What is Diverticulitis?

A friend of mine recently had a brush with death. She was unknowingly carrying a time bomb in her large intestine, and when it went off, it nearly took her with it. She had a diverticular abscess, which burst and thus allowed the bacteria to get into her abdominal cavity. That caused a problem called peritonitis.

All things considered, she got off easy. She had to have emergency surgery to remove the damaged portion of her large intestine and clean up the mess in her abdomen. She may have a fierce-looking scar, but she’s alive, and she can still go to the bathroom normally, instead of into a colostomy bag on her side.

The problem started when part of the wall of her large intestine “ballooned out” to form a little pouch called a diverticulum. When you have these diverticula, the condition is called diverticulosis. Here’s what diverticulosis looks like, from inside the large intestine:

About half of Americans over 50 years of age have diverticulosis and don’t even know it. Diverticulosis may cause mild, intermittent symptoms of pain and bloating in the lower left side of the belly. It may cause bouts of diarrhea and constipation. It is a common cause of rectal bleeding in people over 40 years of age. Or it may cause no symptoms at all. If one of the diverticula gets infected, the condition is called diverticulitis. It’s just like appendicitis, except that the symptoms are worse on the lower left, rather than the lower right, side of the belly. If the inflamed diverticulum bursts, you can end up with life-threatening peritonitis.

Diverticular disease is common in the United States. However, it’s rare in places like Africa and Asia, where people eat a high-fiber, plant-based diet. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), the best treatment for most cases of diverticulosis is a high-fiber diet. Both soluble and insoluble fiber are helpful, because they retain water and make the stool softer and easier to pass. If the muscles of the large intestine don’t have to strain so hard, they won’t generate the high pressure that can cause a diverticulum to form.

Some doctors say that people with diverticulosis should avoid eating small seeds, such as those in tomatoes or raspberries. However, the NIDDK says that there is no scientific information to support that recommendation.

Dairy products increase the risk for diverticulosis by causing constipation. When dairy protein is digested, it can produce morphine-like compounds that slow down the muscles that are supposed to push food through the intestines.

To prevent diverticulosis, prevent constipation. Eat lots and lots of unrefined starches and vegetables. Avoid dairy products. A diet like that is also good for maintaining a healthy weight, controlling your cholesterol and blood sugar, and preventing osteoporosis.

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