Diverticular Disease: How Can You Maintain Good Bowel Health?
Aon Health & Wellbeing Conversation #1
When we think of gastrointestinal disorders, the following probably come to mind – haemorrhoids, heartburn, acidity, gastric, constipation, flatulence, etc. However, unknown to many, diverticular disease is a cause for concern too.
Diverticular disease is a condition in which small, bulging pouches develop in the digestive tract. This happens along the large intestine, or colon, which is where residual food material is processed to extract any remaining nutrients and absorb water for the body’s use.
A healthy colon has a smooth and strong muscular layer. When some parts of the outer wall become weak, the inner layer pushes through and creates bulging pouches or sacs called diverticula. A person who has developed diverticula in the colon has what is called diverticulosis.
Who is at risk
People over the age of 40, especially those from developed countries such as the US, UK and Australia, are most at risk of developing diverticular disease due to their genetic predisposition. Also, people who are obese, smokers, lacking in exercise, under certain medications, or are lacking fibre in their diets are more susceptible to the disease.
Diverticulosis is often asymptomatic and is therefore often ignored. People who experience pain in their abdomen, are bloated, and have either diarrhoea or constipation may have potentially developed it. The situation becomes serious when the diverticula become inflamed and/or infected and pain begins. This condition is called diverticulitis and occurs when bacteria-packed partially-digested food and/or faeces block the opening of the diverticula.
Aside from constant and severe pain, some may experience:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Bleeding and blood in stool
A left-sided abdominal pain is common to North Americans and Europeans where the sigmoid colon or the end section of the colon is most affected, while a right-sided abdominal pain is common to Asians and Africans where diverticula occurs mostly at the ascending colon.
Doctors often counter diverticulitis by prescribing several antibiotics to attend to the different bacteria present in the colon. It is important though for affected patients to advise their physicians if they are allergic to certain types of antibiotics. A change in diet would also be prescribed, starting with clear liquids and moving slowly to solids that are high in fibre, to allow the bowel time to rest and heal.
However, diarrhoea and vomitting could cause anyone to lose an excessive amount of fluids and electrolytes – leading to dehydration. This is why, despite the discomfort, it’s important to ensure that you hydrate as much as you can. And if the symptoms become severe, emergency consultation is critical.
When it becomes serious
While it may seem that diverticulosis is manageable, it can lead to more serious complications when left untreated. Possible complications include:
Rush to the nearest medical facility if you show signs of:
- Abscess, when pus develops in the pouches
- Blockages in the intestines
- Abnormalities in the passageway
- Peritonitis, a condition where intestinal contents spill internally due to ruptured diverticula
- Diverticular bleeding
While exact causes of diverticulosis are yet to be determined by the medical community, research shows the condition might be genetic and gets more prevalent as people age. Hence, early prevention is a step in the right direction. While you are still young, start practicing these three basic and commonly recommended health practices:
- Exercise regularly to promote normal bowel movement
- Drink plenty of fluids to allow better food digestion and fibre absorption
- Have a fibre-enriched diet such as fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains as fibre softens waste material and allows easy passage through the colon.