What Are the Benefits of Taking Psyllium Husk Fiber?
Have you had any Plantago ovata today? Don’t answer too fast. Plantago ovata is a popular plant that’s also known as blond plantain, isabgol and desert Indianwheat. While Plantago ovata is native to the Mediterranean region, it’s become naturalized throughout Asia and North America. It’s mainly grown and harvested in India. If you haven’t heard of Plantago ovata before, don’t worry; you likely know it by another name: psyllium seeds.
During Plantago ovata’s harvesting process, its seeds are removed from the plant. These seeds are surrounded by a thin layer or shell called a husk, which is also separated from the seed and collected. Both the psyllium seeds and husks are used in a variety of food products and offer numerous health benefits thanks to their high fiber content.
Whether you’ve been researching nutrition or reading news articles, you’ve likely seen psyllium seed husks mentioned. But what exactly are the benefits of eating these — admittedly unappetizing, at least in appearance — fibrous flakes? It turns out that consuming psyllium husk fiber can have a number of positive effects on your overall health.
Where Can You Find Psyllium Husk Fiber?
Psyllium fiber may be best known as a bulk-forming laxative because it absorbs excess water in your digestive tract. In doing so, psyllium fiber helps make bowel movements easier and promotes regularity. Many people depend on psyllium fiber to manage occasional constipation, and others use psyllium fiber as part of their diet with the goal of maintaining regularity and improving their overall digestive wellbeing.
Psyllium husk is a type of fiber known as a soluble fiber. This describes its ability to attract and absorb water in your digestive tract. After absorbing the water, this type of fiber takes on a gel-like consistency that takes longer for your body to digest. As a result, consuming psyllium husk fiber can also help you feel full longer, which may prevent you from overeating. Soluble fiber is different from insoluble fiber, which does not dissolve in water or in gastrointestinal fluids, meaning your body doesn’t break it down much (if at all) during the digestion process.
Psyllium is sold as husk, in powder form you can mix with water, as capsules and even as wafers. Manufacturers also commonly add psyllium to breakfast cereals, rice cakes, breads and other baked goods to add bulk and fortify their nutritional value by boosting fiber content.
What Does the FDA Say?
The Nutritional Labeling and Education Act of 1990 allowed food manufacturers to describe and promote the health effects of products on their packaging. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) set up a process in which manufacturers could apply for approval and explain the supposed benefits of a particular product. The FDA would then investigate those claims and decide whether the manufacturer would be allowed to promote the product as supporting a particular health goal. The first batch of applications for permission to market health benefits of a product was related to nutrients like calcium.
When the FDA approved the marketing of the healthy effects of whole oats, it commented that oats weren’t the only soluble fiber with health benefits. Food manufacturers were eager to make an application to allow the marketing of the health benefits of psyllium fiber. And succeeded.
In June of 2018, a variety of nutrition-focused U.S. organizations released a paper titled “Review of the Scientific Evidence on the Physiological Effects of Certain Non-Digestible Carbohydrates.” While the paper didn’t have a very catchy title, it made a big difference in a lot of people’s lives. One of its biggest takeaways? “Psyllium husk, as a source of soluble fiber, meets the definition of dietary fiber based on its effect of reducing the risk of coronary heart disease.”
With that, psyllium was officially designated a valid source of fiber — a food product with bona fide health benefits. Today the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans touts fiber as an essential component of a healthy diet in two forms: dietary fiber (fiber naturally contained in foods, especially fruits and vegetables) and functional fiber (isolated carbohydrates with beneficial physiological effects, like psyllium fiber).
What Are the Health Benefits of Psyllium Fiber?
As mentioned, people often use psyllium fiber as a dietary supplement to reduce constipation. Psyllium fiber helps because it binds with food that you’ve partially digested and that your body is passing from your stomach to your small intestine. This gives the stool bulk and helps it move smoothly through your body. At the opposite end of the spectrum, psyllium can also provide relief from diarrhea by absorbing water, increasing the thickness of stool and slowing the rate at which stool flows through your colon. Taking a few grams of psyllium three times daily may reduce frequent bowel movements.
Fiber generally helps control your body’s blood sugar response after you’ve consumed a meal. Two responses your body takes include reducing insulin and changing the levels of sugar in your blood. Some studies indicate that psyllium works even better than other fibers (such as bran) because psyllium’s water absorbency and gel formation also slow down digestion. This was demonstrated in a 2018 study published in Complementary Therapies in Medicine. This research followed 51 people with both Type 2 diabetes and constipation. After taking 10 grams of psyllium twice daily, the participants experienced decreased constipation, improved body weight, decreased blood sugar levels and reductions in cholesterol.
Psyllium may also help control your appetite and contribute to weight loss. By slowing down the rate at which your stomach empties, psyllium helps to keep you feeling full. In turn, this tends to reduce your calorie intake and, as a result, helps with weight loss. A 2016 study called “Satiety effects of psyllium in healthy volunteers” published in Appetite followed participants who took 10.2 grams of psyllium before eating breakfast and before eating lunch. Participants reported marked drops in their hunger and appetite and an increased sense of “feeling full” between meals.
Psyllium can help lower cholesterol. By binding to fat and bile acids in your stomach and digestive system, psyllium helps your body to excrete those substances. In one study of 47 healthy people who took 6 grams of psyllium daily for six weeks, the participants experienced a 6% drop in LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol. It’s already well understood that soluble fiber can keep your body from absorbing excess cholesterol from your bloodstream, so it follows that psyllium can help reduce these levels.
Psyllium is also good for your heart. This is the effect that convinced the FDA that producers should be allowed to tout the health benefits of psyllium on product packaging. Even the American Heart Association agrees that fiber, generally, can reduce the risk of heart disease, obesity, Type 2 diabetes and strokes. Water-soluble psyllium has been associated with reduced blood pressure, a decreased risk of heart disease and reduced blood triglycerides (types of fat in your blood).