Diverticula are little outpouches that form in the weak spots of your colon’s walls. When you’re born, your colon’s lining is smooth and pouch-free. But by the time you’re 60, if you live in a Western country, you’ll probably have at least one and possibly a few dozen diverticula.
Vegetarians tend not to develop diverticula, possibly because their diet tends to be heavier in fiber than those of carnivores. Fiber helps digested matter and feces move through the colon more easily and in larger portions. A low-fiber diet leads to smaller stools that may cause unequal pressure within the colon.
But a low-fiber diet isn’t the only risk factor for diverticula and subsequent diverticulitis, a painful infection in the diverticula. Smoking raises your risk for diverticulitis. In fact, in one study of patients with severe diverticulitis, 49% were smokers. Diverticulitis also tends to occur at younger ages in smokers than nonsmokers.
At Colon and Rectal Surgeons of Greater Hartford, we diagnose and treat diverticulitis at our Bloomfield, South Windsor, and Plainville, Connecticut, offices. Our colorectal experts want you to take your colonic health seriously, so you avoid painful bouts of diverticulitis and other diseases of the colon. That means putting away the cigarettes for good. Here’s why.
Smoking dehydrates your organs
You’ve probably heard about “smoker’s lines” — those little vertical wrinkles that appear around the mouths of smokers. That makes sense: If you pucker your mouth repeatedly to drag on a cigarette, over time those lines become permanent. But, if you want to be accurate about what kinds of “lines” smoking creates, you’d have to say “all of them.”
Smoking dehydrates your skin, which is your body’s largest organ. But it also dehydrates every other organ and tissue in your body. That includes the blood vessels that feed your colon. And it includes your colon, too.
When your colon becomes dehydrated, it’s just like dehydrated skin. It’s thinner, more fragile, and more easily damaged. If you want to get an idea of what your colon looks like after decades of smoking, compare the faces of nonsmoking and smoking twins. What shows up on their faces is also going on in every organ, including their colons.
Nicotine degrades colonic muscle tone
Cigarettes are filled with nicotine. Nicotine is known to relax the smooth muscle throughout the gastrointestinal tract by releasing a molecule called nitric oxide.
Nicotine reduces the tone and actions of the smooth muscle within the sigmoid colon, too. Without tone and with reduced activity, the colon doesn’t contract as regularly as it should. Nicotine also reduces the activity of nerves in the colon. However, nicotine doesn’t seem to affect muscle tone or nerve activity in the rectum.
Get treatment and control risk
If you have diverticulitis, you’re probably in intense pain. Often the pain manifests in the lower left abdomen, but it can sometimes be felt in the right abdomen, too. Minor bouts of diverticulitis may respond to a course of antibiotics and painkillers. Severe disease, however, may require surgery.
As long as your disease is relatively mild, you can reduce your risk for surgery and for further bouts of diverticulitis by changing your lifestyle habits now. If you have severe disease, you’d also benefit from taking the following steps:
- Quit smoking (we can refer you to a program)
- Lose excess, unhealthy weight
- Switch to a whole-foods, fiber-rich diet
- Get more exercise and activity
Don’t ignore pain in your abdomen or gut. If you’ve been told you have diverticulitis, or if you suspect you have it, contact our experts at Colon and Rectal Surgeons of Greater Hartford for treatment today. Call our friendly, discreet team at 860-242-8591. Or, schedule an appointment online.