Fibre is vital to a Happy Body

“We are what we eat” – A fact many people ignore in this world of instant gratification and over indulgence.  It is primarily poor food choices that affect our well-being causing our body to become polluted, deficient in essential nutrients and unable to function properly.

Bowl of oatmealAside from the obvious dietary changes, supplementing your diet with functional foods specific for bowel health can make a huge difference.

Our gastrointestinal tract is both our means of gaining nutrition and eliminating waste.  If it is functioning correctly, waste products are eliminated entirely and efficiently ensuring that tissues remain healthy and beneficial bacteria live in harmony.  However, if it becomes blocked or sluggish, waste products can build up and be reabsorbed.  This pollutes our internal tissues and organs, increases tissue acidity and provides an ideal breeding ground for harmful bacteria and fungi.

Some problems linked with poor bowel health:

  • Excessive flatulence due to poor digestion and unbalanced bowel flora.
  • Constipation and build-up of metabolic waste products (this could lead to fatigue, headaches and skin conditions such as acne and eczema).
  • Greater exposure to toxins, such as heavy metals, pesticides and carcinogens.
  • High cholesterol levels.
  • Increased risk of diseases including colon cancer, heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease, diverticulitis, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and diabetes.

A healthy colon requires soluble and insoluble fibre, prebiotics, probiotics, specific amino acids, vitamins and minerals.  In other words, it isn’t sufficient to eat a bowl of wheat bran for breakfast and assume that you will have a healthy bowel.

What is fibre and what does it do?

Dietary fibre consists of indigestible plant compounds that travel through our gastrointestinal tract absorbing water, providing nutrients for beneficial bacteria and aiding elimination of wastes.  Insoluble fibre doesn’t dissolve in water, whereas soluble fibre forms a gel in water, thereby taking longer than insoluble fibre to travel through the gastrointestinal tract. This crucial difference gives each type of fibre very different beneficial properties.

Soluble fibre

  • Lowers cholesterol – reducing the risk of heart disease and arteriosclerosis.
  • Delays glucose absorption – which helps to stabilise blood sugar levels.  This may be beneficial for sustained energy, improved concentration and reduced risk of diabetes.
  • Enhances immune function through production of short chain fatty acids.
  • Softens stools and increases faecal bulk – thereby reducing constipation and the incidence of haemorrhoids.

Insoluble fibre

  • Improves regularity by decreasing bowel transit time – Instead of dissolving in water, insoluble fibre absorbs water, thereby speeding up the elimination of waste products.
  • May inhibit colon cancer and reduce toxicity of heavy metals and pesticides – Bowel regularity decreases contact time of carcinogens with the walls of the intestine.
  • Cleans the bowel wall, softens stools and increases faecal bulk – thereby reducing the risk of constipation, diverticulitis and haemorrhoids.

Benefits of short chain fatty acids

Short chain fatty acids (SCFA) are primarily produced by bacterial fermentation of carbohydrates (and proteins) in the large intestine6.  The most numerous SCFA are acetate, propionate and butyrate, however other SCFA are produced in lower amounts6. Propionate is metabolised mainly in the liver, whilst butyrate is the main energy source for the cells of the colon16.  SCFA stimulate blood flow to colon tissue and aid fluid and electrolyte absorption24.  They also assist in recovery from antibiotic-induced and infectious diarrhea19.

SCFA may protect against colon cancer by decreasing bowel pH, thereby inhibiting the conversion of primary bile acids into carcinogenic secondary bile acids and reducing the solubility of free bile acids making them less carcinogenic24.  Butyrate also inhibits the growth and proliferation of tumour cells in vitro9.

Functional foods for healthy bowel function:

Psyllium husk is high in soluble fibre and mucilage. It is traditionally used for constipation and is a bulk-forming laxative due to the swelling of the husk when it comes in contact with water8. It softens stools and cleans the bowel, when taken with sufficient water13.  Psyllium also helps to remove excess cholesterol from blood and thus reduce risk of heart disease1,20.

Rice bran is the outer layer of the rice grain. It is rich in insoluble fibre and contains significant quantities of starch, protein, vitamins and minerals. Rice bran oil is also rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, including gamma oryizanol, which has been shown to have cholesterol-lowering properties23 and is also believed to be anti-fungal.

Flax seeds (Linum usitatissimum), also known as linseeds, are a good source of both soluble and insoluble fibres, including lignans and mucilage. Flax is also one of the richest sources of alpha linolenic acid, an Omega-3 essential fatty acid17.  Flax fibre is known for its bulk-forming, soothing and laxative effects in the intestinal tract8. Studies show it is useful for relieving constipation and stabilising blood sugar levels7.

Apple pectin is a soluble fibre that can bind to bile acids, amino acids and sugars aiding absorption12.  It is also a great source of short chain fatty acids following its fermentation in the large intestine.  Another potential benefit of apple pectin is its ability to aid the removal of some heavy metals from the body, such as lead25, 11.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) root has gentle laxative and liver tonic properties5.  It also enhances digestion by stimulating bile production and secretion3.  Dandelion root is a source of various vitamins and minerals, including vitamin A, B complex, vitamin C, vitamin E, potassium, calcium, iron and phosphorus8.

Slippery elm (Ulmus rubra) is rich in mucopolysaccharides or mucilage, a type of soluble fibre that traps water to form a soothing gel on mucus membranes14.  For this reason it is commonly used in the treatment of ulcers and inflammatory conditions of the digestive tract such as gastritis, acid dyspepsia, IBS, peptic ulcers and Crohn’s disease5.

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is calming on the gut thereby aiding digestion and also helping to relieve gas and bloating.  It also has anti-inflammatory and diuretic effects8.

Cascara sagrada (Rhamnus purshiana) bark has a gentle laxative effect, which has made it a popular remedy for constipation in Europe. It contains anthraquinones, which increase intestinal muscular contractions (peristalsis) resulting in a bowel movement14.  It also stimulates bile secretion and has anti-parasitic actions8.

Fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS) are carbohydrate molecules that consist of glucose linked to fructose units. They are not digested in the human small intestine but are fermented by bacteria in the colon.  For this reason they promote the growth of some species of beneficial bacteria, reduce the growth of harmful species and stimulate healthy immune function22, 4.  Furthermore, FOS has been shown to dramatically reduce the incidence of colon tumours and support gut-associated lymphoid tissue18.

Aloe vera (Aloe barbadensis Miller) has been used medicinally for thousands of years. It has antiviral, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, laxative, immune stimulating and wound-healing effects; making it especially beneficial for constipation when taken internally5.

Peppermint (Mentha piperita) has been used medicinally for thousands of years. It contains compounds, such as menthol, which are beneficial for eliminating intestinal gas, relieving gut and other smooth muscle spasms and stimulating bile flow8.

Barley Grass (Hordeum vulgare) is a rich source of fibre and it contains a vast array of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients.  It also contains significant amounts of chlorophyll.  Chlorophyll alkalises the body and helps to decrease faecal and body odours10.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale Roscoe) acts as a digestive stimulant and helps settle the stomach, especially during nausea and vomiting15.  It also has antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, circulatory stimulant and analgesic properties5.  Ginger is commonly used for nausea, vomiting and inflammatory conditions, such as arthritis5.  It is also treasured for its warming properties and may have beneficial effects on the heart21 and liver2.

Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is traditionally used in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine, most notably for its anti-inflammatory and digestive supporting properties.  Curcumin, a significant component of turmeric has been shown to have liver protecting, anti-cancer, antioxidant, antispasmodic and anti-inflammatory properties in cell culture and animal studies5.

Figs contain both soluble and insoluble fibre, are rich in calcium & phosphorus and are a source of iron, magnesium, vitamins A, B & C, folic acid, zinc, sodium & potassium.

Prunes are one of the most widely recognised natural laxatives.  They are rich in both soluble and insoluble fibres, as well as vitamin A, potassium and iron.

 

References:

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2. Bhandari U, Shamsher A, Pillai K, et al (2003) Antihepatotoxic activity of ginger ethanol extract in rats. Pharm. Biol.; 41(1): 68-71.
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5. Braun L and Cohen M (2005) Herbs and Natural Supplements: An evidence-based guide. Elsevier Australia.
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13.  Marlett J, Kajs T, Fischer M (2000) An Unfermented Gel Component of Psyllium Seed Husk Promotes Laxation as a Lubricant in Humans. Am. J. Clin. Nutr.; 72(3): 784-789.
14.  Mills S and Bone K (2000) Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy. Churchill Livingstone, London.
15.  Mills S and Bone K (2005) The Essential Guide to Herbal Safety. Elsevier, Australia.
16.  Murray M and Pizzorno J (1998) Encyclopaedia of Natural Medicine. Little Brown, UK.
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18.  Pierre F, Perrin P, Champ M, et al (1997) Short-Chain Fructo-oligosaccharides Reduce the Occurrence of Colon Tumors and Develop Gut-associated Lymphoid Tissue in Min Mice. Cancer Res.; 57: 225-228.
19.  Ramakrishna B, Venkataraman S, Srinivasan S, et al (2000) Amylase-resistant starch plus oral rehydration solution for cholera. N. Engl. J. Med.; 342: 308–313.
20.  Roberts D, Truswell A, Bencke A, et al (1994) The cholesterol lowering effect of breakfast cereal containing psyllium fibre. Med. J. Aust.; 161(11-12): 660-664.
21.  Shoji N, Iwasa A, Takemoto T (1982) Cardiotonic principles of ginger (Zingiber officinale roscoe). J. Pharm. Sci.; 71(10): 1174-1175.
22.  Swanson K, Grieshop C, Flickinger E, et al (2002) Supplemental Fructooligosaccharides and Mannanoligosaccharides Influence Immune Function, Ileal and Total Tract Nutrient Digestibilities, Microbial Populations and Concentrations of Protein Catabolites in the Large Bowel of Dogs. J. Nutr.; 132: 980-989.
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