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Colon health: prevention and treatment strategies

September 02, 2016

Did you know that maintaining a healthy colon is an important part of your overall health?

Unfortunately, diseases of the colon affect a large percentage of the U.S. population. One such disease is colon cancer — the third most common type of cancer.

Another condition is diverticulosis, where small outpouchings along weak areas of the colon wall become inflamed and infected. This leads to fevers, chills, nausea, vomiting, and pain, usually in the left lower abdomen. Diverticulitis can lead to abscess formation, or perforation, often requiring emergent surgery. It can lead to chronic pain, stricturing or narrowing of the colon, or abnormal connections to other organs like the bladder or vagina.

“Unfortunately, we are seeing complicated cases of severe diverticulitis in younger people more frequently now,” says Carol Sawmiller, MD, a general surgeon with Kettering Physician Network. “If someone has recurring episodes of diverticulitis, they can develop thickening and narrowing of the colon with constant pain and difficulty passing stool. Sometimes the inflammation will erode holes into other organs, like the bladder or small intestine. These problems require surgery to remove that part of the colon.”

Inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD), like Crohn’s disease or Ulcerative Colitis, affect the small intestine and colon. These diseases are usually treated medically but often require surgery as they progress. IBD increases the risk of developing colon cancer.

Many conditions of the colon are not chronic or life-threatening, such as constipation, gas, bloating, diarrhea, or brief episodes of crampy pain. These will often resolve with changes in diet, increased exercise, and adequate hydration by drinking plenty of fluids. Increasing fiber and using a probiotic supplement can be helpful.

You can reduce your risk of developing colon cancer and other diseases of the colon by making healthy dietary and lifestyle choices:

If you smoke — stop! Smoking increases your risk of getting many different types of cancer, including colon cancer. Smoking also inhibits your ability to fight infections like diverticulitis.

Cut down on red meat. Frequently eating red meat and processed meat products has been clearly linked to colon cancer.

Increase fiber in your diet. “I encourage all my patients to load up on fiber,” Dr. Sawmiller says. “With our typical American diet of highly processed food, we get about half the fiber we need to stay healthy. The typical American gets only about 10 to 12 grams of fiber per day. We need about 25 grams of fiber per day to maintain good colon health.”

Increase your fiber intake daily by incorporating more fiber-rich foods into your diet daily. These include oat and bran cereals, whole grains, leafy green vegetables, many fruits and berries, nuts, flax seeds and chia seeds. Gradually increase the fiber in your diet, adding 2 or 3 grams per day every week, until you reach about 10 to 12 extra grams daily.

Get screened. The American Cancer Society recommends that men and women get a colonoscopy by age 50 or earlier if there is a family history of colon cancer or colon polyps. If you do not have a gastroenterologist, your family doctor can refer you.