Pickles are a beloved condiment for many, adding a tangy, sour crunch to sandwiches, burgers, and snacks. However, some people experience an upset stomach or diarrhea after eating pickles. What is it about these cured cucumbers that causes this reaction? Let’s take a closer look at the potential causes.
The High Sodium Content
During the pickling process, salt is added to cucumbers to draw out moisture and crisp them up. This results in a very high sodium content. One large pickle can contain over 500 mg of sodium, which is almost a quarter of the recommended daily intake. Eating multiple pickles in one sitting could result in consuming dangerous amounts of sodium.
Too much sodium draws fluid into the intestines, causing diarrhea in some people. The excess sodium also forces the kidneys to retain more fluid to dilute the sodium, which leads to bloating and watery stool.
|Pickles||Sodium Per Serving|
|Dill pickle spear (3-1/2″ long)||579mg|
|Bread and Butter pickles (3 slices)||182mg|
|Sweet pickle relish (1 tablespoon)||174mg|
As you can see, even small servings of pickles are very high in sodium. Those with sensitivity may experience diarrhea from the saltiness.
Spices and Seasonings
Pickles are often flavored with other ingredients besides salt during the brining process. Spices like garlic, dill, mustard powder, cinnamon, cloves, and chilies are commonly used.
Some people’s digestive systems react poorly to strong spices. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) in particular can cause increased sensitivity. The spiciness can overstimulate the intestines, causing stomach cramping, bloating, and diarrhea.
Other seasonings like vinegar and citrus also make pickles quite acidic. Too much acidity can disrupt the digestive process and the gut flora balance. In those prone to stomach upset, the acidity and spice combo of pickles could quickly lead to diarrhea.
There is a small risk of contamination during the pickling and fermenting process. If pickles are not properly prepared and sterilized, harmful bacteria like salmonella or E. coli could be present.
Foodborne illnesses often cause severe diarrhea along with vomiting and fever. Making sure pickles come from a trusted source with safe preparation practices reduces this risk. Home-canned pickles have a higher safety risk if improper technique is used.
|Type of Contamination||Potential Source||Symptoms|
|Salmonella||Animal waste in fields, unsafe handling||Diarrhea, fever, vomiting|
|E. coli||Contaminated water, poor hygiene||Bloody diarrhea, dehydration|
|Listeria||Unsterilized equipment, soil||Fever, stiff neck, confusion|
Contamination is not overly common, but it is possible if safety protocols are not followed carefully during preparation. Rinsing pickles before eating them can help remove any lingering bacteria.
Some people may have trouble digesting components found in pickles. Lactose intolerance is one example, as many pickle recipes contain small amounts of dairy products like whey or milk.
Having an intolerance to fermented foods is another possibility. The natural fermentation process that creates the sour flavor can produce histamines and probiotics that some people’s digestive systems react negatively towards.
The vinegars used can also trigger sensitivities in some. Vinegar contains acetic acid, which can irritate the digestive lining for those prone to acid reflux or ulcers.
If pickles are new in your diet, introducing them slowly and in small quantities at first is wise. This gives your body time to adjust and determine if you have any intolerances.
Pickles contain compounds called FODMAPs, which stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols. These carbohydrates are poorly absorbed by some people.
When FODMAPs reach the far end of the intestine undigested, they draw fluid into the colon through osmosis. This can lead to diarrhea in those with sensitivities. Other high FODMAP foods include apples, milk, beans, high fructose corn syrup, and wheat products.
A low FODMAP diet helps some people control IBS symptoms. If pickles aggravate your digestive system, limiting high FODMAP foods may help.
|Common FODMAPs in Pickles||Source|
|Fructose||Onions, garlic, high fructose corn syrup|
|Fructans||Garlic, wheat (added for crispness)|
Look for low FODMAP recipes without onion or wheat, or try limiting portion sizes of regular pickles to see if that helps.
Some pickles go through a natural fermenting process that creates probiotics. These beneficial live bacteria help promote a healthy gut flora balance. However, too much at once can cause digestive distress until your system adjusts.
Start with a small serving of fermented pickles like genuine dill or sauerkraut. Gradually increase intake over a few weeks to see if your digestion improves. Be aware fermented pickles may be higher in histamines as well.
For some, the probiotics in pickles can actually help diarrhea by reinforcing gut bacteria and reducing inflammation. But introducing them slowly is important.
Health Benefits of Pickles
Despite the potential for diarrhea, pickles can also offer several benefits when enjoyed in moderation by those that tolerate them well. Here are a few of the positives of including pickles in your diet:
- Provide probiotics for gut health
- High in antioxidants and vitamin K
- Low calorie and low carb
- Anti-cancer potential from compounds like luteolin
- Phytochemicals that reduce inflammation
- Help control blood sugar due to vinegar
- Appetite suppression from fiber and crunchiness
The key is sticking to a reasonable portion and choosing no/low salt added options if sodium is a concern. Those without pickle sensitivities can enjoy them as part of a healthy diet.
Tips to Prevent Pickle-Induced Diarrhea
Here are some ways to help prevent or minimize diarrhea and other side effects when eating pickles:
- Look for low/no sodium pickles to reduce saltiness
- Avoid heavily spiced options if sensitive to them
- Rinse pickles before eating to remove excess brine
- Opt for refrigerator pickles instead of shelf-stable
- Start with small servings and increase slowly
- Avoid pickles on an empty stomach
- Check ingredients for food intolerances
- Monitor serving size – 1-3 half or whole dill pickles is moderate
- Drink fluids to stay hydrated
- Avoid pickles if taking certain medications like lithium
Paying attention to your individual tolerance, minimizing portions, and controlling sodium intake allows most people to enjoy pickles in their diet without issue.
When to See a Doctor
Occasional loose stools or gas after eating pickles generally isn’t a major concern. However, see a doctor if you experience:
- Diarrhea lasting more than 2 days
- Presence of blood or mucus in stool
- Severe pain or cramping
- Dehydration symptoms like dizziness, confusion, or dark urine
- Fever over 101 F degrees
- Repeated instances of pickle-related diarrhea
These could indicate a more serious issue like a gastrointestinal infection, IBS, or severe food intolerance. Your doctor can help determine if an underlying condition exists and suggest proper treatment.
The Bottom Line
Pickles are a tasty snack for many people, but their high sodium content, spices, acids, and fermentation process can also unsettle some stomachs. Typical symptoms like diarrhea, bloating, or cramps are temporary but annoying.
Paying attention to serving sizes, salt content, and your individual tolerance levels can allow you to keep enjoying pickles in moderation. Be sure to drink fluids to offset the dehydrating effects as well. But if problems persist, consider limiting intake or avoiding pickles altogether.
With some care and awareness, most pickle lovers can continue satisfying their cravings without uncomfortable side effects!