If you are over 60, there’s a good chance you have pouches in the walls of your intestines (called diverticula). These pouches develop where the intestinal wall is weak, usually in the large intestine. When the sacs inflame or become infected, the condition is called diverticulitis. Diverticulitis can be serious, even life-threatening, because the pouches can rupture and spew bacteria from the intestines into the abdominal cavity, causing sepsis.
In the early 20th century, autopsy studies revealed that diverticular disease was present in 2 to 10 percent of the population. Today 50 percent of people over 60 have diverticulosis, and 25 percent of them will develop diverticulitis. It’s of concern that diverticular disease is increasing in young people, even adolescents.
Inflammation seems to be the chief cause of the development of diverticular disease. Intestinal inflammation is the result of a low-fiber, low-nutrient, often high-fat diet. Food allergy, chronic constipation or diarrhea, frequent indigestion, long-term use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen or naproxen, and prolonged stress can also lead to gut inflammation.
Most people with diverticulosis don’t know they have it. They may first learn of the condition through a routine screening colonoscopy. But when diverticulosis becomes diverticulitis, you’ll know it. The symptoms can be mild—cramping and discomfort in the lower abdomen, often the left side, with nausea and loss of appetite—or they can be severe with extreme pain, weakness, and fever. Severe diverticulitis is an emergency, usually requiring a trip to the emergency room. Mild diverticulitis is treated with antibiotics, pain medications, and a clear liquid diet. Serious cases may need hospitalization and even surgery.
To prevent diverticular disease, make sure your digestion is good. Eat a high-fiber diet with lots of fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. Contrary to old ideas about diverticulitis, nuts and seeds are not a cause of the condition. Eat foods that are rich in probiotics, such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, miso, and kombucha.If you suspect food allergies, get tested. If you have chronic indigestion, consider seeing a naturopathic physician for help. I often recommend plant-based digestive enzymes containing bromelain from pineapple or papaya to treat digestive deficiencies. Substitute the herbs Curcuma longa, turmeric, and Boswellia serrata, and Indian frankincense for NSAIDs if you can. Not only are these plant medicines useful for muscle pain and inflammation, but preliminary studies indicate that they can also reduce intestinal inflammation. A typical dose is 50 milligrams (mg) of turmeric and 300 mg of Indian frankincense two to three times a day.
For mild to moderate diverticulitis flare-ups, I often prescribe N-acetyl-glutamine. A typical dose is 1,000 mg three times a day in between meals until the symptoms are gone. Chamomile, slippery elm, and licorice are excellent plant medicines to take in tea form for diverticulitis pain. Do not consume licorice root if you have high blood pressure. You can find slippery elm and licorice tea blends, but chamomile is medicinally best when it’s used alone in a tea. For medicinal tea, use 2 teaspoons of dried herbs per 8 ounces of boiling water. Steep, covered, for five minutes and have at least three cups a day, away from food, until your diverticulitis symptoms are gone.
If you have abdominal pain and a fever, call your doctor.