Did you know that up to half of all international travellers end up with diarrhoea? What is affectionately (?) known as Deli or Bali Belly (though not only in India and Indonesia) affects about 10 million people every year and is the single most common illness you can expect to deal with when you go abroad.
If you have a lot of stamps on your passport, this is probably not a big surprise. Just jump on the backpacker trail for a couple of months and you'll be sure to be initiated into the custom of shared bowel adventures.
Until I discovered essential oils for gut health, I always thought that ' three or more unformed stools in 24 hours… abdominal cramps, nausea, and bloating', was its own particular rite of (ehem..) passage for any would-be world explorer.
What causes traveller's diarrhoea?
The simple fact that it is very hard to maintain good sanitation when you are on the road is part of it, and then of course the lack of general hygiene in poorer countries makes it even harder.
The main cause of the kind of diarrhoea that you get on a trip abroad is bacterial infection. It enters the system most directly by ingesting unclean water and food but also can be passed from person to person, from animals and birds, and anything contaminated that ends up near your mouth (cups, cutlery, fingers etc).
It is not quite as random as it seems. The most common types of bacteria that upset normal digestion are virulent strains of E. coli, and as it turns out these are travellers too. All of us have benign E. coli living in our gut and even contributing to our general digestive health, but the pathogenic strains are ones that live harmlessly in the guts of animals - especially in cows - and cause havoc in human intestines if they are transported through the food chain or in the environment.
Unpasteurised milk, cheese made from raw milk, raw or insufficiently cooked meat... these are all things to avoid. But the problem with food is also of course where it is prepared. The bacteria can travel easily on a chopping board or via utensils and this we do not see.
Any contact with animals is also raising the risks. Eating at a make-shift restaurant with a pig in the yard might be charming in its way... but you have to know it's very likely to have its consequences. I never really thought about it before but all those sacred cows wandering around unhindered in India is another quaint detail.
What are the dangers?
Quite apart from how unpleasant it can be, the immediate danger of being knocked down by a bout of diarrhoea is dehydration - in a hot climate, even more so. The fluids we lose also rob us of essential minerals. The risk is on the kidneys and extreme cases can lead to long-term damage and even death. So stay alert:
- Small children and babies are most vulnerable to fluid loss and for them, though the majority of cases of diarrhoea will run their course within a week, it is important to check in with a doctor if it continues after 24 hours, or even before if you suspect dehydration
- Dry tears or a sunken fontanel can indicate severe dehydration in young children
- In any age, if the skin does not return to normal when pinched and released, this is a sign of dehydration that needs immediate attention
- You should check in with a doctor after 2 days and especially for severe pains, high fevers, bloody stools or black, tarry stools
- These bacteria are highly contagious. Do not share cups, water bottles etc. and wash your hands thoroughly after the toilet. (Buy some rubbing alcohol to douse your hands if normal sanitation isn't possible)
- Some types of parasites can cause diarrhoea also - if the diarrhoea ends but when you return home you have unexplained sickness issues, you should get a comprehensive stool test to eliminate the continued presence of parasites
What can I do and what medicines can I take?
The most important thing to do is to drink a lot. Purified water is a must (boiled is best) but for any diarrhoea that is significant and ongoing you need to take in fluids that include electrolytes. Electrolytes are minerals such as sodium, potassium, bicarbonate and calcium and they are essential for cell function in muscles and neurons.
Most pharmacies will sell a drink that is formulated to redress the electrolyte balance.
- Or add salt, bicarbonate, sugar and lemon or lime juice to your own purified water to create a similar effect
- If you can get it, naturally purified water from a fresh coconut is an exceptional source of electrolytes - add a little salt, and make sure you see it opened cleanly
- Although many foreign doctors will take you there, antibiotics are NOT proven to help against this most common type of infection and they may even be connected with complications
- A good doctor will order a stool test to see what you are dealing with first
- You should also be wary of 'stop up' treatments that can bring immediate respite from the bathroom trips but will also inhibit the body's natural infection cleansing process
Pure essential oils that are effective on Deli / Bali Belly
Certain pure essential oils are particularly useful against intestinal bacteria (and virus and parasites). They also have properties to help with inflammation, spasm and pain. I have travelled using these oils as a preventative measure (see with capsules below) and since have had zero interesting bowel stories to report.
Peppermint Essential Oil
This is the concentrated extract of a plant long-used to help with indigestion and stomach issues. It can be rubbed directly on the stomach in a clockwise direction to help with the pain of cramping. It also has antibacterial, calming and anti-gas properties that come into play with an internal treatment (see below).
Kanuka Essential Oil
Kanuka is right up there with probiotics for digestive benefit. It has antibacterial and antiviral properties; it boosts gut-related immune functions, aids detox and nutrient absorption, and comes with calming, tonic effect.
Oregano Essential Oil
Oregano, known as a natural antibiotic, is the ultimate gut guardian. Effective against the kind of bacteria that lurks in bad food; it is also proven against virus and parasites. Plus it is calming on gas and cramping.
Easy Essential Belly Medicine
When used in synergy, these three concentrate oils offer a natural arsenal to support the body against diarrhoea - without destroying the good gut bacteria that we need for immunity and healthy digestion.
- Make a 'belly blend' with equal parts Peppermint, Oregano and Kanuka essential oils (in a dark glass bottle with dropper-top and seal).
To guard against traveller's tummy:
- Add 1 drop 'belly blend' to a charcoal capsule (the charcoal binds toxins and reduces gas). Take up to 2 capsules with each meal. (I used this method travelling through rural Nepal and stayed healthy throughout.)
To aid recovery when it's too late:
- Increase above dose to 3 drops per capsule, 6-8 times a day. This will help with symptoms of nausea, cramping and pain, and to inhibit and kill infection.
Medicinal-grade essential oils must be 100% pure. At Absolute Essential we use certified organic or wild grown (sustainable) plants to produce our oils and all extraction processes are strictly controlled to produce the best quality oil with a maximum purity and therapeutic value. See more at Absolute Essential