Diverticular disease is a common intestinal condition that affects the lives of many Americans. It can lead to a range of gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms easily mistaken for other gastrointestinal problems.
Diverticular disease is especially prevalent in developed countries where low-fiber diets are more common. Without proper intervention (dietary or otherwise), it may progress to more serious conditions and its complications can even prove fatal.
What is Diverticular Disease?
Diverticular disease, also known as diverticulosis, is a condition that affects the digestive tract, mainly the large intestine (2). It involves the formation of diverticula (pocket-like sacs) along the intestinal walls where partially digested food can get stuck and later cause problems.
The presence of diverticula alone doesn’t mean a person will develop GI problems or symptoms, but they do predispose to further complications. Such complications can include rectal bleeding and inflammation and infection of diverticula (known as diverticulitis).
Diverticulitis is the inflammation of diverticula. It is due to the clogging of diverticula with feces and bacteria causing an infection. A person may develop symptoms typical of infection (fever, fatigue, etc.) and pain in the lower abdomen.
Complications from diverticulitis are dangerous and can include perforation of diverticula. This will cause leakage of intestinal contents into the abdomen and potential infection of the abdominal cavity (peritonitis). Other complications include the formation of abscesses and obstruction of the bowel.
What Causes Diverticular Disease?
There is a big connection between diet, age, and the incidence of this disease. For one, diverticular disease seems to be a lot more common in developed countries where diets low in fiber and high in refined carbohydrates are prevalent (1). It is also more common in older individuals and the risks increases with age.
Excessive straining during bowel movements and constipation from low-fiber diets may contribute to the development of this disease. This combined with weakening connective tissue of the large intestine (associated with aging) may explain why it affects mostly Western and older populations. Its exact etiology, however, is unknown.
Prevention and Treatment
Diverticulosis can be prevented in most cases by adopting a diet rich in plant foods and fiber according to Harvard experts. Harvard studies have shown that individuals following a diet rich in fiber were less likely to develop symptomatic diverticulosis and complications (1).
If diverticular disease alone is usually not enough to present major symptoms. A diet rich in fiber is usually enough to deal with symptoms and prevent complications. Diverticulitis, however, is much more serious and its treatment may include broad-spectrum antibiotics, a strict liquid diet, and bowel rest. Diverticulitis requires treatment by a physician and dietary management by a dietitian who is familiar with the disease. The bottom line is that everyone can benefit from eating more fruits and vegetables to ensure a healthy dose of fiber every day!
- Harvard Health Publishing. “Diverticular Disease of the Colon.” Harvard Health, https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/diverticular-disease-of-the-colon.
- “Diverticulosis & Diverticulitis.” Cleveland Clinic, https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/10352-diverticular-disease.