Is Psyllium a Prebiotic?

Is Psyllium a Prebiotic?

While all (or nearly all) prebiotics are some type of fiber or complex carbohydrate, not all types of fibers are prebiotic.

Psyllium is certainly a fiber, but is psyllium a prebiotic?

The short answer, using a narrow definition, is “no.”

The longer answer, using a broader definition, is increasingly “yes.”

But to understand this, it is important we move away from doctrinaire definitions and academic arguments and examine the question from the broader perspective of your personal health and the health of your microbiome.

The good news is, research in recent years does appear to support this broader view.

What is a Prebiotic?

Let’s back up a brief moment.

The traditional definition of a prebiotic (with regard to food) is anything that resists the normal process of digestion and passes on through to your colon where it is consumed as a kind of food or fuel by your existing friendly microorganisms through the process of fermentation which in turn is presumed to provide health benefits, particularly with regard to overall gut health.

This traditional definition of “prebiotic” has actually been expanding for some time, as research continues to demonstrate the ability of many forms of fiber to confer prebiotic benefits either by directly being consumed by friendly bacteria (if only on a limited basis) or creating a more positive environment in which your friendly bacteria can thrive.

Psyllium appears to play a role in both.

First, it appears that it is, to some small extent, fermentable in the gut, or through some less direct mechanism, fosters greater fermentation in the gut by either its presence or interaction with other elements and fibers and the interplay of various microorganisms.

We would do well to note here that many of these mechanisms remain poorly understood. While we certainly can draw some preliminary conclusions based on observational data, more research will be needed to thoroughly understand these mechanisms so that results can be more reliably predicted.

The fact of the matter is, the research remains mixed on this point and is something we will be watching closely.

Second, psyllium can shift fermentation in general towards the distal (end) of the colon where bacterial communities are the largest resulting in even greater production of butyrate, a short chain fatty acid (SCFA) that is a primary source of sustenance for cells that line the intestinal wall and serve as a barrier to pathogens.

While this mechanism is indirect, and by itself does not demonstrate that psyllium itself is a traditionally defined prebiotic, as a purely functional or practical matter, its presence in the colon does appear to confer prebiotic-like effects.

And that really is the crux of the argument.

There are academics and commercial producers of prebiotics that passionately resist any expansion of the definition of prebiotic, insisting that unless it is directly fermentable by friendly gut microorganisms, it does not qualify.

And while you can argue that these individuals and companies might have a vested interest in protecting their own reputations and formulations, I don’t doubt they firmly believe in their position.

From our view this simply is not an argument in which we have any interest. Like you, we are focused on outcomes, and at this juncture, there appears to be research to support the positive effects the consumption of prebiotic-like fibers like psyllium has on our gut microbiome.

Should You Take a Psyllium Fiber Supplement?

The decision whether you should take a psyllium fiber supplement is highly individual and truly is one you must make for yourself, and I would caution you do that in all instances having to do with your personal health. Never just take someone’s word for it, no matter how authoritative they may appear to be.

That said, let me tell you what I do and why.

I do take a daily psyllium supplement and have for years. My original reasoning was for the many known and documented health benefits it confers, from heart health to weight control to cholesterol reduction to, yes, regularity.

To be honest, the notion that it provides additional benefits for my microbiome is basically frosting on the cake.

(Not that you should be eating cake. Or frosting. But if you do, take psyllium with it!)

If you are specifically looking to benefit your microbiome, I do believe psyllium plays a role, but not the only one, and certainly not the primary one. It is becoming increasingly apparent that a wide variety of fibers, including both broadly and narrowly defined prebiotics, are your best bet. (Much more on that in the near future.)

The beneficial microorganisms that inhabit your gut can be particular about what they consume, so the greater variety of “food” you provide them, the greater variety of health-promoting microorganisms you will have.

And the healthier your gut is, the healthier you are.

Best Psyllium Fiber Supplement

As for specific products, back in the day I started off with Metamucil, which was pretty much the only game in town at the time. I even used the flavored kind. Bad idea. Too many chemicals and artificial ingredients for my taste.

I have long since moved on to a brand with which I have grown very familiar and satisfied with: Organic India Whole Husk Psyllium Powder.

I like the fact it has one ingredient: Whole husk psyllium.

That keeps things simple.

It is also completely flavorless and relatively inexpensive. And of course, organic, as the name implies.

One thing to note about consuming psyllium powder in its pure form. It does have an odd texture. I just mix it with water and down it within seconds. Leave it too long and it gels up rather quickly. Even if you mix it with something else such as a smoothie, I would not recommend you wait too long to drink it.

The powder version is not for everyone, of course, but there is an alternative. Now brand’s Psyllium Husk Caps.

While I don’t consume these personally, I am familiar with the brand and use and trust their products. Their ingredient list adds two components to the psyllium husk powder: Stearic acid, a long-chain fatty acid found in palm oil, coconut oil and other natural food sources and used as a flow agent, and cellulose, a non-digestible wood pulp derivative for the capsule.

That’s an admirably short and inoffensive list for a capsuled product.

Again, I encourage you to explore the linked research above and examine any other sources you think you need to, including your doctor if necessary, before making a decision. If you have never taken a fiber supplement before, start slowly, preferably on a weekend or time of week when you have some flexibility with your schedule “just in case.”  I typically take two tablespoons (that’s a double serving) each night after dinner.

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