We all age, no matter what products or procedures we may use to slow the process. It’s visible in the skin, through wrinkles, sagging, and cellulite. Despite our best efforts, nature eventually wins, as gravity slowly tugs on us. What you probably do not realize is that a similar process can happen in your gut.
As we get older, the colon (the lower part of your digestive tract), is prone to forming small out pouchings called diverticula. These are rarely seen before age 40, but by age 80 almost everyone in the US has them (interestingly these are uncommon in Asia and Africa). These small pouches vary in size and number, some having very tiny openings, and some very large. These pockets form in areas of the colon wall that are weaker, and once formed, will not recede. Though not fully understood, it is believed that regional dietary habits influence the development of diverticula. One major dietary difference among these regions is the consumption of fiber. Studies have shown that a lack of appropriate dietary fiber intake leads to constipation, putting additional pressure on the gut. Thus, it is believed that age, long standing constipation and straining leads to a greater chance of diverticula formation.
You will most likely not know you have diverticula unless you have a colonoscopy (which is recommended for everyone over the age of 50). They rarely cause noticeable symptoms, with 2 exceptions. First, they can become infected. This condition is known as diverticulitis. It is very painful and can cause cramping and diarrhea. Antibiotics are required and at times the condition can be severe enough to require hospitalization. The second noticeable symptom is diverticular bleeding, which can be a terrifying experience characterized by the sudden urge to have a bowel movement, resulting in a torrent of pure red blood in the toilet! Dizziness and lightheadedness are also associated with diverticular bleeding. Diverticula may have small vessels closer to the surface that can bleed profusely and then suddenly stop. The bleeding is not predictable and hard to prevent, but luckily tends to be self-limited. You may want to consult a Gastroenterologist for acute rectal bleeding, but in some cases, these bleeds may be frequent enough to require surgery to remove the section of the gut that is affected.
While determining if you have diverticular disease may not be high on your priority list, it may be a good idea to get a colonoscopy, eat a balanced, high fiber diet and look out for symptoms.
For more information, visit: https://www.asge.org/home/for-patients/patient-information/understanding-diverticulosis