Hildegard of Bingen wrote the following about the health benefits of soluble fiber, and psyllium in particular. “It makes the mood of depressed people happy, and helps bring the brain to good health.” Hildegard relied almost entirely on observation to instruct her on the health benefits of soluble fiber, particularly psyllium.
For a comprehensive summary of psyllium, see our post: What is Psyllium Husk?
While some of Hildegard’s applications of psyllium may have been a bit folksy, her belief in soluble fiber, as a digestive aid and important part of overall health, continues to be confirmed some 900 years later.
A Tale of Two Fibers: Health Benefits of Soluble Fiber
From a 10,000 foot view, soluble fiber can help you maintain your health and happiness. Fundamentally, it’s worth exploring the properties that make psyllium so effective in delivering the health benefits of soluble fiber.
The Basics of Fiber
Fiber is what gives plants their shape, their form, function, and their ability to reproduce. Fiber literally holds plant life together. It is one of the defining characteristics of plants. Fats, carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, and minerals may be found in both plant and animal food sources, but fiber is found only in plants. Animal products – including dairy and eggs – contain no fiber, unless you count things like wool. But your wool sweater is unlikely to become a meal.
Dietary fiber is made of different types of carbohydrates that plants utilize to construct cell walls, provide for energy storage, protection, and reproduction. Fiber is what forms the durability and rigidity within the plant cell walls. The structure provided by fiber as well as the absorptive and water retentive properties commonly present in seeds, stems, and stalks are what make plants what they are.
Just as fiber is essential to the composition of plants, it is essential to the human digestive system.
Insoluble and Soluble Fiber
There are two primary categories of dietary fiber: soluble and insoluble. The difference is based on whether or not the particular carbohydrate compound reacts (attracts) to water or not. Most plants contain both types, though typically much higher levels of one than the other. The fiber content of psyllium is approximately 70% soluble fiber and 30% insoluble fiber.
Soluble fiber attracts water; it absorbs water, altering the physical properties of the fiber. That’s the basis for the health benefits of soluble fiber. Insoluble fiber does not dissolve in, or attract water, but instead retains its form and passes through digestion largely intact. While both types are important for slightly different reasons, recent research suggests the value has less to do with the issue of solubility and more to do with the common attributes of fiber.
A Problem of Progress: The Modern Diet
Industrialized animal production and distribution has made meat and processed animal products cheaper and more readily available than ever before. More meat typically means fewer vegetables and grains, thus less fiber consumption. This crowding-out effect is amplified by the fundamental shift from the consumption of predominantly whole, plant-based foods to that of processed meats and vegetables.
One hundred years ago, meat, fat, and sugar combined to contribute only 15% of the total number of calories in an average diet. Today, the figure is closer to 60%. The quantity of fiber consumed via whole fruits and vegetables has dropped 90%. This means we are missing many of the important health benefits of soluble fiber in our modern diets.
In other words, even the steak-and-potato staples of the past have been overrun by processed chicken-nuggets and mac-and-cheese. The commingled processing of food tends to replace nutritional density with caloric density, leaving-out naturally occurring fiber in the process.
The Modern Diet and Need for Fiber
The higher caloric (and nutritive) density of meat requires more from our digestive system. Without the benefit of adequate fiber, the digestive system takes longer to break down meat, creating potential for stress and disruption within the digestive system. When digestion is slowed without the corresponding “roughage” as a buffer and lubricant, acidity increases. In addition, larger amounts of water are needed to compensate for the lower water content of meat (which tend to be cooked). Ultimately, the digestive system is not afforded the smoothing and soothing properties so beneficial in waste elimination.
Without the softening and ballast effects of fiber, the body works harder to physically move waste out of the system; digestive enzymes, healthy bacteria levels, nutrient utilization, and waste extraction are all negatively affected.
Fiber in Vegetables?
It is not just the displacement of vegetables by meat that is fueling this fiber deficiency. The ubiquitous production and consumption of processed foods – including fruits and vegetables, has made it more difficult to ingest a healthy amount of fiber.
Even foods naturally high in fiber, such as whole grains, are most often consumed in their refined forms. Processing reduces the whole grain into components better suited for commercial products, which most often means removing the fiber. Similarly, processing vegetables and fruits often involves removing parts where the majority of fiber is present, like the skins, peels, seeds, and pulp. This is in addition to the effects of cooking and added sugars, salts, and fats common in processing, which can cause additional digestive stress and caloric overload.
A Simple Solution to a Complicated Problem
The best solution is usually found by addressing the problem at its root. We can do a lot of good by just avoiding the pitfalls of the modern diet. But even if we limit our consumption of processed foods in favor of whole, plant-based foods, we can still benefit from supplementing with fiber.
Supplementing with a pure fiber source like psyllium is also a good idea if you are already following a diet based on minimizing carbohydrates like Atkins or Paleo, or if you do a lot of juicing (which can leave out a lot of fiber). The good news is that when it comes to fiber, psyllium is one of the best, readily available sources.