A stomach ache can strike for all kinds of reasons, from contaminated food to chronic disease. It passes, sure, but the pain, headache, diarrhea, vomiting and other classic symptoms of stomach flu ensure a crummy couple of days
It can be tough to know what to put in your body when you’re dealing with an upset stomach, but there are a few surefire foods. Ginger, scientifically, is a good place to start. “Ginger and also turmeric, which is a member of the ginger family, seem to be anti-inflammatory,” says Dr. Emeran Mayer, a professor of digestive diseases at UCLA. Both ginger and turmeric are roots, he says, and may have developed special antibacterial properties in order to withstand contamination from microorganisms in soil. Skip the sugary commercial ginger ales, which contain little real ginger, and sip water infused with ginger or turmeric instead, he advises.
You won’t want to eat in the throes of vomiting, but starting to sip water and other beverages right away is a good idea, says Dr. Joseph Murray, a gastroenterologist at Mayo Clinic. Because you’re getting rid of essential vitamins and nutrients with every trip to the bathroom, it’s important to replenish your body’s electrolytes—namely salt, but also potassium and glucose (sugar), he says. If the word “electrolytes” makes you think of Gatorade, you’re not far off. But Gatorade and other sports drinks may not contain enough salt to replenish your depleted stores. “Diluted tomato juice is pretty good, mostly because it’s salty,” Murray says.
Once you’ve stopped vomiting and your stomach feels a bit better, you will want to eat. But don’t sit down for a big meal; nibble food throughout the day instead, Murray explains.
Research from Penn State University’s Hershey Medical Center recommends what every parent knows as the BRAT foods: bananas, white rice, applesauce and toast. Eating only these four foods may be too restrictive (and could lead to malnourishment, especially among kids). But foods like these are good choices, because the harder your inflamed stomach has to work to digest something, the more likely it is to act up, Murray says. Foods that are easy for the body to break down—simple, minimally seasoned carbohydrates like saltine crackers, as opposed to hardier fare like whole grains and leafy greens—are less likely to trigger stabs of pain or a dash to the toilet.
There are plenty of foods you should avoid. Pass on dairy foods, because an upset stomach is likely to have problems digesting and absorbing lactose, Murray explains. “Even in the days or weeks after you’ve recovered, you may experience a temporary bout of lactose intolerance while your gut recovers,” he says. Also, skip high-fat foods (like nuts, oils and avocado), spicy dishes, alcohol and coffee, which may all aggravate a recovering stomach, says Dr. Joel Mason, a gastroenterologist and professor of medicine and nutrition at Tufts University.
What about probiotics? While Mason and other experts say there’s promising research on probiotics for relief of gut-related conditions, there’s still not good evidence to support swallowing probiotic-rich foods to cure a stomach ache. One problem with probiotics is that the micro-organic makeup of your gut is different from everyone else’s. “There are also hundreds of probiotic strains, and the effect each has may be determined by your [gut’s] microbiome composition,” UCLA’s Mayer explains. “In the future, we may be able to map your microbiome simply and inexpensively, and make appropriate probiotic recommendations.” But we’re just not there yet.
Another issue is that nearly all the research linking probiotics to relief of gut-related issues has looked at freeze-dried probiotics in capsules or tablets, Mason says. “Eating yogurt or Kefir or other probiotic foods to relieve symptoms may be effective, but that hasn’t yet been shown.”
While probiotic supplements are likely safe for most people, Mason says ingesting probiotics could in some cases be risky. “When you consume a probiotic, you’re consuming billions of bacterial or fungal spores,” he explains. In “the vast majority of instances,” that won’t hurt you. “But if you have an impaired immune system, there’s pretty good documentation that ingesting these organisms can set off very serious infections—even life-threatening infections,” he explains.
If you want to roll the dice with probiotics, you’re best off sticking to those found in traditional food sources like sauerkraut, kefir, and kombucha. “Eat those three, and you’ll get a wide range of probiotics,” Mayer says. There may not be strong evidence yet to show they can relieve an achy stomach, “but they’re what I would give to my own family,” he says.