If you’ve got kids, then chances are you’ve nursed them through a tummy bug or two. Or perhaps you remember your own experience as a child going through a few gut wrenching days battling an infection. Either way, you will know that gastro is an intense, acute illness that can be very depleting for the body, especially young bodies. Fortunately there are plenty of steps we can take to support our kids when they are hit with a nasty bug.
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 diarrhea and accounts for a large portion of hospitalisations in children each year.
Common signs and symptoms of gastro include:
- Complaining of feeling unwell, sick or nauseous
- Vomiting – typically starts within 24-48 hours of infection
- Diarrhea – can last for up to 10 days
- Stomach pain
What can we do?
With gastro being such a common occurrence in babies and children, being armed with the tools to prevent, treat, and assist your child’s recovery from these acute gut infections is an essential part of being a parent. Fortunately, there are lots of practical ways that we can help our kids using simple, everyday diet and lifestyle strategies. There are also some great naturopathic medicines that can fight bugs, reduce the severity of diarrhea, replace the loss of vital nutrients, and heal the gut post-infection.
We all know the merit of the virtue prevention is better than cure, and in a perfect world we would all love to stop our kids from getting gastro in the first place. But around here, we appreciate the fact that kids are bona fide experts at picking up bugs of all kinds, so a bout of gastro is bound to happen at some point in time. But in order to reduce the likelihood or frequency of this happening, and prevent the spread of one bug to the whole family, there are a couple of important steps we can take.
Gastro bugs 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, 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 diarrhea has passed
- You cover or dispose of vomit immediately to prevent airborne spread of bugs
One of the major concerns for kids with gastro, particularly younger children or babies, is the high risk they have for becoming dehydrated. 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 may be becoming dehydrated:
- Dry mouth and/or tongue
- Not passing urine or has dry nappies
- 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
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 them with rehydrating remedies.
Alongside the loss of fluids in diarrhea 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 vital body processes such as the contraction of the heart and other muscles, as well as for the regulation of brain and nerve activity, among many other important functions.
To maintain hydration and encourage fluid intake, try these strategies:
- Give your child clear fluids – water, herbal teas, or electrolyte solutions
- Continue to breastfeed your baby as per your normal routine
- Make an electrolyte solution – take 1 liter of filtered water, add ½ teaspoon of sea salt, 1 teaspoon of sugar (a good option is rapidura) and the juice from ½ a citrus fruit (lemon, lime, or orange). The sea salt contains electrolytes, while the citrus juice promotes the absorption of the electrolytes. Give your child sips of this solution throughout the day.
- Try rehydration formulas that contain glucose, sodium and potassium – these can be purchased at chemists and pharmacies. Choose a formula without any added colours – lemonade flavour options are often the best choice to avoid additives.
- Offer your child a drink every time they vomit or after every bout of diarrhea – offer babies smaller sips and older children a drink of around 150mL – 200mL. If vomiting is frequent, offer your child small sips or mouthfuls every 15 minutes
- Use a syringe or spoons to offer fluids – 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 (see recipe above) with a small amount of added juice for flavour (aim for around 2 tablespoons per ½ cup liquid) and freeze in molds
- Make gut-soothing jellies – jelly contains a large amount of water and the gelatin is soothing and gentle on kids’ inflamed guts during gastro.
- Mix 1½ cups of electrolyte solution (see recipe above) with ½ cup of unsweetened fruit juice (e.g. apple or apple-berry works well)
- Add 2 tablespoons of gelatin and stir until dissolved (you may need to heat the electrolyte solution slightly to dissolve the gelatin)
- Pour liquid into a lined baking pan or small molds and put in the fridge to set (make take a couple of hours).
- Give your child small squares or a little molded jelly a few times a day or if they complain they are hungry
Most children with gastro will show little interest in food while they are in the acute phase of the illness. When they start to recover and their 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.
Some nutritious options for these early stages of reintroducing food might include:
- Well-cooked foods – these foods are easy for a sensitive, infected gut to digest and breakdown, 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, cauliflower, pumpkin, or broccoli.
- 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.
- Bone broth – contains high amounts of micronutrients and electrolytes, as well as gelatin and collagen for healing an inflamed gut lining. Tip – 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 jellies (see recipe above) – as they recover, you can add other ingredients to the recipe, for example ½ cup of raspberries or blueberries.
Avoiding the following:
- Dairy products – the enzyme lactase is needed to breakdown 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 until diarrhea has passed.
- High sugar foods and drinks, including fruit juices and soft drinks – although our body needs some sugar (glucose) in the blood to support brain function, large amounts can increase the risk of worsening dehydration when coupled with low electrolyte levels in kids with gastro. 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.
- Gluten containing grains – whether your child is gluten sensitive or not, gluten can be a tough protein for any digestive system to breakdown 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. Instead, you can add non-gluten whole grains like quinoa or brown rice or legumes such as chickpeas or lentils into soups and ensure they are very well cooked before serving.
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. 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.
There is a great selection of gentle, healing herbs perfect for children with 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 helps to reduce diarrhea and loss of fluids include cinnamon, raspberry leaf or blackberry leaf
- Herbs with a vulnerary action that soothes the lining of the digestive tract include slippery elm, calendula, marshmallow root, chamomile, and lemon balm.
- Herbs with a carminative action that relax the muscles of the digestive system and reduce discomfort include chamomile or lemon balm
You may choose to work with a naturopath so that a specific herbal formula or tea blend can be created for your child to address their specific needs at the time of or after the infection.
In addition to continuing to rehydrate and increase the intake of nutritious foods, as outlined above, there are some additional things you can do once gastro has passed to ensure that your child’s digestive system heals from the inflammation and demands 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.
- Continue to provide your child with well cooked easy to digest food while their gut is in repair mode.
- Include lots of gut healing foods, such as:
- Bone broth
- Foods rich in glutamine – glutamine helps digestive cells to replicate and repair, aiding recovery. Include more meat, cheese (caution of dairy in early recovery stages), oats, cabbage, brussel sprouts, broccoli, fish
- 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, nuts and seeds, beans and lentils.
- Cook with anti-inflammatory spices like ginger, turmeric, and garlic. Add these into 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 non-dairy milk like almond milk or coconut milk and a small amount of sweetener to make it palatable (try rapadura sugar, honey or maple syrup)
When to seek help?
Having an acutely ill child can be a frightening experience for any parent, no matter how many times you may have cared for a child with gastro. Typically, a healthy child’s body can resolve a gastro bug quickly (from 4-6 days) and care can be given at home.
However, it is always recommended to seek additional medical care if you have concern for your 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