The Benefits of Psyllium

psyllium husk fiber
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Psyllium is a form of fiber sourced from the husks of the psyllium (Plantago ovata) seed. Rich in soluble fiber, psyllium absorbs water and forms a gel.

Uses for Psyllium

To get enough fiber every day, look to vegetables, fruits, whole wheat and whole grain products, beans, barley, bulgur, and nuts. Women 50 or under require 25 grams of fiber each day, and men 50 or under require 38 grams each day, according to the Institute of Medicine.

Women 51 or older require 21 grams per day, and men 51 or older require 30 grams per day.

Most plant foods contain both soluble and insoluble fiber. Besides psyllium, soluble fiber is found in oatmeal, beans, apples, strawberries, blueberries, oranges, peas, and barley. Insoluble fiber (a type of fiber that speeds movement through the digestive system) is found in whole wheat products, nuts, beans, and vegetables.

Some people may need a fiber supplement, such as psyllium, to increase their intake. Fiber is said to help with a wide range of health issues, including:

Soluble fiber is also said to promote a feeling of fullness, or satiety. In a study published in Appetite in 2016, for instance, psyllium supplementation resulted in greater fullness and less hunger between meals compared to a placebo.

The Benefits: Can It Really Help?

Here's a look at several findings from the available research on the potential health benefits of psyllium:

Constipation

Increasing your intake of soluble fiber may promote bowel regularity. As psyllium makes its way down your digestive tract, it forms a gel, adding bulk to stools and making them softer and easier to pass.

In a review published in Alimentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics in 2014, however, researchers reviewed clinical trials on the effect of prunes on gastrointestinal function and found that prunes were superior to psyllium for improving stool frequency and consistency. Another study found that psyllium and prune fiber were equally effective in improving constipation and quality of life, however, prune fiber was more effective at relieving flatulence and bloating.

High Cholesterol

Adding soluble fiber to your diet may help to lower your cholesterol. Soluble fiber interferes with the uptake of bile acids in the intestines, leading to their excretion in the stool. As the liver converts cholesterol to replace the bile acids, levels of LDL cholesterol are lowered. Increasing your soluble fiber intake by 5 to 10 grams a day typically results in a 5 percent reduction in LDL cholesterol.

In a study published in PLoS One in 2012, participants took a psyllium supplement or a placebo. Psyllium supplementation resulted in a 6 percent reduction in LDL cholesterol.

Diabetes

Some research suggests that soluble fiber such as psyllium may help improve glucose control in people with type 2 diabetes. In a report published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2015, for instance, researchers analyzed previously published studies and found that psyllium taken before meals resulted in a significant improvement in fasting blood glucose and glycated hemoglobin (HbA1c) in people with type 2 diabetes.

Possible Side Effects

Psyllium should be taken in the recommended amount and mixed with an adequate amount of water or it may lead to constipation and possibly even cause choking, intestinal obstruction, or bezoar (a solid mass of fiber in the digestive tract). Starting slowly with a small dose is recommended to give the digestive system time to adjust to the increased fiber. Side effects can include gas, bloating, diarrhea, and constipation. Allergic reactions have also been reported.

Psyllium shouldn't be taken by people with bowel obstructions or spasms, difficulty swallowing, or a narrowing or obstruction anywhere in the digestive tract.

People with kidney disease and those who are taking certain medications may not be able to take psyllium supplements.

If you have a new or persistent change in your bowel habits, be sure to consult your doctor. If you have a health condition that requires treatment (such as diabetes or heart disease), talk with your doctor if you are interested in psyllium rather than forgoing or delaying standard care. Also, if you have been prescribed medication, never discontinue taking it without consulting your physician first.

The Takeaway

Although psyllium may be helpful in treating certain types of occasional constipation and may have benefits when taken for other conditions, it is best used in combination with other treatments and preventative strategies that may include diet, lifestyle changes, and medication. 

If you're looking to boost your soluble fiber intake, try incorporating fiber-rich foods such as steel-cut oatmeal, hummus, lentil soup, bean burgers, and other legume dishes, nuts, seeds, citrus fruit, apples, grapes, strawberries, eggplant, and artichokes. Other sources of soluble fiber include acacia and prune fiber.

Disclaimer: The information contained on this site is intended for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for advice, diagnosis or treatment by a licensed physician. It is not meant to cover all possible precautions, drug interactions, circumstances or adverse effects. You should seek prompt medical care for any health issues and consult your doctor before using alternative medicine or making a change to your regimen.