Nourishing our bodies with good food and leading an active lifestyle have health benefits across the board, and are especially important in preventing colon cancer and other colorectal issues.
One condition of the colon that can potentially be avoided by making lifestyle modifications is called diverticulosis. More than 60 percent of Americans over the age of 60 have diverticulosis, and, by age 80, around 80 percent are affected by it. However, cases in younger populations are also on the rise. Some people have no symptoms, but for others, it can be painful and create ongoing discomfort.
Diverticula are small pouches that can form along the colon and often do not cause symptoms, but some people may experience mild abdominal pain, bloating or constipation. Diverticulitis arises when the pouches become inflamed or infected, which can cause abdominal pain (typically on the left side), nausea, vomiting, cramping, constipation, and/or fever and chills. The pain can be sudden and severe, or can be mild and increase in intensity over time.
“As a colon and rectal surgeon, I take diverticulitis seriously,” says Preetha Ali, MD, a colorectal surgeon from Overlake’s Colon and Rectal Clinic. “Given that the disease can escalate quickly, it’s important to treat the infection early.”
Although the exact reason diverticula form is unknown, a low-fiber diet is the most common theory. A diet low in fiber can cause constipation, which puts pressure on the intestines and causes muscle strain during bowel movements. Over time, this can weaken the muscles, making it easier for diverticula to form. Leading a low-risk lifestyle drops your risk of developing diverticulitis by 50 percent. This includes having a normal BMI, getting enough physical activity, not smoking, and having a diet high in fiber and low in red meat.
Treatment for diverticulitis focuses on reducing inflammation and infection with a pain reliever and antibiotics. In acute cases, surgical treatment may be needed.
“Simple preventive measures, such as taking a fiber supplement, can go a long way toward reducing the risk of complications,” says Dr. Ali. She recommends those who have had episodes of diverticulitis speak with a primary care provider about having a colonoscopy to rule out other reasons for infection or obstruction in the colon.
Lifestyle considerations for preventing diverticular disease and for good, overall digestive health:
• Eat a high-fiber diet, and consider adding a fiber supplement to your daily regimen – aim for 25 to 35 grams of fiber per day. Foods high in fiber include oats, bran, lentils, beans, peas, blackberries, raspberries, pears, avocados, artichokes, broccoli and spinach.
• Nuts, popcorn and seeds are fine to eat. Previously, those with diverticulosis were advised against consuming these foods, but a recent study shows they do not increase the risk of diverticulosis or complications from diverticulitis.
• Reduce red meat consumption.
• Exercise regularly, stop smoking and limit alcohol intake.
Watch Dr. Ali on a recent episode of New Day Northwest speaking about eating well for your digestive health.