Experts estimate you have a 50% chance of developing diverticular disease in your lifetime. If you’ve ever experienced a painful attack of diverticulitis, you’ll probably want to avoid having one again.
In this article, you’ll find out why diverticular disease develops and discover natural measures you can take to prevent this distressing condition, ease any current discomfort and avoid future attacks.
Diverticulosis occurs when little pouches known as diverticula form in the wall of your large intestine or colon. The muscular layer of the intestinal wall protrudes outwards to form a small hollow pocket.
The underlying cause has traditionally been believed to be constipation. Hard, dehydrated faeces are difficult for your intestines to propel along, meaning the muscles in their walls thicken over time. Pressure then increases within your colon, eventually bulging portions of the wall outwards where muscles are weakened.
You’re more likely to develop these pouches as you age because your intestinal walls can weaken, losing their elasticity and becoming stiff and inflexible.
When these pouches first form, they often don’t cause any symptoms so you might not be aware you have them. But as they increase in number you may begin to suffer from bloating, irregular bowel movements and wind.
As time goes by, food residues tend to become trapped in the pouches, causing irritation and inflammation. If one or more of your diverticula become inflamed, you’re then suffering from diverticulitis.
Diverticulitis causes sharp, localised pain, usually in the lower left part of your abdomen. The pain may come and go, and it’s usually relieved by passing wind or having a bowel movement. Other symptoms include a bloated tummy, irregular bowel movements, blood in the stool, tiredness, nausea and a high temperature. Occasionally, an abscess may form in one of the pouches, and if this perforates, it’s important to seek medical attention as soon as possible.
Diverticulosis and diverticulitis together are known as diverticular disease.
Apart from constipation, the condition is connected with ongoing low-grade inflammation in your intestines and alterations in the population of the bacteria living in your digestive system, known as your microbiome. Healthy gut bacteria are important because they produce substances nourishing your intestinal lining and controlling inflammation, so any imbalance of these bacteria can spell disaster for your gut.
Healthy bacteria are important for bulking out your stool and preventing constipation, whereas in turn, constipation makes for an unhealthy microbiome.
Conventional medicine offers anti-inflammatory and painkilling drugs, coming with side effects, or in serious cases surgery. However, dietary and lifestyle modifications can not only help reduce the likelihood of diverticulosis developing but can also prevent it progressing into diverticulitis.
If you’re currently suffering a diverticulitis attack, most experts recommend initially a soothing diet consisting of steamed vegetables, fish and non-citrus fruit, avoiding grains, alcohol, spicy food and coffee.
However, because lack of fibre is usually behind the constipation implicated in diverticular disease, increasing fibre in your diet is really important once the pain has abated. Fibre feeds the beneficial bacteria in your intestines and adds bulk to the intestinal contents allowing them to pass along more easily. Avoid bran fibre which can irritate your intestinal lining, emphasising foods high in soluble fibre like gluten-free oats, apples, ground flax seeds and vegetables.
As you increase the amount of fibre in your diet, make sure you’re drinking enough fluids. Dehydration is a major cause of constipation.
Some advice recommends avoiding whole nuts, seeds and popcorn in case they become trapped in the pouches, but more recent research suggests this is unlikely, with nut consumption connected with fewer attacks of diverticulitis.
Stress management is crucial because stress boosts intestinal inflammation. Regular exercise can reduce risk by increasing intestinal activity. Healthy blood levels of Vitamin D have been shown to reduce the likelihood of developing diverticulitis, while magnesium can support healthy muscle function in the gut.
Processed foods, sugar, alcohol and caffeine increase the likelihood of inflammation developing, making future attacks of diverticulitis more likely.
If you’re obese or a smoker, you’re more likely to develop diverticular disease, and it’s less common in people who don’t eat much or any red meat. Some medications such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can increase risk because they’re known to provoke inflammation in the intestines.
Only a quarter of people at most with diverticulosis will go on to develop diverticulitis, so the power is in your hands to reduce your future risk. Once diverticula pouches are formed they’re here to stay, but dietary and lifestyle measures can help prevent them becoming inflamed.
Functional medicine aims to discover the causes of your ill-health and to put them right. Systematic testing will identify the factors leading you to develop this disease, enabling personalised recommendations to be tailored to your personal journey to optimal health. Contact us today and start on the path to a happier gut.
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