When we feel sick, the last thing we want to do is eat. But we may be feeling weak, foggy, or in a daze. While these are symptoms of our illness, they are made worse by being hungry or dehydrated. Eating is important to maintain our strength and begin to recover, as is remembering to stay hydrated.
What to Eat
It's a good idea to ease back into eating solid foods and not to force yourself to eat if you're feeling nauseous. "The BRAT diet (BRAT stands for bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast) is commonly recommended for people recovering from the stomach flu. These four foods are all typically easy on the stomach and can also help bind up stools, which is helpful when you're struggling with diarrhea. These simple foods can be a great start for the first hours or day of eating solid foods when you're recovering from stomach flu," said Dr. Josh Axe, D.N.M., C.N.S., D.C., founder of Ancient Nutrition and DrAxe.com. Just don't rely on the BRAT diet long-term, because research has shown that this diet is too low in vital nutrients, especially for children. Dr. Axe recommends staying on the BRAT diet for the first day of your stomach flu.
Chicken Noodle Soup
Chicken soup can be the best bet for an easily digestible yet nourishing meal during a stomach flu. "The water content of the broth, protein from the chicken, carbs from the pasta, and vitamins in the vegetables will help provide much-needed nutrients to keep up your energy and build up your immune system," said Dr. David A. Greuner, cardiovascular surgeon, surgical director, and cofounder of NYC Surgical Associates.
Much of the time, viruses or bad bacteria cause stomach flu. Do you know what's great for both? Probiotics! "When it comes to how to get rid of the stomach flu, I definitely recommend increasing your intake of probiotic-rich foods and probiotic supplements. A great probiotic-rich food that can also help with hydration is coconut kefir, which offers both electrolytes for hydration and good bacteria to replenish the gut after all that havoc that's been going on," Dr. Axe said. Research has shown that probiotics can help diarrhea to stop approximately one day sooner.
Ginger has many studies for its efficacy in treating nausea, but many people don't think of it for gas and upset tummies. "Ginger in Chinese medicine is one of the best digestive tonics, so not only does it work for nausea, but gas and other digestive issues. Ginger is one of the oldest Chinese remedies for digestive issues and is a main ingredient for digestive herbal formulas," Dr. Elizabeth Trattner said.
This is wonderful for digestion. "Peppermint tea is one of the most prescribed herbs I use for digestion. It helps with nausea, upset stomach, and all digestive disorders. I use peppermint oil for digestive spasms," Dr. Trattner said. Peppermint oil is sold in special enteric-coated capsules to get into the intestines and bypass stomach acid. "I also like using peppermint with lemons to make refreshing lemonade. If I ate too much and cannot get to bed, I will take a peppermint oil capsule a half hour before bedtime so I don't feel as full before sleeping, which can actually cause delayed onset of sleep (eating too much or late meals)," Dr. Trattner said. Peppermint can also ease digestive issues with a stomach flu.
"Research and my own personal and professional experience has found that the mineral magnesium works as a powerful immune system booster to fight and/or prevent colds and flu," said Carolyn Dean, MD, ND, medical advisory board member, Nutritional Magnesium Association. "Magnesium increases the activity of the part of the immune system involved in the formation of antibodies (immune response) and acts on cells, making them more active in protecting themselves from microbial, bacterial, and viral attacks," Dr. Dean said. Foods high in magnesium include organic green leafy vegetables such as kale, spinach, and chard. Nuts and seeds such as pecans and pumpkin seeds are also high in magnesium.
Recuperation may be about keeping it natural. "Influenza, more commonly known as the flu, is a viral (not a bacterial) infection, so antibiotics are useless. Personally, I love using natural antiviral remedies like elderberry extract," Dr. Axe said.
Remember to Hydrate
When you have the stomach flu, you're most likely dealing with diarrhea and/or vomiting. Both of these symptoms mean a lot of water loss for your body and the chance of dehydration, which only makes you feel that much worse. "To avoid becoming dehydrated from the stomach flu, it's really important that you consume a lot of clear liquids like water, coconut water, and herbal tea," Dr. Axe said.
Start small by beginning with clear, broth-based soups. If those go down easily, you can try small servings of bland foods such as white rice, crackers, and toast. "Many people also may not know that food accounts for about 20 percent of your daily water intake, which could mean you may be at an increased risk of dehydration if you're not drinking or eating. Try increasing your intake of water-based foods like fruits, vegetables, oatmeal, soup, and yogurt," said Jennifer Williams, MPH, research scientist at Abbott.
Keep in mind that hydration isn't just about what you eat when you're sick. "When you lose fluids, you're also losing electrolytes, like sodium, potassium, and chloride — which are needed to maintain fluid balance and keep our nervous systems and muscles functioning properly," Williams said. While your first instinct may be to reach for juice, soda, and sports drinks — beverages that are often high in sugar and low in sodium — these can actually make diarrhea worse. "Pedialyte has an optimal balance of sugar and electrolytes needed for fast rehydration, especially if your stomach flu comes with those dreaded symptoms of vomiting and diarrhea," Williams said.
A mistake many of us may also make when we're sick is to gulp down a lot of fluid with hopes of rehydration and recovery. But when you're feeling queasy, it can be hard to keep large amounts of liquids down, and even though water sounds like a good idea, it's not absorbed all that efficiently when you're dehydrated. "Try taking small sips of an oral rehydration solution, or if drinking fluids sounds truly impossible, a frozen Pedialyte Freezer Pop is a simple way to start giving your body vital fluids and electrolytes," Williams said.