Category: Medicines - plant based
Introduction and description
Psyllium is the common name used for several members of the plant genus Plantago whose seeds are used commercially as a dietary fibre to, for example, relieve symptoms of both constipation and mild diarrhoea.
Although principally used as a medicinal plant, it is occasionally used commercially and in the food processing industry, as a food thickener.
There are two main types of Psyllium – black and white.
- P. psyllium - known commercially as black, French, or Spanish psyllium, is obtained from P. psyllium L., also known as P. arenaria.
- P. ovata - is known in trading circles as white or blonde psyllium, Indian plantago, or isabgol. Isabgol, (or Ispaghol in Pakistan) the common name in India for P. ovata, comes from the Persian words asp and gul, meaning "horse flower", which is descriptive of the shape of the seed.
Species of Plantago known as psyllium or Indian plantago are annuals native to the Mediterranean region of southern Europe and North Africa. There is an hypothesis that P. ovata was an accidental introduction by the earliest Spaniards to the drylands of western North America, perhaps via the sand of ship ballast.
P. ovata and P. psyllium are produced commercially in several European countries, and the former Soviet Union. The plant tolerates dry and cool climate and is extensively cultivated in West Pakistan and northern India, but has also been experimentally planted elsewhere, especially in Arizona.
India dominates the world market in the production and export of psyllium.
The typical species of plantain (Plantago, Family Plantaginaceae) is a stemless annual with leaves arranged alternately in a basal rosette, from the centre of which arises an erect spike of nonshowy, wind-pollinated flowers. For a dicotyledon, the leaves are highly unusual in having several prominent longitudinal major veins, much as one would find in a monocotyledon. In addition to psyllium, other species of plantain are P. major (greater or common plantain) and P. lanceolata (English plantain or ribwort plantain).
Plantago (L., meaning the sole of the foot) refers to leaf shape of the common plantain species first described by Linneaus, and ovata (i.e., ovate) for that species refers to the shape of a translucent leafy structure (the bract) within the inflorescence.
The word psyllium originated from a Greek word for a flea, referring to the size, shape, and whitish color of the seed, which is the commercially important part of this plant.
The root system has a well-developed tap root with few fibrous secondary roots. A large number of flowering shoots arise from the base of the plant. Flowers are numerous, small, and white. Plants flower about 60 days after planting. The seeds are enclosed in capsules that open at maturity.
The flower spikes turn reddish brown at ripening, the lower leaves dry and the upper leaves yellow. The crop is harvested in the morning after the dew is gone to minimize shattering and field losses. In India, mature plants are cut 15 cm above the ground and then bound, left for a few days to dry, thrashed, and winnowing.
Psyllium is described as a ‘mucilage’ producer. The mucilage obtained from psyllium comes from the seed coat, often referred to as husk, or psyllium husk and is obtained by mechanical milling (i.e. grinding) of the outer layer of the seed. Preparation of the seed coat is tedious, because cleaned seeds must be passed through stone and grinders and then sieved and screened repeatedly through a graded series of fine meshes. The highest quality husk-which is the most expensive-is white, with no particles of reddish embryo (kernel).
The result of the process is a white fibrous material that is hydrophilic, meaning that its molecular structure causes it to attract and bind to water. Upon absorbing water, the clear, colourless, mucilaginous gel that forms increases in volume by tenfold or more.
Mucilage yield amounts to about 25% (by weight) of the total seed yield. The United States is the world's largest importer of psyllium husk, with over 60% of total imports going to pharmaceutical firms for use as a major ingredient in a number of commercial laxative products, the most famous of which is Metamucil but also is the active compound in Effer-syllium, Fiberall, Hydrocil, Konsyl, and Perdiem, among others. In the UK, ispaghula husk is used in the constipation remedy Fybogel.
Psyllium mucilage is also used as a natural dietary fibre for animals. The dehusked seed that remains after the seed coat is milled off is rich in starch and fatty acids, and is used as chicken and cattle feed.
Psyllium mucilage is also used in commercially produced ice cream and frozen desserts to thicken and give bulk to them. A rather interesting thought – eat a commercially produced ice cream and you have no problems with constipation!
Psyllium is mainly used as a dietary fibre, which is not absorbed by the small intestine. The purely mechanical action of psyllium mucilage is to absorb excess water while stimulating normal bowel elimination. Although its main use has been as a laxative, it is more appropriately termed a true dietary fibre and as such can help reduce the symptoms of both constipation and mild diarrhoea. The laxative properties of psyllium are attributed to the fibre absorbing water and subsequently softening the stool. It is also one of the few laxatives that does not promote flatulence.
It is used extensively in Ayurvedic medicine, where it is credited with a number of other activities:
Digestion As a bulking agent it helps to relieve both constipation and diarrhoea. The husk soaked with milk is used for constipation and water or buttermilk for diarrhoea. The roasted seeds are used for diarrhoea and dysentery and have been shown to be effective against different species of Entamoeba. It helps to absorb mucus and bacteria in inflammatory intestinal conditions. It drags toxins and worms out of the alimentary canal. It is salutary for treating peptic and duodenal ulcers Lungs As a soothing demulcent it can ease the dryness of vataja coughs and facilitates expectoration. Urinary The sympathetic reflex of mucus production between the intestinal tract and lungs is continued into the urinary system where painful urination is eased.
Blood fats and sugars Its soluble fibre content has been used to reduce LDL cholesterol when used at 15g per day for 30 days. It has also been shown to reduce blood sugar levels in type 2 diabetes mellitus, showing potential use in controlling blood sugar levels in hyperglycaemia.
All the plants of the plantain family are anti-bacterial, an activity which is becoming increasingly important given our mis-use of antibiotics. A syrup made from plant, which has the advantage that it does not go mouldy even when stored for long periods of time, has been used as a cough remedy for children in many parts of the world. The antibiotics may contribute to the medicinal action of plantain in bronchitis.
Other early Old World uses of psyllium seeds were to treat sores of the mouth and throat, stop nosebleeds, treat complications of the liver, and help to fix loose teeth. Psyllium was administered to assuage complications from scurvy and worms.
In India, crushed seed is added to oil and vinegar as a treatment for rheumatism and gouty swellings, and one folk remedy there is to apply vinegar with crushed seeds to the forehead for reducing fever.
You can take it as a medicine, but there appears to be a gradual shift away from medicines towards finding more tasty ways of using this plant. In India seeds are combined with fruit juice or stewed fruit. This is the point to add a warning, however:
Choking is a hazard if psyllium is taken without adequate water as it thickens in the throat. Cases of allergic reaction to psyllium-containing cereal have also been documented.
Cases of asthma, rhinitis with swelling, and nausea have also been reported. One experiment conducted on nurses and medical aides, people who often come in contact with psyllium products, showed that psyllium husk was directly involved in increased asthma attacks. Chewed seeds can produce profuse diarrhea. The allergic reaction may have been caused by overdosing until the body perceived it to be a toxin.
Remember, this is a medicine and although there are palatable ways of using it, overuse can do you harm.
You may become dehydrated. Furthermore like bran, overuse may chelate essential vitamins and minerals from your body, scouring out everything good and bad!
Another thing to bear in mind. One tablespoon of psyllium is equal to fourteen tablespoons of oat bran.
Sarah Britton’s Life-changing bread recipe
We are not sure why it is life changing, but 2 tablespoons is quite a lot of psyllium. It is described as “A nutty, satisfying loaf of delicious bread made with chia seeds and psyllium husks”. The bread will keep in a tightly sealed container for up to five days. Remember this is serious medicine!
135g (5oz) sunflower seeds
In a flexible, silicon loaf tin combine all the dry ingredients, adding 1 tsp fine-grain sea salt (or ½ tsp coarse salt), and stir well. Whisk together the maple syrup, coconut oil and 350ml (12fl oz) water in a measuring jug. Add to the dry ingredients and mix well until everything is completely soaked and the dough becomes very thick – if it is too thick to stir, add one or two teaspoons of water until it is manageable. Smooth out the top with the back of a spoon. Leave for at least two hours, all day or overnight. The dough should retain its shape even when you pull the sides of the loaf tin away from it.
Preheat the oven to 175°C/350°F/gas mark 4. Bake the loaf on the middle shelf of the oven for 20 minutes. Remove from the tin and then place upside-down directly on the oven shelf and bake for a further 30 to 40 minutes. The bread should sound hollow when it is tapped. Allow to cool completely before slicing.
Banana and Psyllium bread
2 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1 cup unsweetened applesauce
1/3 cup milk
2 teaspoons pure maple syrup
2 ripe bananas
1/2 cup raw and unsalted sunflower seeds
1 tablespoon of psyllium fibre
Preheat oven 350′F
In a bowl, combine flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt.
In a second bowl, combine eggs, applesauce, milk, maple and cereals. Let stand a few minutes.
Mash bananas and add to egg mixture.
Pour liquid into flour mixture and stir slightly.
Add sunflower seeds and mix gently.
Pour into a greased or silicone pan. Garnish with sunflower seeds (optional).
Bake for 50-55 minutes. When a toothpick comes out clean, the bread is ready.
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