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Travellers' diarrhoea - are you fit for travel?

The last thing you feel like when on holiday or travelling abroad is having to worry about a bout of diarrhoea!

Unfortunately, however, so-called "travellers' diarrhoea" is quite common, particularly when in countries where food and water hygiene are less than ideal. This is because it can be caused by a wide range of organisms, including bacteria (such as E. coli and salmonella), parasites (such as Giardia intestinalis) and viruses (such as norovirus).

All of these harmful organisms can be spread through eating contaminated food, drinking contaminated water or your mouth making contact with dirty hands, straws, cutlery or crockery etc.

It is also worth noting that loose bowels can be caused by a sudden change in diet too. For example, being exposed to spicy or oily foods when these do not normally form a major part of your diet.

Luckily, there are steps you can take to help you avoid travellers' diarrhoea and give your body the best chance of fighting off harmful 'invaders'. But before we look at these, let's take a closer look at what we mean by 'diarrhoea'.

What is diarrhoea?

Diarrhoea is a term that describes an increase in the frequency of bowel movements and/or a decrease in the form of stool (i.e. greater looseness and water content). It is usually a symptom of an illness, infection or other condition or external factor - as described above for travellers' diarrhoea.

Other common causes are anxiety, stress, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Crohn's disease, dysbiosis (an imbalance in bowel flora), medication (such as antibiotics), and poor diet (including too much coffee or alcohol).

You will know what is 'normal' for you, but people with a healthy digestive tract tend to have, on average, a maximum of three bowel movements a day (depending on the amount eaten). If you are going to the loo more often than usual, you could be suffering from diarrhoea.

The symptoms associated with it tend to vary according to the cause. For example, if your diarrhoea is the result of an infection (as with travellers' diarrhoea), you are more likely to also have stomach cramps and, possibly, a fever.

Most cases of diarrhoea are not serious and clear up after a few days without treatment, but prevention is of course always preferable if possible! Below are a few tips, but if you have any concerns (or if you have had diarrhoea for a prolonged period) it is a good idea to consult your GP or other qualified health practitioner, as well as to make sure you stay hydrated!

Boost your immunity

Your immune system is your body's first line of defence against harmful micro-organisms, such as those you might come across when travelling. So it makes sense to try to boost your immunity to give yourself the best chance of fighting them off.

You probably didn't know that the most important part of your immune system is in your digestive tract! There is a special collection of immune cells in the intestines, called Gut Associated Lymphoid Tissue (or GALT). This is the largest collection (70%) of antibody-producing cells in the body.

It is also worth bearing in mind that supporting your immune system should, ideally, be something you do all year round; not just before travelling. This is because a strained immune system can take months (and in some cases, years) to put right.

It's not going to be enough to simply pop a couple of vitamin C before hopping on a plane. To give yourself the best chance of avoiding travellers' diarrhoea, you should (subject to any pre-existing medical conditions or medical advice to the contrary) be:

Eating a balanced diet rich in natural whole foods, packed with antioxidants, enzymes, phyto-chemicals and other cleansing and protective nutrients;

Exercising regularly to promote healthy circulation and detoxification, particularly through the cleansing of the lymphatic system (the body's 'garbage collection service');

Detoxifying  your body (and your colon, more particularly) on a regular basis, to help minimise your toxic load and any associated strain placed on your immune system;

Supporting healthy levels of gut microflora by, for example, eating more probiotic foods (like sauerkraut, kefir, tofu, miso etc) and taking a multi-strain probiotic supplement.

Ensuring healthy levels of friendly bacteria in the body, and gut in particular, is an essential component of strong immunity and resisting infection by bacteria, viruses, fungi, yeast and parasites. This is because, in high enough numbers, they can help to 'crowd out' these unwanted pathogens by competing with them for space and food. As such, many people believe that probiotics are an exotic traveller's best friend!

It is equally important to address any food allergies, sensitivities or other factors, which might be compromising your digestive health. For example, it is estimated that about half of all people with IBS have an abnormal balance of bacteria. As well as resulting in unpleasant symptoms, such as diarrhoea, this also has a direct impact on immunity and the body's ability to resist infection.

Many food reactions are not solely due to food allergy or intolerance, but are due also to the feeding of unfriendly bacteria which then produce substances that activate the immune system in the gut.

Improve your gut health and integrity

There are many different causes of diarrhoea, but a gut infection (as with travellers' diarrhoea) is a very common cause in both adults and children.

Diarrhoea tends to occur in cases of gut infection because some viruses, bacteria and parasites cause increased secretion of fluid, either by invading and producing toxins that stimulate the lining to secrete fluid, or by inflaming the lining of the small intestine (which can increase the speed with which food passes through the intestines, reducing the time that is available for absorbing water).

When the digestive tract is inflamed, it can become abnormally permeable. This, in itself, is a major contributing cause of the development of food allergies, intolerances, detoxification problems and a strained immune system.

It is therefore important to ensure a healthy gut, with good integrity of intestinal wall linings.

Why it's important to tackle infections head on!

As well as ensuring that your body is in a good position to be able to prevent infection, it is equally important to deal with any infections that do manage to take hold.

If bacteria, yeasts, fungi and parasites are allowed to remain in the body for a prolonged period of time, they can take the opportunity to flourish, take root and spread (for example, through the bloodstream where 'leaky gut' is present).

This can lead to an imbalance of good and bad bacteria, through the overgrowth of harmful gut flora (dysbiosis). This can, in turn, result in a vicious circle of poor digestion, gut toxicity and permeability, immune system strain and digestive disorders - all of which can result in symptoms such as diarrhoea, bloating, stomach cramps and flatulence.

Improving digestion, boosting your immunity and supporting your gut health are all excellent ways to help avoid or combat travellers' diarrhoea. Make these priorities in your daily life and you can ensure that you are always fit for travel!

Posted June 29, 2015