Remedies for Food Poisoning (and other stomach bugs)

Probiotics - just one item in my gastro-stopping arsenal.
Probiotics – just one item in my gastro-stopping arsenal. Image Credit

The last few days have been mighty interesting for the Squirrel household. We’ve had a dear friend from interstate stay with us the past week (great), gone for a weekend camping trip in the Riverland (also great)… and picked up food poisoning on the way home (not so great).

Luckily it’s been a milder bug than times past – we “just” had horrible nausea and belching, followed by diarrhoea a day later. Regardless, I thought it prudent to go over our first aid supplies and stomach bug remedies. Here’s a rundown of all the tactics I currently have in my stop-gastro-now arsenal.

Activated charcoal

Activated charcoal is my go-to for gurgly bellies. It works by adsorbing (binding to) whatever’s in your stomach and intestinal tract, so that it can’t be absorbed by the body and cause further symptoms. It then takes everything it’s picked up out of the body when you have a bowel movement.

I usually take 500-750mg (2-3 capsules) when I first notice things aren’t right, and follow up every few hours until symptoms subside. Getting Chipmunk to take it is a bit harder – I usually mix the powder with a bit of applesauce or honey for her to eat.

It’s important to note that activated charcoal in non-selective – that is, it will adsorb anything and everything in your GI tract. This includes food nutrients and prescription medications. So if you’re on anything that needs to keep a stable level in your bloodstream to work effectively, best to give it a miss. Anti-depressants, anti-convulsants, and ADHD medication are just a few drugs that fall into that category.

Grapefruit Seed Extract (GSE)

This is one remedy I only heard about recently. Tim Ferriss uses it to clean his kitchen benches after cooking things like chicken, and also takes it travelling with him in case he eats anything funky:

A component of GSE, naringenin, is a potent antiviral and antibacterial agent … Add in hesperidin, also in GSE, and you can reduce everything from hepatitis C and E. coli to methicillin-resistant staph bacteria. If something tastes off, I put a few drops of this in water and down the hatch it goes …

While traveling in India, this is how I prevented myself from dying. Street food? Enjoy it, but bring an insurance policy: GSE. If not, take photos of yourself in the Third World ER. I’ve been there. Highly overrated. Ganges River water makes horrible IV fluid.

Pretty cool, huh?

There is, however, a bunch of medications that interact with grapefruit. While grapefruit and GSE aren’t quite the same thing, it’s probably best to play it safe. If you’re taking anything that interacts with grapefruit, stay away from GSE too.


Finally, something that anyone can take! I usually start with 2-3 capsules as soon as I notice something off. Then follow up with another 2-3 capsules every four hours or so. I try to take probiotics away from activated charcoal – if I’m taking them both, I’ll take probiotics first thing in the morning and last thing at night, with activated charcoal once or twice in between. (I currently use this brand, bought through iHerb.)

However, if the gastro is so severe that I’m throwing up every few hours, I don’t bother with probiotics until the vomiting has settled. I found I was simply throwing up the probiotic capsules and they weren’t getting to where they were needed. Once the vomiting has tapered off, I’ll start probiotics to help give the beneficial bacteria a boost.

Eat and drink as little as possible

During the acute illness phase, try not to eat anything (assuming you even feel like it, of course). Your body is already expending a lot of resources trying to fight the bacteria/virus causing the vomiting and/or diarrhoea. Adding food to the mix only makes the job harder and longer.

Solutions like Hydralyte can be very helpful if you’re unable to keep down much liquid. If you don’t have any in the house, you can also make a reasonable DIY substitute – most electrolyte drinks are made from salt, sugar, potassium and colours/flavours. Here’s a quick, basic recipe:

  • 1 litre water
  • 6 tsp sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon bicarb soda (preferably naturally mined)
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/4 tsp potassium-based salt substitute or potassium chloride – if you don’t have this on hand or can’t find it, leave it out, halve the water and add 500mL of orange or lemon juice (citrus fruit is high in potassium).

Recover with BRAT

Once you’re over the worst and feel like having something solid in your belly, BRAT is a good place to start. It’s an acronym for Bananas, Rice, Applesauce, Toast. Out of these four, I favour applesauce (preferably unsweetened). It’s shelf stable, which means I can have an emergency jar or two in the pantry at all times. Plus I’m guaranteed that the family can (and will) eat it. As a bonus, the pectin in the applesauce helps move things through the GI tract. It’s a soluble dietary fibre that “increases volume and viscosity of stool” (Wikipedia).

As recovery foods go, I also quite like well-gelled bone broth. We didn’t have any on hand this time round, but it’s been wonderful in the past. The minerals from the bones help to rehydrate your system, and the gelatin helps soothe the gut lining and promote healing. Sip it slowly for most of the day after acute symptoms subside.

Miscellaneous (non-Squirrel tested) remedies

  • Coconut water has a good reputation as an electrolyte replacer.
  • Organic Apple Cider Vinegar, preferably the kind with the mother in the bottle – there’s some evidence that the acid helps kill off some bacteria that can cause food poisoning.
  • “Black Magic” (from this comment) – 1 tbsp activated charcoal powder, 1 tbsp slippery elm powder, 1 tbsp carob powder, blended with enough honey to make it drinkable. Add 250ml of tepid water, mix well, and sip slowly. The charcoal adsorbs to the poisons, the slippery elm helps move everything through, and the carob helps heal the gut.
  • Turmeric Tea – add 1 tsp of powdered turmeric to a glass of warm water and drink at the first onset of symptoms. Turmeric has antimicrobial properties, so it’s worth a shot.

Hopefully one (or more!) of these will help you next time food poisoning, gastro, rotavirus, or other troublesome stomach bugs come to visit you. If you have any other tried and true remedies, be sure to let us know in the comments!