Psyllium is the Best Natural Fiber Supplement
When Hildegard wrote the following about the benefits of psyllium, “it makes the mood of depressed people happy, and helps bring the brain to good health” she relied almost entirely on observation to instruct her on the benefits of psyllium. While some of her applications of psyllium may have been a bit folksy, her belief in psyllium, as a digestive aid and important part of overall health, continues to be confirmed some 900 years later.Before we get into the many ways psyllium can help you maintain your health and happiness, we should explore the fundamental properties that make psyllium so effective.
Psyllium is a pure fiber source, unlike many refined foods that contain fiber.
Psyllium itself is not a panacea of optimal nutrition. In fact, psyllium is hardly nutritious at all. The composition of psyllium husk is 100% carbohydrates, with around 90% of those being in the form of undigestible sugar compounds, which is to say: fiber. There is no protein in psyllium, thus no amino acids; it has no fat or fatty acids, no vitamins, and only trace amounts of the minerals calcium and iron. So why is psyllium so great? Fiber. A lot of fiber.
Insoluble and Soluble Fiber
Fiber is what gives plants their shape, their form, function, and their ability to reproduce; it literally holds plant life together. It is one of the defining characteristics of plants. Fats, carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, and minerals may be found in both plant and animal food sources, but fiber is found only in plants. Animal products — including dairy and eggs — contain no fiber, unless you count things like wool. But your wool sweater is unlikely to become a meal.Dietary fiber is made of different types of carbohydrates that plants utilize to construct cell walls, provide for energy storage, protection, and propagation. The structural qualities of durability and rigidity within the plant cell walls, together with the absorptive and water retentive properties commonly present in seeds, stems, and stalks are what make plants what they are. Just as fiber is unique to the composition of plants, it is uniquely beneficial to the human digestive system.There are two primary categories of dietary fiber: soluble and insoluble. The difference is based on whether or not the particular carbohydrate compound reacts (attracts) to water or not. Most plants contain both types, though typically much higher levels of one than the other, e.g. the fiber content of psyllium is approximately 70% soluble fiber and 30% insoluble fiber.Soluble fiber attracts water; it absorbs water, altering the physical properties of the fiber. Insoluble fiber does not dissolve in, or attract water, but instead retains its form and passes through digestion largely intact. While both types are important for slightly different reasons, recent research suggests the value has less to do with the issue of solubility and more to do with the common attributes of fiber.
A Problem of Progress: the modern diet
Industrialized animal production and distribution has made meat and processed animal products cheaper and more readily available than ever before. More meat typically means fewer vegetables and grains, thus less fiber consumption. This crowding out effect is amplified by the fundamental shift from the consumption of predominantly whole, plant-based foods to that of processed meats and vegetables.One hundred years ago, meat, fat, and sugar combined to contribute only 15% of the total number of calories in an average diet. Today, the figure is closer to 60%. The quantity of fiber consumed via whole fruits and vegetables has dropped 90%.In other words, even the steak-and-potato staples of the past have been overrun by processed chicken-nuggets and mac-and-cheese. The commingled processing of food tends to replace nutritional density with caloric density, leaving-out naturally occurring fiber in the process.The higher caloric (and nutritive) density of meat requires more from our digestive system. Without the benefit of adequate fiber, the digestive system takes longer to break down meat, creating potential for stress and disruption within the digestive system. When digestion is slowed without the corresponding “roughage” as a buffer and lubricant, acidity increases, larger amounts of water are needed to compensate for the lower water content of meat (which tend to be cooked), and the digestive system is not afforded the smoothing and soothing properties so beneficial in waste elimination.Without the softening and ballast effects of fiber, the body works harder to physically move waste out of the system; digestive enzymes, healthy bacteria levels, nutrient utilization, and waste extraction are all negatively affected.But it is not just the displacement of vegetables by meat that is fueling this fiber deficiency. The ubiquitous production and consumption of processed foods — including fruits and vegetables, has made it more difficult to ingest a healthy amount of fiber.Even foods naturally high in fiber, such as whole grains, are most often consumed in their refined forms. Processing reduces the whole grain into components better suited for commercial products, which most often means removing the fiber. Similarly, processing vegetables and fruits often involves removing parts where the majority of fiber is present, like the skins, peels, seeds, and pulp. This is in addition to the effects of cooking and added sugars, salts, and fats common in processing, which can cause additional digestive stress and caloric overload.
A Simple Solution to a Complicated Problem
The best solution is usually found by addressing the problem at its root. We can do a lot of good by just avoiding the pitfalls of the modern diet. But even if we limit our consumption of processed foods in favor of whole, plant-based foods, we can still benefit from supplementing with fiber.Supplementing with a pure fiber source like psyllium is also a good idea if you are already following a diet based on minimizing carbohydrates like Atkins or Paleo, or if you do a lot of juicing (which can leave out a lot of fiber). The good news is that when it comes to fiber, psyllium is one of the best, readily available sources.
Digestive health is total health
In addition to the immediate benefits of psyllium to your digestive system, it is also is credited with having significant value in the prevention of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes. It helps relieve some of these problems over time by removing toxins and preventing the absorption of toxins into the blood, but is most valuable for its ability to stabilize glucose levels, moderate cholesterol, manage appetite, and utilize fat.The fiber found in psyllium accelerates the production of bile. Bile is a complex fluid made in the liver, which has two primary functions: emulsifying and transporting lipids (fat). Emulsifying is process that breaks down the large fat molecules into their subsidiary fatty acids so they can be absorbed and utilized.Bile acids have detergent action on particles of dietary fat that cause fat globules to break down (be emulsified) into microscopic droplets. Emulsification is not digestion on its own, but is important, because it increases the surface area of fat, making it available for digestion by lipases, the digestive enzymes specific to fat.Bile is also responsible for the transportation of lipids, including cholesterols and other waste products. The transportation of lipids is essential in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K) and removing excess cholesterol. The unique properties of bile as a carrier fluid also allow for the elimination of waste products through the digestive tract. This is the primary reason fiber is viewed as a detoxifying substance.During digestion, psyllium fibers bind to bile acids in the stomach, ensuring their excretion; this process creates a healthy renewal cycle, where the production of new bile acid is stimulated and old toxic bile is excreted. The liver (where bile is produced) removes cholesterol from the body by converting it to bile salts then depositing it into the bile where it can be eliminated in the feces. As a result, the cholesterol level is lowered in the blood and new bile acid is produced.Research has shown the important role psyllium plays in controlling cholesterol in the human body. A low fat diet containing psyllium can reduce bad (LDL) cholesterol levels by 7%, while having no significant effect on good (HDL) cholesterol and triglycerides. Along with the reduction of negative blood lipids comes a significantly reduced risk of heart disease.
Psyllium for Simple Weight Loss
The fiber found in psyllium may also help slow the absorption of sugar which may reduce insulin spikes. It is recommended, however, to avoid large intakes of sugar, particularly simple or refined sugars since the benefits of fiber are limited in this regard.In addition to the detoxifying effects of psyllium, it also promotes the growth of bacteria that contribute to healthy intestinal flora. The digestive flora comprises a significant portion of our immune system; a healthy digestive flora is an integral part of a strong immune system.For those who struggle with over-eating, increasing fiber intake by adding small amounts (even a pinch or two) of psyllium can help to create a “full” feeling. This full feeling is also beneficial when practicing the Hildegard fast. In a traditional Hildegard fast, you’ll find modest amounts of psyllium in Habermus breakfast, a bran cereal mostly made of Spelt.The water absorbing and swelling properties of psyllium help promote the sensation of feeling satiated, without measurable caloric intake. A single serving of one teaspoon, or about 2 grams of psyllium, represents 0.6 calories, which is a mere 28 calories per 100 grams, or 50 servings of psyllium!Due to its neutral flavor, it can be added to most foods without impacting taste. It is a bulking and stabilizing agent, so it can be used in baking and cooking as an egg-replacement, alone or together with ground flax seeds. It can be added to your morning oatmeal, used in smoothies, soups, and mixed with breadcrumbs for meats. And if meat is your thing, try adding a tablespoon to your meatloaf recipe. Not only will it help hold it together, it will provide that valuable fiber that meat is lacking.Do remember, while taking psyllium you should be mindful that you are drinking enough water. Without adequate water, the beneficial effects may be compromised.
Originally published at healthyhildegard.com on October 29, 2015.