut in times of stress. Avoid wheat, barley, rye, spelt, and oats, and products made with these grains during this time (breakfast cereals, bread, noodles, pasta, crackers, cookies). Instead, you can have non-gluten easily-digested grains like white rice or quinoa. Many people reach for toast as a plain food in the wake of gastro, but if possible, choose one of the gentle food options before reaching for the toast. If toast is all you can manage or have on hand, then that’s fine just don’t overdo it.

Do your best, be kind to yourself

Ultimately, refueling with any food you have available is better than not refueling. In the aftermath of a bad illness that has struck everyone in the family, pulling together any food can be a challenge. So, give yourself grace and be kind to yourself. The above recommendations are not black and white, do what you can in the circumstances you find yourself in.

Probiotics

Probiotics are supplements that contains live populations of bacteria that offer our body health benefits.

There are many different probiotic products available for purchase, however, not all probiotics work in the same way – the therapeutic benefits are largely specific to the species and strain of bacteria found within the product.

In the case of gastro, the two most effective and widely researched probiotics are Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG (LGG) and Saccharomyces boulardii (SB).

LGG has been found to reduce the risk of initial infection with gastro, as well as reduce the severity and duration of diarrhea in kids with gastro (when taken prophylactically).

SB, which is actually a species of beneficial yeast, is particularly useful for the recovery stage after a gastro infection – read more below.

TIP: a product called Gastro Relief made by Ethical Nutrients, found at most pharmacies and chemists, contains a blend of both LGG and SB, and is perfect for treatment and recovery of gastro. Healing support for a period of 1-2 months might be advantageous.

Herbal medicine

There is a great selection of gentle, healing herbs perfect for recovery from gastro.

Steeping herbs in hot water to make a tea is a great option to both impart the therapeutic benefits of the herbs and promote fluid intake.

Many of the herbs listed below can be found at your local health food store.

Herbs with an astringent action that help to reduce diarrhea and loss of fluids include cinnamon, raspberry leaf or blackberry leaf. These can be made into a tea and given as a warm drink during active symptoms.

Herbs with a vulnerary action that soothes the lining of the digestive tract include slippery elm, calendula, marshmallow root, chamomile, and lemon balm. These are best for after active vomiting has finished and you’re moving into the recovery phase.

Herbs with a carminative action that relax the muscles of the digestive system and reduce discomfort include chamomile or lemon balm, can be given during active symptoms and afterwards for healing and recovery.

You may choose to work with a naturopath so that a specific herbal formula or tea blend can be created specifically for you or your child to address your specific needs at the time of the infection.

Post-gastro recovery

In addition to continuing to rehydrate and increase the intake of gentle foods, as outlined above, there are some additional things you can do once gastro has passed to ensure that everyone’s digestive system heals from the inflammation and stress of the infection.

Use probiotics: containing the species Saccharomyces boulardii (SB) – SB assists cells of the digestive tract to repair and replicate, healing the gut lining from the effects of inflammation. It also strengthens the gut immune system for prevention of future infections. Most health food stores stock an option or two.

Continue to eat with well cooked easy to digest food: while everyone’s gut is in repair mode. For little kids and babies who aren’t able to communicate their symptoms and experience, aim for at least 3-5 days of the recommended post-infection foods. For older kids and adults who are able to attune to their digestion and how things are feeling, following the post-infection food guide for as long as the tummy is feeling sensitive or stools are loose. 

Include lots of gut-healing foods, such as:

    • Bone broth – is a good source of gelatin, glutamine, and electrolytes
    • Foods rich in gelatin – which includes gelatin powder (make gelatin gummies or add to drinks), or slow-cooked meats that you would use to make a casserole or stew, like chuck or gravy beef, or chicken thighs or the whole chicken with skin & bones
    • Foods rich in glutamine – glutamine helps digestive cells to replicate and repair, aiding recovery. Include meats and cheese (caution of dairy in early recovery stages)
    • Foods rich in zinc – zinc is another essential nutrient for digestive health and cell repair, and has been associated with faster recovery times in children with gastro. Include more meat, fish, eggs, and seafood.
    • Cook with anti-inflammatory spices like ginger, turmeric, and garlic. Add these to the bases of your soups, stews, sauces, and casseroles.
    • Carob powder – carob is high in tannins, which reduce the loss of fluids and restore the impermeable barrier function of the gut lining. Try making a carob hot chocolate with milk (caution of dairy in the early recovery stages, opts for coconut milk instead) and a small amount of sweetener to make it palatable (try maple or honey, if appropriate for your little ones)

Gastro survival kit

When gastro hits, it usually comes on hard and fast. And if you’re knocked out by it too, chances are you won’t be able to get down to the shops to get any remedies.

It can be useful to keep some things on hand in the back of the cupboard or pantry for these type of emergencies. Or phone a friend and ask them to pick up a few of these things you need if you get hit before you’re ready.

To summarise some of the strategies outlines above, this survival kit might include:

    • Coconut water
    • Juice (choose organic, 100% juice when available)
    • Some type of sweetener (maple, honey, sugar)
    • Sea salt
    • Cream of tartar (if opting for electrolyte recipe #1)
    • A jar or tin of powdered or concentrated bone broth
    • Precooked soup or stew in the freezer for ‘in case of emergency illness’
    • Tinned coconut milk, as an alternative to dairy if you need it
    • Probiotics: LGG or SB strains
    • Dried herbs to make into tea
    • Gelatin for making gummies or jelly

When to seek help

Having an acute illness like gastro blast through the family can be a frightening experience. Typically, a healthy child’s body can resolve a gastro bug quickly (from 3-6 days) and care can be given at home.

However, it is always recommended to seek additional medical care if you have concern for your own or your child’s wellbeing, particularly if you notice any of the following associated with gastro:

  • Signs and symptoms of dehydration (see above)
  • Persistent vomiting and can’t keep any fluids down
  • High number and volume of stool output each day (>8 per day)
  • If severe abdominal pain develops
  • There is blood in the stool

 

Reach out with any questions. And good luck if any gastro bugs hit your home anytime soon!

 

 

Georgie xx

Georgie

Georgie

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