Diverticulitis is a medical condition in which there is inflammation of diverticula. The suffix, -itis, means inflammation. But what are diverticula (plural)? A diverticulum (singular) is a small, marble-shaped pouch which projects outward from the wall of the intestine. A diverticulum can develop anywhere in the gastro-intestinal tract, which includes the stomach, small intestine, and large intestine. But diverticula occur most often in the colon, which comprises the majority of the large intestine.
About half of all Americans over the age of 60 and virtually all Americans over the age of 80 have diverticula on their colon. The development of diverticula is the result of eating a low-fiber diet. Insufficient fiber in the diet causes the feces to become hard. The presence of hard feces causes an increase in pressure when the colon contracts in a attempt to move the feces. The increased pressure causes any weak spots in the wall of the colon to bulge outward as small, marble-shaped pouches — diverticula. The term, diverticulosis, simply means a condition in which diverticula are present. But most people with diverticulosis have no symptoms.
Only 10-20 per cent of people with diverticulosis develop diverticulitis — inflammation of the diverticula. In this condition, bits of hard feces become trapped inside the diverticula. As a result, the diverticula become inflamed. This can cause severe abdominal pain, which worsens every time the colon contracts. Ultimately, obstruction of the colon may result. Diverticulitis is one type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
Dietary fiber plays a very important role in preventing the development of diverticula. In those parts of the world where people consume abundant dietary fiber, diverticulosis is rare. Dietary fiber is defined as those components of plants which cannot be broken down by the digestive enzymes released into the gastro-intestinal tract. There are 2 types of dietary fiber — insoluble and soluble. Cellulose and lignin are insoluble fibers which form the supporting structures of plants. Pectins, gums, and mucilages are soluble plant fibers which attract and absorb water to become a gel.
Both types of fiber are important components of the diet. Although they are devoid of any nutritional value, they provide the bulk which is necessary for optimum function of the gastro-intestinal tract. Both the insoluble fibers themselves and the gels formed by the soluble fibers help to keep the feces from hardening. When the diet includes abundant amounts of both types of dietary fiber, the feces cannot become hard enough to cause the development of diverticula. Even after diverticula are present (diverticulosis), the consumption of a high-fiber diet can reduce the likelihood of feces becoming trapped inside the diverticula and causing inflammation (diverticulitis).