Whether it’s caused by eating food left out too long on your kitchen counter or from consuming underdone meat at a restaurant, we’ve all gotten a nasty case of garden-variety food poisoning at one time or another—the intense symptoms such as nausea, stomach pain, diarrhea and sometimes vomiting are unmistakable. Plus, from time to time there are news reports about particularly virulent food poisoning outbreaks that affect a large number of people. Case in point: Last summer, more than 200 people were sickened (and one person died) after eating papaya from Mexico.
While we can’t know for sure where the next food poisoning threat will come from, there are things we can do to help protect ourselves from getting this very uncomfortable condition—beyond just looking at the “sell by” dates of the food you buy and carefully monitoring the shelf life of foods in your home…
• Boost the healthy bacteria in your gut. Having plenty of beneficial bacteria, such as the probiotics acidophilus and bifidus, in your digestive tract is essential for good health. Research shows that people with an abundant supply of these beneficial bacteria are less vulnerable to food poisoning than people with inadequate good bacteria. If healthy bacteria are plentiful in the digestive tract, harmful bacteria are less able to multiply there. These beneficial bacteria are found abundantly in foods like yogurt, kefir and sauerkraut. Be sure to eat such foods several times a week. You especially need probiotics if you’ve been on antibiotics recently. In that case, you may need to take an over-the-counter probiotic supplement containing high amounts (five to 10 billion units daily) of acidophilus and bifidus.* Also, when traveling, you are at greater exposure to food poisoning from restaurants, public restrooms and potentially water, so it’s best to supplement with probiotics the week before you leave, throughout your trip and for one week after you return.
• Avoid acid-blocking medications, such as omeprazole (Prilosec) and esomeprazole (Nexium), which are frequently used to relieve heartburn. Sufficient stomach acid is needed to kill harmful bacteria ingested from food. (Beneficial bacteria, on the other hand, thrive in an acidic environment.) If you’ve got heartburn, consider seeing a naturopathic physician to learn about nondrug treatments such as deglycerized licorice, which can soothe symptoms. Reducing your consumption of cheese, meat, fatty foods and alcohol can help reduce heartburn. Testing for food allergies is also a good idea, since food allergies create indigestion.
• Take digestive bitters. A botanical formula made from herbs such as gentian, anise and ginger, bitters help stimulate digestive enzyme production and protect the gut from harmful bacteria. A typical dose is five drops on the tongue just before eating, but follow label instructions.
• Don’t forget to wash. Wash produce thoroughly with water before eating…and wash refrigerator shelves twice a month with soap and water—even if they don’t look dirty.
• Defrost meat in the refrigerator, not on the counter, and refrigerate leftovers quickly. And always cook meats, fish and other foods to the proper internal temperature. (Go to FoodSafety.gov and click on “Safe Minimum Cooking Temperatures” for guidelines.)
*Tell your health-care provider about any supplements you are taking. If you have a weakened immune system or a critical illness, do not take probiotics.