Dietary fiber, sometimes called roughage, is a fundamental component of a healthy diet. It is found naturally in various fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. While it is mainly known for its digestive benefits, fiber plays an essential role in your overall health.
There are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber absorbs water and gets broken down into a gel-like substance that supports digestion and improves blood glucose control. Insoluble fiber adds bulk to the stool and promotes a smooth passage of nutrients and waste through the gut. Some estimates indicate that only 5 percent of adults in the United States meet adequate fiber intake recommendations.
Psyllium has been used for centuries to promote digestive health, increase fiber intake, and support cardiovascular health.
What is psyllium?
Psyllium is a plant-based soluble fiber derived from the husks of the psyllium seed (Plantago ovata), an herb native to India but that is now grown worldwide including growing wildly in the southwest U.S. The name psyllium comes from the Ancient Greek “psúlla,” meaning flea or spider because each plant can produce up to 15,000 tiny seeds that resemble clusters of small insects. Clinically, psyllium is used as a mild laxative or supplement for people experiencing frequent constipation or that need to add more fiber into their diet.
Evidence suggests that taking a daily psyllium supplement can bring many health benefits.
Constipation happens when the colon absorbs too much water from stool during the digestion process, causing the stool to become tougher in consistency and harder to evacuate. The most common causes of constipation include not eating enough fiber, stress, sedentarism, and certain medications (especially antidepressants and iron supplements). Psyllium works as a bulk-forming laxative and can help relieve and prevent constipation. Bulk-forming laxatives work by drawing water into your intestines to produce bigger, easier-to-pass stools.
In one study of 170 individuals with chronic constipation, those who took 5.1 grams of psyllium twice a day experienced positive changes in their stool composition and number of bowel movements.
A small analysis looking at the characteristics of the bowel movements of participants taking different types of fiber supplements (psyllium, wheat bran, or a combination), found that psyllium had a more significant effect on the stool bulk and amount of water. Participants taking the fiber supplement also reported significantly fewer “hard” bowel movements.
In another study, drinking psyllium seeds dissolved in warm water reduced constipation in patients with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Compared to a common GERD medication (omeprazole), psyllium was also more effective in minimizing the risk of recurring GERD symptoms.
IBS is a common disorder that affects the colon. It is the most commonly diagnosed gastrointestinal condition globally. In the United States, it is estimated that 10 to 15 percent of the adult population suffers from IBS symptoms. There are three major types of IBS: IBS with constipation (IBS-C), IBS with diarrhea (IBS-D), and IBS-A, which alternates constipation and diarrhea. Psyllium can help reduce discomfort for any type of IBS.
Research shows that psyllium not only helps relieve constipation – it can help treat diarrhea, too. In a study, individuals undergoing radiation therapy who took a psyllium supplement experienced fewer radiation-related diarrhea instances. Furthermore, a study from 2017 showed psyllium supplementation significantly reduced the number of IBS-related abdominal pain episodes in children with IBS.
Fiber, including psyllium, contributes to heart health in several ways. According to a 2018 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, psyllium helped lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels and two other risk factor markers for heart disease. The gel-like fiber created when psyllium absorbs water may also play an important role in lowering our “bad” LDL (low-density lipoproteins) cholesterol via a similar mechanism to that of cholesterol-lowering drugs. This mechanism involves psyllium binding to bile acids in the gut and preventing their re-absorption. This has important implications for our health as studies have suggested that high LDL cholesterol is associated with various cardiovascular diseases. A review of studies concluded that increasing fiber intake could help prevent high blood pressure.
Controlling blood sugar levels is essential for good health. Studies show that adding psyllium husk to the diet has been shown to control spikes in blood sugar following a meal by reducing the rate of carbohydrate absorbed. This helps to reduce blood sugar swings and the energy crash that commonly follows a meal. Psyllium husk also helps to improve long-term glucose control according to another study.
Water-soluble fibers like psyllium promote satiety, or the feeling of fullness, which may help you lose weight and prevent cardiovascular risk factors like obesity and type 2 diabetes. The high fiber content of the psyllium husk has been demonstrated to help slow the digestion of food within the stomach and increase feelings of fullness following a meal.
GERD or gastroesophageal reflux disease impacts tens of millions of people, and proton pump inhibitors PPI’s (medication that reduces the production of acid in the stomach like Prilosec) have significant side effects and the potential to create other pathologies. If you are one of the people with both Gerd and constipation psyllium is a perfect solution. A 2018 study concluded that the use of Psyllium seed in the treatment of functional constipation in patients with GERD is very safe, effective, easily available, and this treatment also minimizes the chance of recurrence of GERD compared to omeprazole (a prescription treatment for GERD). Please note that you can also take psyllium for GERD even if you are not experiencing constipation.
How to take psyllium
You may find psyllium in many forms: powdered, granulated, in capsules, liquid, and more. Typically, dissolving one tablespoon of psyllium in a glass of warm water (8 oz. – 16 oz.) and drinking twice a day before a meal can help prevent constipation and maintain regularity. To prevent gastric discomfort, it is recommended to start with lower doses to allow the digestive system to get used to the increased fiber. Psyllium can be purchased in grocery stores, health food stores, and online. Common brands are Meta Mucil Fiber, NOW Psyllium Husk Caps, Viva Naturals Psyllium Husk Powder, and Anthonys-Organic-Psyllium-Powder to name a few.
As low-fiber diets appear to be a risk factor for heart and gastrointestinal issues as well as other health issues, it is important to add fiber to your diet. The benefits listed above can be achieved through a range of whole food sources, and the addition of 1-2 teaspoons of psyllium husk each day.
To the Best of Health,
Curt Hendrix, M.S., C.C.N., C.N.S.
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