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Prevent Diverticulitis with Simple Diet Changes

woman in pink sweater clutching her side
September 23, 2014 (Updated: February 21, 2019)
Lily Moran

If you’ve had a colonoscopy, the doctor may have told you about “pockets” in your colon. These small pockets or pouches, known as diverticula, in the digestive tract are very common, especially after age 40.

Straining to pass hard stools creates the little pouches. The pressure applied to the colon during a difficult bowel movement forces the grape-sized protrusions out of weak spots in the intestinal wall.

Frequent constipation, dehydration, a sedentary lifestyle, and the low-fiber diet eaten by most Americans all play roles in this condition, too.

Many people live with pouches–technically, the condition is known as diverticulosis–for years without even knowing they’re there.

Problems begin when the diverticula become inflamed or infected. Then the condition is known as diverticulitis.

Once inflammation or infection sets in, you could experience pain, fever, nausea, diarrhea, blood in the stools, constipation, and vomiting.

That’s what happened to my friend David, who came to see me a few months ago. He’d been taking repeated rounds of antibiotics for diverticulitis.

After more than five years of on-again, off-again antibiotics, David’s doctor put him on steroids. And then he lost control of his bowels.

Suddenly, his doctor was talking about surgery and a possible colostomy. This surgical procedure involves cutting the colon and bringing one end of it through the abdominal wall, so stools are deposited in a bag outside the body.

Needless to say, David, who was only in his mid-50s, panicked. He did not want a colostomy, so we talked his options over.

There are a number of tests to identify diverticulitis, including:

  • Blood test
  • X-ray
  • Digital rectal exam
  • CT scan
  • Colonoscopy

Looking at David’s test results, I came up with suggestions to ease his most painful symptoms. As an added bonus, most of my suggestions were things that would decrease his colon cancer risk, something he was concerned about due to his family history.

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But as I explained to him, these were steps he could take on his own to improve the situation. If you have concerns about your colon, these steps can help you, too.

The first step in helping heal David’s diverticulitis was switching him to a high-fiber diet. That meant he needed to opt for a plate filled with vegetables, beans, and whole grains, instead of processed, refined foods.

Eating a big salad with raw vegetables at least once a day was a good way to do that. And starting a meal with a salad would help with weight management, which David found challenging.

I also told him to drink more fresh, filtered water to help soften his stools, so there’s less straining involved. The leafy greens and veggies in salads would help, too. They not only contain fiber, they’re also filled with water.

Fiber supplements can help, too. David could simply add a half-cup of oat bran to his morning cereal. Or he could take psyllium or flax supplements, aiming for 20 to 35 grams of fiber daily.

In addition, studies have shown that probiotics, the digestive tract’s army of good bacteria, often need reinforcements in patients with diverticulitis. I recommended David take daily probiotic supplements with a product containing at least 10 billion viable organisms.

At the same time, I urged David to give up caffeine, at least temporarily. A natural diuretic, it removes much-needed water from your system. So he would have to avoid coffee, tea, and caffeinated sodas while he healed.

David wondered about eating nuts, corn, and food like popcorn. He knew they were high fiber foods, and some of his favorites. But his first doctor had warned him that those foods could make his condition worse.

Not true! In fact, a recent study that followed nearly 48,000 health care professionals for nearly two decades found fewer cases of diverticulitis among those who ate nuts, corn, and popcorn.

David followed my advice and found that his diverticulitis symptoms disappeared. “And I’ve lost weight, now that I’m eating better. This experience has been a real eye-opener,” he told me. “I used to think of food as just something that tasted good.

“Now I see that it plays a big part in health. So the next time I get sick, I’m going to look at what I’m eating,” he said. “It seems like an awful lot of our problems start there.”

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