Soluble Fiber to the Rescue

Many people consume highly refined diets that contain very little fiber. In addition, they drink inadequate amounts of water and fail to engage in a regular exercise program. This produces a sluggish intestinal tract with constipation. A large number of people seek relief by spending millions of dollars on various laxatives.

Relief is available in various forms. A number of plant-based laxatives are available to the consumer. The most popular of the bulk-forming laxatives is psyllium. Psyllium seed increases the water content and weight of the stool because of its rich fiber content. The most common over-the-counter psyllium-containing laxative is Metamucil.

The World Health Organization has suggested that psyllium is a useful substance for treating chronic constipation, and to restore and maintain intestinal regularity. The use of psyllium is advised when soft bowel movements are desired, such as when a person has hemorrhoids, anal fissures, or during pregnancy. Psyllium is also preferred over wheat bran for treating irritable bowel syndrome.

What Is Psyllium?

Psyllium refers to the dried ripe seeds and husks of three species of Plantago. Plantago psyllium and Plantago indica are grown commercially in southern France and Spain. Plantago ovata is also native to the Mediterranean region and is now widely grown in India, Pakistan, and Iran. Psyllium is also cultivated in the state of Arizona.

The seeds of psyllium are oval, about one-eighth of an inch long, and have a distinct depression in the center, so that the seeds resemble miniature horses’ ears. The Plantago seeds are rich in mucilaginous polysaccharide, which cause the seeds to swell to about 10 times their original volume when they come in contact with water. In addition to its ability to promote regularity, psyllium also has an antidiarrheal effect, thanks to its ability to bind fluids and increase the viscosity of the intestinal contents.

How to Use It Safely

A typical daily dose is two heaping teaspoons of powdered seeds or one teaspoon of the husks stirred into a glass of water or juice and taken quickly before the mixture thickens. Although psyllium is a safe and effective laxative, allergic reactions have been reported in isolated cases. Care must be taken to ensure that psyllium is consumed with a sufficient amount of fluid–about one cup of water for every 10 grams of psyllium powder. The use of too little fluid can lead to obstructions in the esophagus or the intestines.

Psyllium is generally well tolerated without problems of gas, and long-term treatment is known to be safe. However, it must not be consumed within one hour of taking other medications to avoid delaying the absorption of those drugs. Psyllium can also decrease the absorption of certain minerals in the diet.

Lowered Risk of Heart Disease

Soluble fibers such as those found in psyllium can augment the cholesterol-lowering effect of a low-fat diet. The FDA recently authorized the use of a health claim on food products containing psyllium, stating that psyllium fiber is associated with a decreased risk of heart disease. Psyllium seeds also contain small amounts of phytosterols, known to lower cholesterol levels. Typically, psyllium (10 grams per day) can reduce LDL cholesterol levels by about 10 percent in persons with mildly to moderately elevated blood cholesterol levels. The psyllium can be consumed either as a powder or as part of a fortified cereal. The consumption of psyllium does not affect either the serum HDL cholesterol or triglyceride levels.

Some Help for Diabetes

Soluble fibers such as psyllium are also known to produce lower-than-expected blood glucose responses after eating a meal. In addition, the soluble fiber typically dampens insulin surges after a meal. A person with Type II diabetes could certainly benefit from these responses in their efforts to achieve a better blood glucose control. Men with Type II diabetes and mildly to moderately elevated blood cholesterol levels who took five grams of psyllium twice a day did show significant improvements in both blood glucose levels (11-19 percent lower) and LDL cholesterol levels (13 percent lower) after just eight weeks.

Further Benefits

There are additional benefits obtained from the use of psyllium. Its use has been suggested as a useful method to achieve weight loss. Recently it was shown that 20 grams of psyllium consumed with six ounces of water three hours before a meal, and then again immediately before the meal, produced a significant increase in the feeling of satisfaction and fullness in female subjects. In addition, when the psyllium preparation was consumed there was a significant reduction in calorie and fat consumption. Another study suggests that psyllium significantly lowers the risk of cholesterol gallstone formation in obese patients on a reducing diet.

In Conclusion

The addition of psyllium to the diet appears to be safe, is well tolerated, and may improve the blood glucose and lipid levels of certain individuals as well as ensuring regularity.

Remember: Herbal products and dietary supplements can have pharmacological effects, may produce adverse reactions in some people, and could interact with over-the-counter and prescription medications you may take. Discuss with your physician your decision to use any herbal product. Anything mentioned in this article is not intended to diagnose, prescribe, or treat any ailment.

Winston J. Craig, Ph.D., R.D., is a professor of nutrition at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

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