-Robert Burns, To A Mouse
Traveler’s diarrhea is triggered by the ingestion of fecal bacteria or parasites. There, I said it. If you get sick to your stomach on vacation, it’s probably because you ate someone’s (or something’s) shit.
According to Mayo Clinic, the biggest culprit is entero(related to the intestines)toxi(relating to toxins)genic(producing) Escherichia (a country in Eastern Europe) coli (a breed of dog).
Enterotoxigenic Escherichia coli.
ETEC for short. Or simply the shits.
These utter bastards hitch a ride on your seared sheep rectum sushi and proceed to make your life a living hell for a couple days; just long enough to hate the country you’re visiting.
There’s not much you can do to avoid traveler’s diarrhea—it strikes mercilessly and almost randomly.
The first month I was in Saigon, I had the shits 3 times. Two of those events were definitely due to eating chilies, but the first was food poisoning for sure.
Locals and fellow travelers offer suggestions ranging from “Don’t eat meat” to “Eat more chilies! They’ll kill the bacteria in your stomach!”
The second suggestion has merit, but the first one is absolutely insane. What else can you eat?
Days came and went, and my stomach seemed fine. But a few months ago I started getting sick about two or three times per week. Nothing I ate agreed with me. Rice, soup, rats, it didn’t matter.
During one of my angry internet searches trying to discover a way to purge those demons, I remembered reading research from a few years ago about human enterotypes.
To summarize, there are 3 main suites of gut bacteria found in humans around the world, and the type of microbes in your stomach are influenced primarily by long-term diet. Children in the west carry different bacteria than those in Asia because of their diets.
I will admit that my approach to solving traveler’s diarrhea wasn’t blind-tested, peer-reviewed or any of that nonsense, but it worked for me and it might work for you too.
I took a long, hard look at my diet in the past and compared it to what I was eating in Vietnam. Everything seemed about the same, surprisingly.
My intake of protein, carbs and fat wasn’t much different from when I lived in America. I a little more fruit, a bit less vegetables, a few more eggs. But I was eating different sources of those nutrients, and my coddled western digestive system had enough. Every stomach knows the best source of wholesome carbohydrates is a bowl of Frosted Flakes with chocolate syrup.
What DID change was my consumption of dairy products and their delicious roster of beneficial bacteria. Back home I would go through about 2 gallons of milk every week.
Milk, ice cream and yogurt took a while to catch on in Vietnam due to an initial lack of refrigeration. Because of that, most of the milk you buy is some variant of condensed milk. Ice cream is ice cream. But yogurt—yogurt is available everywhere, and it’s cheap.
So I started eating yogurt, and changed nothing else about my diet. Within 2 days I felt amazing, and haven’t had any issues since—besides a handful of incidents, but those always came right after eating a meal I knew was going to give me a hard time. Seatbelts and airbags work great unless you drive your car off a cliff.
Look, if you’re going to visit a developing country, you’re going to eat dirty food at some point. Do yourself a favor and try eating yogurt before, during and after your trip.
Maybe it won’t work for you, but it’s better than starving yourself on vacation because you’re afraid of the Big Bad E.
And this isn’t medical advice. If you’re bleeding, feverish or incoherent, go to the doctor. Yogurt isn’t going to help you.
What about you? Have any stomach tips from the Old Country you’d like to share?