I know I must sound like a broken record when I tell my patients to drink plenty of water, get regular exercise, and eat a high-fiber diet. This may be a familiar refrain that you hear from your doctor as well. It is probably because doing these three things are essential ingredients to keeping your body functioning at its best.
In my anti-aging medical practice I advise my patients that prevention is the best policy. Start while you are young to live a healthy lifestyle and it will return the favor when you are well into your 70’s and 80’s. Here is a good example of a condition that could go unnoticed until it all too often becomes a trip to the emergency room.
The condition I am speaking of is known as diverticulosis. It starts out with stomach pain that can last from a few hours to a week long and may be accompanied by diarrhea or constipation, bloating, and nausea. Most people live with the discomfort and think it must be gas and chalk it up to their digestive system acting up.
It could actually be one of two conditions, diverticulosis or diverticulitis. Although the two terms sound similar there are differences. Diverticulosis doesn’t have any obvious symptoms and most people don’t even realize they have it. Diverticulitis starts out as diverticulosis, a condition that develops in most people as they age. Medical researchers estimate that nearly everyone over 80 has diverticulitis, and more than half of people over 60 do too.
Fiber is Your Best Friend
When you don’t get enough fiber—and most Americans don’t—it can increase the pressure in your large intestine. The pressure can cause marble-sized pockets to form in your intestinal lining. These are diverticula. If you have them, you’ve got diverticulosis.
Sometimes, these little pouches become inflamed or even infected. When that happens, you’ll feel an ongoing pain in your abdomen. If it hurts intensely whenever you go over a speed bump while driving, that’s a sign that you’ve got diverticulitis. You might run a fever or even have blood in your stools.
In the worst cases, the diverticula may perforate, causing the contents of your colon to leak into other parts of your body which can cause systemic infection. This is a problem you definitely want to avoid.
The best way to deal with diverticulitis is to prevent it from happening to you. Always consult your doctor if you think you might have diverticulosis to ensure you are eating the right foods for your condition.
There is one definite culprit in the development of diverticulosis and diverticulitis and that is a lack of dietary fiber. When you get enough fiber every day, you keep your colon clean and healthy. If not, you create the environment for diverticula to form. Once they form, high fiber foods can aggravate them so the secret is to eat more fiber before you ever develop any symptoms.
The recommended amount of fiber needed each day is at least 25 grams. More won’t hurt you and may provide additional health benefits. It is important to eat both soluble and insoluble fiber by including fruits, vegetables, nuts, and beans in your diet. If you find it difficult to change your eating habits, there are some very good fiber supplements available.
Products containing psyllium seeds such as Metamucil are very good substitutes and are usually consumed after your meal. These are not laxatives and taking them daily provides enough fiber for your bowels to function normally. One tablespoon a day provides 15 grams of the recommended 25 – 30 grams needed.
One of my favorite fiber-rich foods is a three-bean salad. It goes great with lunch or dinner. It even works as a snack. Just mix green beans, garbanzo beans and kidney beans with your favorite Italian dressing. A cup of this salad packs in almost 10 grams of fiber… not too bad for a single serving!
Be careful not to overdo it by getting too much fiber especially if you are not drinking enough water. There has to be a balance between fiber content and water intake. If you are just beginning to add fiber to your diet, don’t expect to see the effects immediately. It will take days or sometimes weeks before results may be noticeable.
You don’t have to acquire diverticulitis as a function of growing older. Start now to give your body the fiber it needs to work as nature intended. Don’t forget to drink plenty of water and exercise daily to keep your body feeling good from the inside out.
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.