Berkeley Wellness Alerts
July 6, 2010 | Comments: 3
The Scoop on Psyllium
Many people take psyllium as a fiber supplement and laxative. But it has other benefits, too—notably a cholesterol-lowering effect.
Made from the husks of seeds from the Plantago ovata plant, psyllium is sold as a powder or pill and is also an ingredient in a few breakfast cereals. Metamucil is the best known brand, but there are many others, including less expensive store brands.
Psyllium husks are rich in soluble fiber, which helps prevent constipation. This fiber absorbs water in the colon, resulting in bulkier stool—thus it’s called a “bulk-forming” laxative—and forms emollient gels that facilitate the passage of stool. It’s also a good source of insoluble fiber (like whole bran), which enhances its laxative effect. Psyllium is gentle and relatively slow-acting: it usually takes 12 to 24 hours to affect bowel movements. If you take it, drink extra water.
The soluble fiber in psyllium can help improve cholesterol levels, especially by lowering LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. It may, in particular, help reduce levels of smaller, denser LDL particles (which are more dangerous) and have other heart-healthy effects. The government’s cholesterol guidelines recommend psyllium for this purpose, as does the American Heart Association. For the greatest effect, you have to take the standard dose three times a day.
Like other sources of soluble fiber, psyllium may also help control blood sugar in people with diabetes—but don’t expect a large effect. Finally, psyllium may aid in weight control, since it helps you feel full. However, the claims made for fiber supplements as weight-loss aids are almost always overstated. Increasing intake of any kind of fiber can help you lose weight, but only if it helps you reduce your calorie intake.
Our take on psyllium
• If you have high cholesterol or diabetes, psyllium can help, if it’s part of broader dietary strategies. By itself it won’t be enough to treat the problem. It may help you stay on a lower dose of statins.
• If you have a healthy diet—rich in fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains—and your cholesterol numbers are okay, you don’t need psyllium. Aim for a variety of fiber-rich foods, so that you get various types of soluble and insoluble fiber, since they have different kinds of benefits.
• If you are occasionally constipated, eat more produce and whole grains, exercise more, and drink plenty of fluids. If that doesn’t work, fiber supplements such as psyllium are safer than other (“stimulant”) laxatives such as Ex-Lax or Correctol.
• Psyllium can sometimes cause bloating, gas, diarrhea, or (if you don’t drink enough fluid) constipation. Some people are allergic to it. Psyllium can interfere with certain drugs, so if you’re on medication, ask your pharmacist. You may have to take the drug either one hour before or two hours after the psyllium.
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