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Psyllium Husk: A Fiber with Surprising Health Benefits

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Most everyone has heard that including enough fiber in your diet is beneficial for overall health. According to Mayo Clinic, a diet high in fiber can help improve constipation and general bowel health, balance blood sugar levels, lower cholesterol, and generally help you live longer. Sign me up! 

A diet rich in a variety of plant foods can give you enough dietary fiber to reap these benefits. But if you’d like to supplement with extra fiber, psyllium husk is a good option. This article will cover what psyllium husk is, why it’s beneficial, and ways to incorporate it into your diet.

Soluble Versus Insoluble Fiber 

Fiber is the indigestible part of plant material and can be divided into two different categories: soluble and insoluble. Both are beneficial to human health, and most whole plant foods contain some of each. Psyllium husk, however, contains primarily soluble fiber.

  1. Soluble fiber dissolves in water and becomes a gel-like substance as it goes through the digestive tract. We don’t digest soluble fiber, but our intestinal bacteria can digest it! Because of this, soluble fiber is considered a prebiotic – meaning it nurtures the beneficial bacteria that make up the human gut microbiome. 
  2. Insoluble fiber is not dissolvable in water and proceeds intact through the gut. We can’t digest insoluble fiber, and neither can bacteria – so its primary benefits are relieving constipation and improving bowel health.

An Overview of Psyllium Husk

Psyllium husk is mostly sold in bulk or capsules as a fiber supplement. It’s made from the husks of seeds from the Plantago ovata plant, which is a shrub native to Western and Southern Asia. Currently, India is the largest grower of Plantago ovata plants and produces 85% of the world’s psyllium husk. 

The soluble fiber in psyllium husks absorbs water as it passes through the digestive system, and becomes a sort of gel-like, viscous substance. Psyllium husk acts as a gentle laxative, adding bulk to stool and making it easier to pass. But relieving constipation is not psyllium husk’s only benefit.

Psyllium’s Benefits 

1. It Improves Microbiota, Especially if You’re Constipated.

A 2019 study published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences took a look at how psyllium husk affects the intestinal microbial community of constipated versus healthy subjects. The study used data from two separate, previous clinical trials. The trials noted increases in various beneficial intestinal bacteria in both groups after seven days of taking psyllium husk. However, there was a much more significant increase in beneficial bacteria in the group of people who were constipated. 

2. It Improves Blood Sugar Levels and Satiety.

Fiber, especially soluble fiber, can lower blood sugar and insulin levels by delaying food digestion. Fiber can also help you feel satiated after a meal, so it might benefit those who want to eat a little less to lose weight. Psyllium husk is especially good for this, as it’s gel-like consistency in the gut slows digestion. Take psyllium with food, if you are looking for these effects.

3. It Lowers Cholesterol Levels.

Psyllium husk fiber can bind to fats and bile acids in the digestive tract, which are then excreted. This prompts the liver to create more bile acids. In order to do this, the liver uses stored cholesterol, thereby decreasing overall cholesterol in the body. 

How Much Psyllium Husk Should You Take?

Talk with your doctor about the right dosage of psyllium husk for you, especially if you have specific health concerns you want to address by increasing fiber intake. 

Be sure to ask your doctor about psyllium’s possible interactions with any medications you’re taking. Everyone is different. Take time to experiment and find what works.

Ways to Incorporate Psyllium Husk into Your Diet

You can buy psyllium in capsules, and take whatever amount works for you daily this way. You can also buy it in bulk powder form. There are many ways to incorporate psyllium into foods, and if you’re sick of popping pills, you have options. Here are two user-friendly ways to include psyllium husk in food:

1. Smoothies

Blend whatever amount of psyllium husk you like into a fruit or vegetable smoothie. The psyllium will bulk up the smoothie a bit, especially if you let it sit before drinking. If anything, psyllium adds a slightly nutty flavor, which doesn’t tend to overwhelm the smoothie. 

2. Bake

Psyllium husks work well when making flatbread or biscuits; you can add about ¼ cup of psyllium husk to the batter — it mixes in easily. If you are using grain flour or paleo diet-friendly flours such as almond or cassava, psyllium’s nutty flavor pretty much disappears in baked goods.

Possible Side Effects of Taking Psyllium Husk

1. Choking or obstruction of the digestive tract

Because psyllium husk bulks up easily, it could get stuck in your throat, or possibly elsewhere along the digestive tract. Make sure you always take psyllium with at least one full glass of water or liquid (another reason to mix it in with foods). Don’t use psyllium if you have difficulty swallowing or any obstruction of the gastrointestinal tract.

2. Gas or cramping

If you notice any gas, abdominal cramping, or discomfort from taking psyllium, stop, and talk with your doctor.

3. Allergic reactions

Allergies to psyllium are considered rare, but possible. Again, if you notice an allergic response such as a rash, itching or dizziness, stop and contact your doctor.

In Conclusion

Psyllium husk is a relatively safe and effective soluble fiber supplement that can benefit overall health in many ways. It’s pleasant to the taste and can easily be mixed in with various foods if you want to avoid taking one more supplement. Talk with your doctor before you add psyllium husk to your diet to make sure it is right for you and to determine the correct dosage. Then, experiment and enjoy.


Shona Curley lives and works in San Francisco. She is co-owner of the studio Hasti Pilates, and creator of the website www.redkitemeditations.com. Shona teaches meditation, bodywork and movement practices for healing Lyme disease, chronic illness and pain.

 

 

References:

Nutrition and Healthy Eating. Mayo Clinic Website. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/fiber/art-20043983

Jalanka J, Major G, Murray K, et al. The Effect of Psyllium Husk on Intestinal Microbiota in Constipated Patients and Healthy Controls. Int J Mol Sci. 2019;20(2):433. Published 2019 Jan 20. doi:10.3390/ijms20020433

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