Help, I Think I’ve Got Food Poisoning!
Food poisoning is a common and distressing problem for many people around the world today. People infected with food borne organisms may be symptom-free or may develop symptoms ranging from mild intestinal discomfort to severe dehydration, bloody diarrhoea, or in more serious and untreated cases–even death. The two most common forms of food borne illness are salmonella and campylobacter infections. Have you ever heard somebody tell you, in summer particularly, that they developed a problem with their tummy after they went to a barbecue or out eating at somebody’s place? I have heard this many times over the years, and as a naturopath have seen many people in the clinic with “sore tummies”. In fact, a lady came into the clinic only yesterday, complaining of a sore tummy which occurred not long after Christmas.
“What happened” I asked, and the reply was: “Well, I was at my sister-in-laws house for lunch just after Christmas, and we had some cold turkey and a bean salad followed by jello and a small piece of pavlova cake (common New Zealand cake made with lots of egg-white topping), all left over from Christmas dinner two days previous. A few days later, I felt uneasy in my tummy, and now I have diarrhea, it is quite embarrassing. I think it was the trifle, it looked a bit funny” I replied with: “It is more likely you picked a campylobacter infection from the cold turkey”. “But Eric, that can’t be, I went to the doctor and had a stool test, and nothing was picked up, he said it probably came from my tank water, but I’ve been drinking that water for the past 12 years”. I always tell patients not to get paralysis from analysis, and that “false negative” results from testing laboratories often occur. No practitioner should rely 100% on test results alone, when in doubt, use your clinical judgement. Like most naturopathic practices, we commonly get patients in with “funny tummies” who have had no joy with conventional testing after picking up a pathogen (bad bug).
What Is Campylobacter?
Campylobacter is a bacterium found in the intestines of many types of animals, but is often associated with raw poultry and is the most common bacterial cause of diarrhoea in the world today. In fact, did you know that diarrhoea is the most common cause of death in the world today? Campylobacter has been found to be more prevalent during the summer months, with babies and young adults and the elderly more likely to be affected. This bacteria lives in the intestines of healthy birds, and most raw poultry meat has campylobacter on it. Eating undercooked chicken or other food contaminated with juices dripping from raw chicken is the most frequent source of this infection. And….how many of you have eaten chicken today? My guess is that you had chicken only very recently, and may have it for dinner tonight even. We will talk about just how careful you need to be with chicken meat, how you store it, prepare it and eat it a little later on.
Campylobacter causes its toxic effects by producing an enterotoxin that is similar to enterotoxins produced by cholera. Enterotoxin is a type of poison released by some types of bacteria or other pathogens in the small or large bowel. Enterotoxins frequently kill cells by altering the permeability of the cells lining your intestinal wall, which in turn alters the fluid levels in your bowel. This is what causes the sensation that you need to go to the toilet, and rather urgently or very frequently and even explosive in some cases!
A scientist from the Yale University School of Medicine uncovered last year the answer to how campylobacter is able to penetrate intestinal cells, and hide virtually undetected. So much for that stool test, doctor. This little micro beastie can enter the cells of the intestine and can cleverly avoid detection and destruction, according to the American Society for Cell Biology.
Common Sources of Campylobacter Infection
Some people will trim the raw chicken on the cutting board, transfer it to a plate, take it to the barbecue, cook it, and then put it back on the same unwashed plate and cutting board the raw chicken was on. Whilst campylobacter is commonly found on the inside of the chicken, salmonella is likely to be on both the skin of the poultry and in the meat, and doesn’t just wash off. Only cooking to the proper high temperature, until the meat is cooked right through, and not pink, gets rid of it. Food poisoning makes headlines when cases are traced to restaurants, but in all fairness, most places where you eat are pretty good with hygiene. Studies have shown that 50% to 80% campylobacter infection is caused by food prepared at home.
Studies have found a link between oysters and campylobacter. I can still remember a few years ago how my tummy played up for two weeks after holidaying on Great Barrier Island, and eating rock oysters at Tryphena. According to ongoing research, shellfish such as oysters are increasingly becoming harbingers of creatures like salmonella and campylobacter and pose serious risk, especially since they are generally eaten raw. Shellfish do not usually harbor these organisms, but they can acquire them by filtering water through their systems by which the bacteria concentrates in their meat. And, how often do we hear about algal bloom in New Zealand? It makes you wonder when you hear in the media about “toxic bloom”, and to avoid harvesting and eating shellfish at times. Shellfish are becoming increasingly contaminated because they often reside in estuaries where fecal run-off from sewage can pollute the water. This is a problem in parts of Hawke’s Bay, where I live, and I’m sure other New Zealanders can relate to this. Because shellfish feed by filtering water to gather nutrients, they also pick up fecal germs that can thrive in their tissues without killing them.
Farms & Animals
Campylobacter may be isolated from a wide range of healthy animals such as domestic cats and dogs, birds, cattle, pigs, poultry and goats. It may be easily spread from animal to animal through contact with infected faeces or through a common water supply. Unpasteurised milk may become contaminated with campylobacter if the cow is infected or if the milk is contaminated with manure. Although poultry are seen as a significant source of human infection, eggs are not usually contaminated with campylobacter. As I mentioned earlier, most people become infected through consumption of the bug in undercooked chicken and pork, contaminated water, unpasteurised milk and through contact with infected domestic or farm animals. I regularly have parents bring me in their children with tummy problems, poor appetite and generally listless, who live on rural properties and play with the various baby animals on their farm. The stool test results often come back as negative to campylobacter.
How would you know if you are infected, what are the symptoms?
After an incubation period of between 3-5 days, one or more of the following symptoms may appear; abdominal pain, diarrhoea sometimes with nausea and fever, however, there is usually no vomiting. In most cases the diarrhoea is self-limiting but may persist for up to 10 days or longer. Vomiting does not happen generally, but some people may be prone. What I have found that can and does occur, is that campylobacter weakens the bowel, and may allow an environment to develop in which other bugs can thrive – like E coli and even help to promote fungal (candida) over growths. This is particularly so with recurrent campylo infections. I always look for this in the clinic: NBWS, which stands for “never been well since”. Many times I’ve found a person’s health has NBWS a Christmas party, a holiday abroad, or an incident involving their bowel. It doesn’t matter if it was one, five or ten years ago. Once an “opportunistic” infection takes hold in the bowel, it can stay there for many years. And it can all start with – a simple campylobacter infection like a chicken sandwich you had at aunt Thelma’s place, etc.
I can remember reading research a few years ago regarding people with gallstones or kidney stones, mentioning that these people may be more prone to bacterial infections, because the stones form a “nidus” – a convenient place for bacteria or parasites to hide, ready to pop out at a most inconvenient time – like 2.00am on a Sunday morning or when you are on holidays or staying at a friends place. (nidus is the Latin word for “nest”, just as a nest is a repository for the eggs of birds, insects and other animals, a nidus is a breeding place where bacteria, parasites and other agents of a disease lodge and develop – and may be a recurrent source of infection).
Campylobacter can be sometimes be mistaken for acute appendicitis as well, with the pain being experienced acutely on the left side of the abdomen. In some children, campylobacter infections last long enough that they are confused with ulcerative colitis or even Crohn’s disease!
How to Prevent Infection
- Stop cross contaminating
Very few campylobacter bugs are necessary to cause infection. Prevent cross-contamination by ensuring good food handling practices:– Never use the same cutting board or kitchen utensils for raw and cooked / ready-to-eat foods without thoroughly cleaning them between use. – I would recommend boiling water.
– Ensure raw meats and their juices are handled or stored separately from cooked or ready-to-eat foods. Store raw meat and poultry, on the lowest shelf of the fridge to keep the juices from dripping onto other foods
– Ensure you wash your hands thoroughly between handling raw and cooked / ready to eat foods. Use clean water for all steps in the processing / preparation of food. – Most people are careful to refrigerate meat and cook it thoroughly, but it’s also important to disinfect cutting boards and counter tops & knives after they come in contact with raw meat, I use two cutting boards at home, reserving one of those white plastic ones for raw meat, and I use a wooden one for cooked meats. Boiling hot water does me, and I also place our cutting boards in the hot sun regularly. Some people prefer to use sodium hypochlorite (bleach) in some water, as bleach kills most all food borne bugs. The main thing is to be conscious of never mixing raw & cooked meats and to clean the cutting board/s well.
Ensure Good Hygiene Practice
Maintain good hygiene practices especially in kitchens and bathrooms, which should be cleaned regularly to avoid the spread of infection. Hands should be washed thoroughly after using the toilet, before and after handling all food, after performing routine cleaning duties etc. This is a big one for your kids – make sure they wash their hands before and after foods, handling pets, being on farms, etc. Anybody with an acute tummy problem should stay off work or school at least for a few days if possible, while they have symptoms. Be careful with foods: follow “use – by” and “best -before” dates on food items, and if you have too much meat you defrosted – never refreeze – give it to the cat or throw it out.
Avoid tummy drugs like taking antacids for too long – keep your digestion strong
Hydrochloric acid (as a constituent of gastric juice in your stomach) has been found to be important in suppressing campylobacter. That is because the acid in the stomach has the ability to kill many of these pathogenic organisms like campylobacter. People who take tummy drugs such Mylanta, Gavascon, Quick-Eze, Tums, etc reduce or block the acidity of the stomach and allow such bacteria to survive and enter the intestines and even thrive, where they can cause trouble, not only with causing acute food poisoning, but also by disrupting the normal and healthy bowel flora, which can contribute to chronic health conditions. Why has your doctor prescribed you an “acid blocking” medication? It pays to establish the cause and deal with this, rather than reduce the acidity (and effectiveness) of your stomach.
Eric, What Treatment Do You Recommend For Food Poisoning?
Most cases of campylobacter will recover without treatment over time. If infected, I can recommend a visit to a health food shop or your naturopath who may prescribe nutritional or herbal medicines and may even recommend fluid and electrolyte replacement if necessary, depending upon the severity of the infection. In addition, patients should drink plenty of water while the diarrhoea persists. I am personally not a big fan at all of antibiotics, and I have seen most all cases of campylobacter cured very promptly with natural medicines.
Remember – you don’t want to let other unwanted bugs to grow in a weakened bowel – herbs will kill the bad guys, and not rock the boat too much as far as the beneficial bacteria are concerned in your tummy. Antibiotics are akin to reaching for the intestinal nuclear button, as far as I’m concerned. Have you noticed, some people that you know are much more prone to tummy problems? Ask them if they had a significant episode some time ago, and many can often tell you of one significant incident years ago. They may even have relied recurrently on antibiotics to “cure” a past bowel infection. In such cases – a thorough bowel and liver detoxification is recommended by your naturopath or herbalist.
- Herbal anti-parasitic formula I’d recommend you use a good quality from your practitioner or health-food shop – they work, and they generally work fast. Give three times daily – and take the product 1/2hr before meals for best results. Practitioner only products are stronger and work the best.
- Lunacy? – don’t laugh – but parasite treatment often works better with a waxing moon. This is about three to four days before full moon, traditionally, herbalists used herbs in higher doses than normal to bring about order in the digestive tract at this time. Today, we have lost touch with nature and scientists laugh at “ridiculous” notions that the moon in fact has any effect on our health. Lunacy perhaps, but give it a go, it works.
- Probiotics: If you do develop acute food poisoning, one of the best solutions is very regular doses of a high quality beneficial bacteria (probiotic) taken every hour until better. This usually works within four hours – try it. Take a good probiotic supplement with campylo infections morning and night for a full month. With kids, make sure it has high levels of Lactobacillus bifidus particularly. In order to work properly, probiotics must colonise the bowel and to do so they must be part of the normal gut micro flora, so take for one month at a minimum – no less.
- With kids, campylo diarrhoea usually stops within 2 to 5 days. Full recovery usually takes about 1 week. In my experience with about 1 in 5 cases, diarrhoea can last longer (sometimes a month or more) or it will recur. Do the full moon treatments, give herbs, and give grated raw beetroot and carrot. Avoid sweets, ice cream and fizzy drinks – pay attention to diet, give probiotics and herbs.
- Homeopathic complex spray: Whilst I am not a fan at all of mixing lots of homeopathic medicines, a good quality “complex” spray works well – get professional advice and try hourly. I would never go to India without a bottle of this stuff, never ever.
- Mighty garlic and oregano: Increase consumption of raw garlic, ginger and other fresh herbs such as marjoram, rosemary, oregano, thyme. Researchers in Holland found that a 1% solution of garlic from fresh cloves has been shown to have antibacterial activity against almost all bad bacteria, including candida albicans, the most common yeast infection. You can even give your animals natural antibiotic germ-killers like oil infused with garlic and oil of oregano – mix in their pet foods. Oil of oregano has been shown to exhibit the greatest inhibition of bacteria among all food spices in a recent test against pathogens such as E. Coli, Staph aureus, Pseudomonas and others germs. A study conducted at Cornell University found that spices such as garlic, oil of oregano, onion, and allspice killed every bacterium tested, even anthrax! A clinical trial in 1977, conducted in India, revealed that crude garlic extract exhibited greater antibiotic action against deadly anthrax than all tetracyclines, penicillins, streptomycins, ampicillins, erythromycins and other antibiotics. Do you still visit your doctor when you get a tummy bug? Try herbs instead, you don’t need those toxic nuclear drug weapons.
- Campylobacter jejuni-An Emerging Foodborne Pathogen
- Gibson, G. R., et al. Regulatory effects of bifidobacteria on the growth of other colonic bacteria. J Appl Bacteriol. 77(4):412-420, 1999 Campylobacter jejuni and Campylobacter fetus symptoms, causes, treatment, risk factors, and prevention.