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What are psyllium husks?

  • Psyllium husks refers to the hull (husks) of the plantago ovata seed 

  • They have been used in India and China for 5,000 years to treat ailments of the bladder, skin, and bowels 

  • They are the primary ingredient in Metamucil 

  • Ounce-per-ounce, psyllium husks contain 8 times as much fiber as oat bran 

  • They promote healthy metabolic function by stabilizing blood sugar, lowering cholesterol levels, and supporting weight loss 

  • They have prebiotic and anti-inflammatory properties





The importance of fiber 


Most of us know by now that dietary fiber is good for us. We know that it is useful in preventing constipation, especially for older adults. 

Recent research on psyllium husks, which have been used for millennia as a laxative, demonstrates that fiber does far more than keeping the bowels regular. Offering a cornucopia of health benefits, psyllium husks are a unique source of dietary fiber with a variety of uses. 

What is psyllium? 


Psyllium comes from the seed hulls (husks) of the Plantago ovata plant, an herb native to South Asia. When ground and combined with water, the seed husks produce a clear, gel-like substance called mucilage. It is this mucilage that gives psyllium husks many of their unique properties. 

Psyllium contains both soluble and insoluble fibers. Insoluble fiber, such as that found in wheat bran, cannot be dissolved by fluids, but absorbs them. Soluble fiber, such as that found in flax seeds and oats, is dissolved in water. Both soluble and insoluble fibers aid the passage of food through the digestive tract. 

Psyllium is made up of long chains of carbohydrates called polysaccharides. These chains are not only made up of one kind of sugar; psyllium is a hemicellulose, which means that several different kinds of sugar molecules make up its polysaccharide chain. 



How it works


Psyllium’s mechanisms of action are still not completely understood. However, it seems that three key properties underlie most of its health benefits: its viscous mucilage, its longer fermentation time, and its unique polysaccharide structure. 

Psyllium mucilage is hydrophilic–it attracts and binds with water molecules. As it passes through the intestines, it draws water into masses of digested food, increasing ten times or more in volume. It travels the intestinal tract slowly and is expelled easily. 

Psyllium husks ferment more slowly in the gut than most other sources of fiber, which encourages the growth of beneficial microbes in the lower intestine. 

The sugars in psyllium’s polysaccharide chain each play a different role in the body; some of them seem to assist in the fermentation process. Others seem to activate anti-inflammatory genes. 


More than a laxative 


In the United States, psyllium is best known for its laxative properties. It is the key ingredient in Metamucil, which has been marketed since 1934 for constipation prevention. In China and India, however, it has been used for 5,000 to treat many ailments, including skin disorders and high blood pressure. 

Western science is just now discovering psyllium’s many virtues. 




Good for constipation…and diarrhea?? 


A teaspoon of psyllium husks contains 8 times more fiber than the same amount of oat bran. A relatively small amount effectively adds bulk to stool and softens it. 

Because it binds with water molecules and moves through the gut slowly, it can also relieve mild to moderate diarrhea. 


Lowers cholesterol 


High cholesterol is associated with a higher-than-average risk of heart disease, stroke, and inflammation. 

In a 1988 study, men who were treated with psyllium over eight weeks saw their cholesterol levels reduced by 14.8%. Their low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol was reduced by 20.2%. In addition, the reduction of both total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol increased with time.




Lowers inflammation 


We have known for a long time that psyllium seems to offer some protection against inflammatory diseases of the bowel. In some cases, psyllium is more effective at preventing colitis flare than prescription treatments. This versatile source of fiber fights inflammation on multiple fronts. 

It binds with bile acids in the lower intestine, preventing them from being reabsorbed. This activates the expression of a gene called the farnesoid X receptor (FXR) gene. This gene suppresses proinflammatory cytokine signaling 

Psyllium also triggers the expression of several genes associated with maintenance of the intestinal barrier function.This helps prevent waste particles from permeating the intestinal lining and triggering inflammation. 


Regulates blood sugar 


Psyllium slows the digestion of carbohydrates and reduces their reabsorption by the body, which prevents a post-meal spike in blood sugars. It also seems to raise insulin levels, making it useful for preventing and managing diabetes

Psyllium also allows glucose to be taken up by the liver and muscles more efficiently, leading to more stable blood glucose levels and preventing hypoglycemia. 


Weight maintenance 


For a number of different reasons, psyllium is useful for achieving and maintaining a normal weight. It slows the digestion of food and helps stabilize blood sugar, which helps prevent over- or under-eating. It binds with cholesterol and bile acids and assists in their expulsion and overall reduces fat deposits. 

Psyllium also increases levels of peptide YY, a hormone that binds with receptors in the brain to give a sense of satiety after meals. At the same time, it lowers the secretion of ghrelin, a hormone that triggers hunger. 


Balances gut microbiome 


Your gut microbiome is a diverse community of microbes. It plays a leading role in the so-called gut-brain axis, a two-way communication network between the gut and the central nervous system.. Imbalances in this microbiome (dysbiosis) strongly correlate with inflammation, mood disorders, and cognitive decline, especially among older adults.. 

Psyllium appears to have prebiotic qualities that make the lower intestine more hospitable to beneficial microbes. In mouse studies, psyllium was associated with lower populations of disease and inflammation-causing bacteria.

Scientists think that psyllium might owe its prebiotic properties to its slow rate of fermentation in the lower intestine and to the sugars in its xylan in its polysaccharide chain. The bacteria that thrive on the fermentation process produce fatty acids butyrate and propionate, which are known to reduce oxidative stress in the gut and the brain. 

Oxidative stress is associated with many age-related health issues; this means psyllium’s prebiotic properties could one day prove useful in fighting the effects of age. Age is associated with less diverse intestinal microbiomes. 




Is psyllium supplementation right for you? 


After reading about psyllium’s many health benefits, you are probably wondering if psyllium supplements are right for you. The answer depends on many different considerations. Read on to learn whether you’re a good candidate for psyllium supplementation. 


Potential risks 


Like any supplement, you should consult with your doctor and/or pharmacist before starting psyllium supplements. If it is not taken as directed, it can have dangerous adverse effects. Some of the possible risks of psyllium supplementation include: 

  • Bloating and stomach pain. This is a risk with almost any kind of fiber supplementation. While it may improve on its own after a day or two, you should discontinue if it worsens or does not subside within that time frame. 

  • Flatulence. This is another common side effect of fiber supplementation. Once again, if it does not improve or gets worse, discontinue and speak to your doctor. 

  • Allergy. Allergy to psyllium husks is not uncommon. It is frequently found in people who grow and harvest plantago species. Signs of allergies include runny nose, swollen eyes, itchy skin, hives, throat pain, and difficulty breathing. Discontinue and speak with your doctor. Signs such as throat pain and difficulty breathing call for a visit to the emergency department. 

  • Worsening constipation. While psyllium is beneficial in the treatment of constipation, it can worsen it in some cases. This is especially true if you are not well-hydrated or if you do not take your supplement with water. The elderly are at greater risk. 

  • Intestinal obstruction. Psyllium is one of the milder bulk-forming laxatives, and its risks are typically mild and few. However, it can cause obstruction in the bowels (called a bezoar), especially among the elderly, the undernourished, and the dehydrated..

    Extreme abdominal pain, inability to void the bowels, and vomiting are all potential signs of intestinal obstruction. 

    • Esophageal impaction. In rare cases, psyllium husks can cause a blockage in the esophagus. Difficulty swallowing should be addressed in an emergency department. 


    Those who should avoid psyllium 


    Most people tolerate psyllium husks quite well. However, people with kidney or liver disease, people with inflammatory bowel disease, and people taking any kind of medication should consult their doctor before using this supplement. Some people should avoid this supplement, including: 

    • Those with narrowing of the esophagus 

    • Those with narrowing of the intestines or rectum 

    • People with a history of bowel obstructions and/or bowel spasms


      Drug interactions 


      Those taking any of the following should be aware that psyllium husks can interfere with your medications. Speak to your doctor and/or pharmacist before taking psyllium if you are using: 

      • Antidepressants, including SSRIs, SNRIs, and tricyclics 

      • Tegretol (carbamazepine) 

      • Cholesterol medications, including cholestyramine and colestipol

      • Digoxin 

      • Lithium 


      How much should you take? 


      Most studies seem to agree that the average adult benefits from a dosage of 10 grams taken twice a day. Those taking psyllium to manage IBS or IBD usually take more, around 25 grams for women and 38 for men. 

      It’s important to take psyllium with a full glass of water each time, and to drink plenty of water throughout the day while you are taking it. 


      What is psyllium husk? 


      Summing it up 


      Psyllium husks are a multifaceted preventative supplement. For most adults, taking 10 grams of psyllium twice a day lowers cholesterol, helps regulate blood sugar, protects against inflammation, and promotes gut health. It is well-tolerated by most people, with few adverse effects.

      There are some risks, including bowel obstruction, drug interactions, and allergy. If you think it is right for you, discuss psyllium supplements with your healthcare team. It could be a game-changer for your health!

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