Addressing the health benefits of psyllium husk sounds intimidating. Psyllium fiber is one of the most versatile and gentle herbs you can incorporate into your diet. It is derived from the husks (mucilage) encasing the seeds of Plantago Ovata, one of over 200 species of the genus Plantago.
The Overwhelming Health Benefits of Psyllium Husk
The plant is indigenous to the Mediterranean region, where its name was derived from Greek words for flea, due to its small, prolific seeds (each plant can produce up to 15,000). It is also found in West Asia, Pakistan, and India where it is commonly referred to by its Persian name Isabgol, meaning “horse flower” due to the shape of the seeds resembling the head of a horse.
Unlike the majority of herbs used for their healing properties, the health benefits of psyllium husk are a result of its physical properties as opposed to a direct chemical action. The “active” properties of psyllium are primarily mechanical, as a result of it being hygroscopic (attracting and retaining water) and mucilaginous (gelling.) Together these properties are what make the health benefits of psyllium husk compelling for your diet. There are both short-term digestive benefits and long-term cardiovascular benefits.
Chemical Compounds of Psyllium Husk
Due to its chemical composition as primarily mono and polysaccharides (non-digestible sugar-based molecules) the physical structures alter when in contact with water. One such compound, galacturonic acid, is the main component of pectin; the fruit derivative used as a stabilizer in jams and jellies. These compounds are common in other plants with similar properties such as: chia seeds, flax seeds, aloe, okra, and nopales (prickly pear.)
The part of the P. Ovata plant that is actually ingested (psyllium fiber) is just the husk of the seed. When psyllium fiber is taken with water it swells 8 to 14 times its original size. Psyllium fiber is reported to have a water absorption capacity in excess of 50 times its original weight. These bulking and gelling qualities are what provide immediate benefits to the digestive system. The smooth, bulky mass aids digestive movement, activates intestinal flora, dresses the stomach and intestines with a protective layer, and facilitates elimination of waste.
Health Benefits of Psyllium Husk for Digestion and Beyond
Psyllium fiber softens the stool, relieving constipation, but also relieves diarrhea by producing more bulky stool through water absorption. This absorptive quality is also why it is recommended to increase your intake of water when incorporating pysllium fiber into your diet.
These immediate effects on the digestive tract have been the primary uses of psyllium fiber for centuries. Hildegard of Bingen medicine emphasized the benefits of psyllium fiber well beyond our intestines; she recognized many of the long-term benefits as early as 1138. She wrote about the herb’s digestive benefits but also considered psyllium fiber’s impact in addressing other destructive health conditions, such as elevated blood sugar, impaired fat metabolism, hypertension, inflammatory bowels, and obesity.
The Ubiquity of Psyllium Husk
Many Americans indirectly know of psyllium fiber’s efficacy through branded products such as Metamucil, but the long-term benefits of psyillium fiber as a regular dietary ingredient are a much more recent development. In addition to its role in maintaining a healthy digestive system, psyllium fiber has also been found to be effective in controlling cholesterol levels, and postprandial serum lipoproteins, which represent the primary cause of Coronary Heart Diseases (CHD).
Formal Medical Recognition of Psyllium
These long-term benefits are primarily due to psyillium fiber being an insoluble fibre, one of the two types of fiber essential in maintaining optimal health. In humans, psyllium fiber and guar gum appear to be the most effective cholesterol-lowering soluble fibers. Studies on the beneficial properties of psyllium fiber have demonstrated such convincing results that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1998 made an exception in allowing for the following health claim to refer specifically to psyllium:
“based on the totality of publicly available scientific evidence, soluble fiber from psyllium husk…when included as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of CHD by lowering blood cholesterol levels.”
Now that you are more familiar with the health benefits of psyllium husk, you can begin to incorporate it into your diet to experience the benefits for yourself. A follow-up post on psyllium fiber will address some of the specific benefits relating to a high-fiber diet.