What is Diverticulitis?
Diverticulitis is an intestinal disease that results from inflammation of the diverticula (x). The diverticula are small pouches that protrude through intestinal walls, characterizing a condition called diverticulosis. Although diverticulosis itself is relatively benign, it can lead to diverticulitis and a massive infection of the bowel.
Diverticulitis is common among men age 40 and older, especially in the West. Before the 20th century, it was not a common disease; poor dieting is the condition’s main cause, and dieting has worsened over the years, particularly in the West. Some individuals with diverticulitis suffer from the following serious complications (x):
- Abscesses: These are painful pus-filled infections that can cause nausea, vomiting, fever and severe abdominal pain.
- Intestinal perforations: These are small tears or holes in the colon that, like abscesses, can cause nausea, vomiting and fever as well as sudden severe abdominal pain.
- Fistulas: These are abnormal tunnels that form between different organs in the intestinal-anal region, such as the colon and the bladder or the colon and the vagina. They can cause pain, bleeding and foul-smelling discharging around the anus.
- Phlegmons: Similar to abscesses, these are localized pus-filled infections of the bowel wall that, like any bowel infection, can cause pain, fever, nausea and vomiting.
- Intestinal obstructions: These are total blockages in the intestines that prevent stool from passing through. They can cause loss of appetite, swelling and pain. Constipation may also occur.
Diverticulitis symptoms fall into two categories — mild and severe — and they come on gradually or suddenly. Symptoms include the following:
Abdominal Pain and/or Tenderness
Indicates inflammation. Usually starts in a localized abdominal region before spreading throughout the abdomen.
Nausea and Vomiting
Indicates abdominal stress from inflammation, tension, pressure or total discomfort and often leads to vomiting. Vomiting is the forceful and involuntary expulsion of stomach contents out through the mouth. Follows nausea caused by abdominal stress.
Changes in Bowel Habit
This is an early indicator of biological changes to the digestive tract. Changes may include more or less frequent bowel movements and sometimes indigestion. Constipation may also indicate inflammation in the rectum or intestinal obstruction. This occurs when the colon absorbs excess water from the stool. Furthermore, diarrhea is a strong indicator of colonic inflammation and infection. The frequent passing of watery, loose stools characterizes it.
Bloating indicates excess gas in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract caused by food intolerances, overeating or disruptions to gut microflora. An uncomfortable, swollen, sometimes painful tummy characterizes it.
Stool Blood and Indigestion
Bloody stool indicates many stomach disorders and issues of food passing through the GI tract. Appears as stains on the stool. Indigestion indicates many GI issues. Early fullness after eating; discomfort, burning or bloating in the abdomen; or nausea characterize it.
Fever and Loss of Appetite
Fever is a strong indicator of infection. Abnormal increases in body temperature characterize it. Loss of appetite indicates indigestion, constipation, infection or intestinal obstructions, among other conditions.
Indicates inflammation, infection, intestinal obstructions or other conditions.
If you suspect you have diverticulitis because you’ve experienced any of the above symptoms, seek medical help immediately to prevent further complications.
Although medical researchers aren’t certain what this condition’s main cause is, they suspect several factors contribute to its etiology (x):
Tears in the Diverticula
These can cause the swelling, inflammation and infection that characterize diverticulitis.
Bacteria in the Diverticula
Researchers suspect that buildups of stool or bacteria in the diverticula contribute to the swelling, inflammation and infection of diverticulitis.
Aging and Poor Dieting
Aging and poor dieting have a direct link to diverticulitis’ etiology (x). In fact, many in the West have poor diets, and medical researchers suspect poor dieting over many years contributes to this condition. Dieting has worsened over the years and become a widespread problem in the West, particularly in the United States, which is why diverticulitis wasn’t common here 100 years ago.
Obesity, a condition characterized by excess body fat, is a common health concern in the U.S. with a strong connection to poor dieting. Medical researchers suspect obesity has a link to diverticulitis (x).
Smoking damages organs and attacks the microflora that protect them. Medical researchers have determined that smoking does, in fact, accelerate the development of diverticular diseases (x).
Lack of Exercise
Exercise helps the internal organs function the way they’re supposed to. It also helps food absorption and movement through the body. Research has shown that regular running decreases the risk of diverticulitis (x).
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin or steroids, may increase the risk of diverticulitis or worsen it (x).
Medical researchers also suspect diverticulitis has a link to genetics. They think parents can pass on the condition to their children, though this is rare if they do.
Diverticulitis Supplements and Remedies
Some supplements and remedies have shown positive effects as treatment adjuvants for diverticulitis. Before trying any of the below supplements and remedies to treat diverticulitis, talk to your doctor. Note that none of the following should replace conventional diverticulitis treatments.
By and large, medical research supports ginger as a natural treatment for many gastrointestinal disorders as it effectively manages and prevents the onset of nausea and vomiting from gastrointestinal upsets (x). Furthermore, ginger has anti-inflammatory properties, which might help combat inflammation from diverticulitis (x).
Medical research has shown that aloe vera can treat constipation, a symptom of diverticulitis, in patients with gastrointestinal conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) (x). Moreover, aloe vera has anti-inflammatory effects and acts as a protective agent against the negative effects of NSAIDs on gastrointestinal health (x).
Slippery elm is a demulcent. In other words, it promotes the healing of and protects irritated tissues (x). It may also soothe the intestinal walls from the irritation diarrhea causes as well (x). Furthermore, slippery elm mucilage (a gelatinous substance some plants form with water) may have an anti-inflammatory effect along the GI tract.
Turmeric contains the molecule curcumin, which medical research has gravitated toward to investigate its widespread use as an aid to GI health. Clinical research of the last ten years has determined that curcumin from turmeric has potent anti-inflammatory properties that can fight the low-grade inflammation of the intestinal mucosa common in patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) (x). Curcumin may alleviate inflammation from diverticulitis, too. It has even shown positive efficacy in the treatment of colorectal cancer.
Other Remedies and Treatments
According to the GI Society, exercise — 30 minutes of mild-to-medium intensity exercise (such as walking, jogging and weight lifting) three to five times each week — “can significantly reduce an individual’s risk for [diverticular disease] (x).”
Recent research in the U.S. has found that complications from diverticular diseases were far less prevalent in physically active men than in those who weren’t physically active (x). The study comprised 50,000 male test subjects between 40 and 75 years of age.
Doctors often prescribe antibiotics if bacterial infections are the cause of the diverticulitis cases they’re treating. Ciprofloxacin and metronidazole, for example, are two antibiotics that have shown positive efficacy in the treatment of diverticulitis.
In some cases, health-care practitioners will need to perform percutaneous needle drainage to drain the pus of infected diverticula. Clinical trials of needle drainage in patients with diverticular disease presented no complications. Researchers also suggested that it may “reduce morbidity and hospital costs without increasing mortality” (x).
Severe cases of diverticulitis and diverticular bleeding may require surgery to correct. If surgery is required, surgeons will perform colon resections to remove affected parts of the colon (x).
The Bottom Line
Diverticulitis is a health condition common to the western world that inflammation or infection of the diverticula causes. It occurs mostly in men 40 years of age and older, and it can be mild (diverticulosis) or serious.
Medical researchers suspect the main cause of diverticular diseases is poor dieting over many years. Obesity, low exercise, smoking, NSAIDs and even genetics may all have parts to play in the disease’s etiology.
Symptoms of diverticulitis include abdominal pain/tenderness, loss of appetite, nausea with or without vomiting, diarrhea or constipation and blood in the stool. Treatments include prescription antibiotics, percutaneous needle drainage or colonic resection surgery.
If you want to try natural supplements and remedies, talk to your doctor first to determine which supplement or remedy might help alleviate your condition and which might worsen it. Ginger, turmeric, slippery elm and aloe vera, for example, have all shown positive efficacy in the treatments of many GI health complaints.
Worth remembering is that exercise has shown clinical success in reducing the risks of diverticular diseases in middle-aged men. To avoid this condition in the future, eat a healthy diet and also make time in your busy week for mild to moderate exercise.