Everyday it seems like a new miracle food ingredient pops into our news feed. The reality is that many of these foods have been used for decades, and we’re just circling back around to them today, with a better understanding of their health benefits. Today, we turn the spotlight to understanding what is psyllium husk and what are the health benefits of psyllium husk.
What is Psyllium Husk Fiber
Psyllium husk is a dietary fiber that originates from the seed of the shrub-like plantago ovata plant. In Persian, it’s referred to as ispaghula, meaning “horse flower”, which refers to the shape of the seed. Psyllium husk fiber, or psyllium husk powder, is derived from processing the outer shell of the seed. Although it’s grown worldwide, India is the main producer of psyllium.
In nature, the psyllium plant spreads and thrives due to a unique evolutionary advantage. When the seeds get wet, they become gelatinous and sticky, allowing them to hitch a ride with passing animals. This same sticky characteristic also lends dietary benefits to us humans.
Psyllium husk fiber has become popular because it has become the most common ingredient in supplementary fiber products on the market. Fiber has a lot of benefits and people need it in their diets to maintain their health. If the typical person ate a balanced and healthy diet, they would not need to supplement with fiber because they would get enough from the vegetables and whole grains they consume.
However, the majority of people on a Standard American Diet do not have a healthy, balanced diet. In terms of LCHF or ketogenic diets, people are certainly trying to eat healthy, but eating enough fiber through food gets difficult when minimizing carbohydrates. Adding a fiber supplement is the best way to ensure you are getting enough fiber.
The Health Benefits of Psyllium Husk Fiber
Approximately 70% of psyllium husk is soluble fiber. This is what allows it to absorb water and thicken into a gel. When you purchase psyllium husk fiber at the store, you are only getting the fiber portion which has been separated from the rest of the plant. When you ingest fiber a number of health benefits occur in your gut, plus benefits to your digestion, heart, pancreas, and more.
It is interesting to note that a lot of the psyllium husk benefits end up being very similar to benefits of the ketogenic diet...
Psyllium Husk for Constipation Relief
This is the most common application of psyllium, and how it’s most commonly marketed. For example, Metamucil, a common over the counter laxative contains psyllium husk as it’s primary active ingredient.
When psyllium husk fiber is mixed with liquid in the gut, it swells, and increases stool water content. This bulking then stimulates the intestines to contract thus contributing to psyllium’s laxative effect. Since psyllium husk fiber absorbs water, it can also be effective for treating diarrhea.
The Effects of Psyllium on Blood Sugar
By developing a gel in your gut, psyllium can capture sugar molecules in your small intestine and slow their absorption. This reduces blood sugar spikes and steadies the insulin response. In a random sample of patients with type 2 diabetes, psyllium was shown to significantly reduce Hba1c and fasting blood glucose[i], both vital biometrics for managing diabetes.
Effects of Psyllium on Blood Pressure
High blood pressure is often referred to as the silent killer, that signals an increased risk for heart disease, and stroke. In a study of people supplementing 12 g of psyllium with a diet of 15 g fiber, were shown to have lower blood pressure[ii]. A separate study further showed after 6 weeks of psyllium supplementation, overweight and obese subjects experienced a 7% drop in blood pressure, and improved vascular function[iii].
Psyllium for Weight Loss
There is limited scientific research and evidence to conclusively suggest that psyllium supplementation can directly contribute to weight loss, without other dietary changes. However, psyllium does make you feel more full after a meal[iv], which could cause you to eat less, and lose weight. If you want to reduce your desire to overeat, you could supplement psyllium husk with your meals.
If you are interesting in weight loss, have you considered trying the ketogenic diet to obtain your goals? Read our article here on why the ketogenic diet is great for weight loss.
Reducing Metabolic Syndrome Risk Factors
Most of the health conditions above that psyllium can benefit, are also criteria for metabolic syndrome (pre-diabetes). It’s characterized by the presence of at least 3 of the following conditions: excess abdominal fat, high blood pressure, abnormal cholesterol or triglycerides, and high blood sugar. By reducing your risk for each of these conditions, psyllium could help reduce your risk for metabolic syndrome, and later chance of developing heart disease and type 2 diabetes[v].
Is Psyllium Husk Fiber a Carbohydrate?
This is a somewhat complicated answer. Technically, psyllium husk fiber is a carbohydrate due to its molecular structure. However, it falls into the dietary fiber class of carbohydrates, which means that your body can’t easily break it down and use it as fuel for energy. So, that means it should not have a significant effect on your level of ketosis.
It’s worth noting that there are some varying opinions on this subject. Since, psyllium is a soluble fiber, it technically can contribute to caloric intake, and intestinal gluconeogenesis. This is why some believe it can interfere with ketosis. However, research has also shown that soluble fiber, like psyllium husk, actually lowers blood sugar levels. Since it lowers blood sugar levels, it will not cause an insulin spike and mess with production of ketones. In addition, since many people follow a ketogenic diet to manage their blood sugar, the inclusion of soluble fiber should actually be beneficial.
Caloric Content of Psyllium Husk Fiber
In terms of calories, psyllium husk fiber has been determined to yield about half as much energy as carbohydrates. A gram of soluble fiber contributes in the range of 1.5-2.5 kcal/gram of energy as opposed to 4 kcal per gram of carbohydrate.[vi]
If you are eating the recommended 25 grams of fiber a day all as soluble fiber (as opposed to some of it from insoluble fiber which has zero caloric value), then it would add up to about 50 calories from fiber. This will not be a deal breaker for weight loss or weight gain.
How to Take Psyllium Husk Fiber
Most doctors recommend 25-30 grams of fiber in any diet, and psyllium husk fiber can be that fiber. In one teaspoon of pure psyllium husk powder is a whopping 4.5 grams of fiber. That is about 1/5 of the total fiber needed in one day. For someone on a low-carb or ketogenic diet, enough fiber is typically tough to maintain because of the limited amount of carbohydrates you can eat. Adding a teaspoon of psyllium husk fiber to a low-carb shake or simply to a cooked meal will help you.
If you are using psyllium husk to make-up some of this daily fiber requirement, gradually add it to your diet and use it throughout the day - do not try to eat 25 grams of psyllium husk fiber in one sitting. Too much fiber at once can cause just as many problems as eating no fiber.
Remember, on a ketogenic diet, you are counting net carbohydrates, which means fiber is subtracted from your total carbohydrates to give you net carbohydrates. If you are avoiding vegetables or anything containing fiber on a low carb or ketogenic diet, you run the risk of hurting your gut health and increasing your chances of constipation - that is in addition to the vitamins and minerals you're missing out on by not eating vegetables.
Common Food Products Psyllium Husk Fiber is Already In
Psyllium can often be found in powder, or capsule form in supplements such as Metamucil, Fiberall, and Maalox. But it's also used as an ingredient in a variety of food products, to increase fiber and serve as a thickening agent. If you look at your food labels carefully, you may start to notice its usage in low-carb ice cream, cereals, and baked goods.
How to Use Psyllium Husk Fiber in Cooking
One of the best cooking uses for psyllium husk is as an alternative to gluten. For that reason, some people like to use psyllium for baking bread, or other home baking recipes. So, if you’re missing bread, and psyllium husk can help you develop a low-carb version with similar characteristics. However, it’s also ideal for thickening low carb desserts like pudding.
A few teaspoons of psyllium husk fiber will make a great binding agent in a low-carb meatloaf recipe. In the low-carb meatloaf, an egg plus about 3 teaspoons of psylliuim husk fiber substitutes for bread crumbs or crackers - allowing the ground beef to hold together while still retaining moisture.
Psyllium husk powder substitutes for cornstarch in sauces, gravies and soups as a thickening agent. Once your meal is almost finished cooking, whisk in a teaspoon or two at a time. The psyllium husk fiber quickly absorbs liquid without adding undesired flavor. We used it to help thicken our keto chicken tortilla soup.
We also add 1 teaspoon to our low carb keto almond crackers to help the almond flour bind together - it doesn't change the flavor like flaxseeds would.
Alternatives to Psyllium Husk Fiber
If you need an alternative to psyllium husk for fiber in your diet, there are a few options. Ground flaxseed or ground chia seeds are very high fiber, low carbohydrate foods that when ground, can make a decent replacement of psyllium husk fiber. They can be used in cooking, but don't do quite as effective of a job in binding in baking. They also both add a fair share of their own grainy flavor to your recipe.
Another alternative is xanthan gum. Xanthan gum is a thickening agent that actually does a good job of binding in baking recipes. It can sometimes give an undesirable gooey texture to sauces and gravies, so mix it in very small amounts to check the texture.
Where Can You Buy Psyllium Husk?
Psyllium husk usually isn’t too hard to find. Like most items, you can easily find it online. But, most health food stores carry it in both powder or whole psyllium husk form. The powder is much finer, which makes it more functional for cooking. Usually the whole husk form is used more often for treating constipation, rather than cooking.
Make sure you read the label to get the purest form possible. The type of psyllium husk fiber that we use is in powder form. We've found in at Whole Foods in their supplements section, but you can also purchase on Amazon here.
The Side Effects of Psyllium Husk
Psyllium husk doesn’t have many side effects, but there are two things to be aware of.
First, make sure you’re drinking plenty of water with psyllium. Since psyllium powder swells with water and becomes gelatinous, it can present a choking hazard. So, make sure you consume it, and wash it down with plenty of water. This will also help alleviate any potential digestive comfort.
Secondarily, you should not take psyllium within one to two hours of medication, since it can interfere with absorption.
And remember, if you’re using it as a supplement, make sure you drink enough water.
[i] Feinglosa M, Gibb R, Ramsey D, Surwit R, McRorie J. Psyllium improves glycemic control in patients with type-2 diabetes mellitus. Bioactive Carbohydrates and Dietary Fibre. 2013 April:1(2):156-161
[ii] Burke V, Hodgson JM, Beilin LJ, Giangiulioi N, Rogers P, Puddey IB. Dietary protein and soluble fiber reduce ambulatory blood pressure in treated hypertensives. Hypertension. 2001 Oct;38(4):821-6.
[iii] Pal S, Khossousi A, Binns C, Dhaliwal S, Radavelli-Bagatini S. The effects of 12-week psyllium fibre supplementation or healthy diet on blood pressure and arterial stiffness in overweight and obese individuals. Br J Nutr. 2012 Mar;107(5):725-34.
[iv] Brum JM, Gibb RG, Peters JC, Mattes RD. Satiety effects of psyllium in healthy volunteers. Appetite.Volume 105, 1 October 2016, Pages 27-36
[v] Pal S, Radavelli-Bagatini S. Effects of psyllium on metabolic syndrome risk factors. Obes Rev. 2012 Nov;13(11):1034-47.
[vi] Institute of Medicine (US) Panel on the Definition of Dietary Fiber and the Standing Committee on the Scientific Evaluation of Dietary Reference Intakes. Dietary Reference Intakes Proposed Definition of Dietary Fiber. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2001. Appendix D, Determination Of Energy Values For Fibers.