As you age the lining of your digestive tract can start to weaken in some spots. This is a common occurrence that can lead pockets or little sacs to form and bulge outward through the wall of the colon. One of these pockets is called a diverticulum and more than one is known as diverticula, which can occur anywhere in the large intestine. Diverticula can also form in the small intestine, but most are congenital. The condition known as diverticulosis is simply having diverticula.

It’s estimated by the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy that half the population over age 60 and almost everyone over the age of 80 develops diverticulosis. Diverticulosis is mainly attributed to having a low fiber diet and it is uncommon in parts of the world such as Asia and Africa where diets are high in grains, fruits, and vegetables.

“If your diet is low in fiber, you’re at higher risk for developing diverticulosis,” said Mohamad Abouzeid, MD, surgeon at Mather General Surgery. Fiber helps your colon more easily move digested food through your bowels, so having a low fiber diet can increase strain on the digestive tract. Many years of low fiber intake can lead to diverticulosis.

Typically, diverticulosis has no symptoms and is usually found during routine screening exams, such as a colonoscopy. If it is found that you have diverticula, your doctor may suggest that you increase your fiber intake and pay attention to any symptoms that may develop over time such as abdominal pain, fever, nausea, vomiting and constipation which could be signs of a type of infection in the sacs. That infection is known as diverticulitis.

Treatment for diverticulitis usually requires antibiotics and, in some cases, a hospital stay. “In more serious cases, if you suffer from repeated attacks of diverticulitis, you may need surgery to remove the affected area of the colon,” Dr. Abouzeid said.

Unfortunately, if your colon has developed diverticula, it’s there to stay. To avoid complications like diverticulitis, make sure you do the following:

  • Eat more fresh vegetables and fruits
  • Eat more whole grains
  • Cut down on red meat and fat
  • Quit smoking
  • Exercise regularly
  • If your doctor recommends it, take a fiber supplement or probiotic.