Fibre: Beyond the bathroom

If you believe that you need to think about fibre only when you’re plugged up, think again. Fibre will definitely help you if you’re constipated, but relieving constipation is the least of its jobs. In fact, many folks who have too little fibre in their diet aren’t constipated (yet). Those who are constipated are lucky because constipation motivates them to improve their fibre intake. And what’s great about that is that fibre enhances your health in very unexpected ways, far beyond regular bowel movements. There’s just one catch, though: You need the right kind of fibre.

Most medical associations say that the minimum daily fibre requirement is anywhere from 20 to 35 grams per day. But get a load of this: Our hunter-gatherer ancestors consumed 100 to 150 grams per day. It wasn’t until they stopped roaming and started farming that their fibre intake started decreasing. Today, the average daily fibre intake in Canada is a pitiful 14 grams — not even close to the so-called minimum daily requirement and a tiny fraction of our ancestors’ intake. You might attribute that to “progress,” but consider this: You have essentially the same gut your ancestors had, which needed up to 10 times the amount of fibre you’re getting. No wonder it’s more common to be constipated than not! And, as you’ll soon see, this also explains some other unhealthy developments in modern living.

What fibre does?

“Fibre” usually brings to mind things like All-Bran cereal and whole-wheat bread. But those foods contain chiefly insoluble fibre — fibre that doesn’t dissolve in water. It’s what makes a plant’s cell walls rigid so they don’t collapse, and forms part of the glue that holds the plant together. It’s found in whole grains, most kinds of bran, the edible skin of fruits like apples and pears, and root vegetables. Its primary benefit for you is that it’s like a broom that helps sweep out your colon.

Then there’s soluble fibre. Plunk it in water and it quickly swells up into a gelatinous sponge. It’s found in oatmeal, fruits, vegetables, barley, beans, and seeds, and it’s what they call a fermentable complex carbohydrate — meaning that friendly bacteria living inside your colon can digest it (by fermenting it) as their primary source of food. They need it, to support their own colonies, which are a major part of your immune system. They protect you against armies of pathogens that are trying to invade your body via your gut. As those good bugs thrive on the soluble fibre you eat, they produce by-products called short chain fatty acids (SCFAs), which just happen to be the favourite fuel source for the cells that make up your colon. Those cells need SCFAs to survive, stay healthy, function optimally, and heal.

Soluble fibre provides so many benefits because it isn’t just one substance, the way insoluble fibre is. Instead, it’s made up of a variety of substances, such as lignans (like those found in flax), glucans (from, for example, oats), and pectin (from fruits). You can see why you need to get your fibre directly from food, rather than relying on a couple spoonfuls out of a jar every day — those spoonfuls just won’t provide all the substances your body needs.

A lack of fibre robs you of health

Many medical researchers now believe that a lack of fibre is the biggest contributing factor in the current epidemics of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and colon cancer in the Canada. Here’s the straight poop on these and other health problems that can be caused by too little fibre, and held at bay when fibre intake is restored.

Constipation. It’s not just inconvenient and uncomfortable. The longer your stool sits in your gut, the more it putrefies (rots) while some nasty by-products get absorbed into your bloodstream. That’s a phenomenon called autointoxication — self-poisoning. It sets you up for all kinds of miserable symptoms that often get misdiagnosed and mistreated, while that putrefying stool directly damages your colon wall and makes its tissues less able to do their work. The result is a snowball effect that can take your health downhill with it. While insoluble fibre definitely bulks up your stool and may be all you need to make constipation go away, soluble fibre can do that and more.

Diverticulosis. You should get your first colonoscopy when you turn 50, to check for colon cancer. If you’ve already had one, there’s a strong likelihood you’ve been told you have diverticulosis , which has gotten so prevalent in the over-50 crowd that it’s now more common to have it than to not have it. In fact, two-thirds of all Canadians are diagnosed with diverticulosis by age 85. It’s basically a blowout in the colon wall’s weak spots, where its outer muscles are slightly parted to make room for blood vessels. The cause of the blowout? Too much pressure inside the colon thanks to too little fibre — which makes your stool smaller and harder, which makes your colon’s muscles squeeze harder to move it along. Think of pinching one end of a balloon and how that makes the other end bulge. As the muscle fibres separate with the increased pressure, the colon’s inner layers pooch through, forming a little sac (diverticulum).

Most people with diverticulosis have several such blowouts and aren’t even aware of it. In about 15 per cent of those people, their condition advances to diverticulitis — when food gets trapped in one of those sacs and starts a festering “fire” in there. Diverticulitis often requires surgery, the sacs can rupture and cause life-threatening peritonitis, and the condition often comes back after it’s been “fixed.” It’s also a big fat risk factor for colon cancer, thanks at least in part to the massive inflammation it causes.

Boosting your insoluble fibre intake bulks up your stool so your colon muscles don’t have to squeeze so hard to push it out. This decreases the pressure that otherwise would pop out another diverticulum. Boosting your soluble fibre also helps keep friendly bacteria in power, decreases the chance of infection, and helps your colon heal quicker by bathing it in its favourite nutrients.

Colon cancer. There are three SCFAs “exhaled” by friendly bacteria when they’re happily fermenting the soluble fibre you eat: butyric, propionic, and acetic acids. All three of them — but butyric acid in particular — provide powerful protection against the growth of cancer cells in the colon, while encouraging non-cancerous cells to proliferate and heal faster. And, as I already mentioned, by lowering your risk of diverticulosis and its complications, soluble fibre further lowers your risk of colon cancer. As another indicator of your need for soluble fibre, numerous studies have shown that it’s whole grains, not just “fibre” alone (meaning insoluble fibre), that’s associated with a reduced risk of colon cancer.

Inflammation. It’s well documented that soluble fibre intake reduces inflammation, in both the colon and the body in general. It’s also well documented that inflammation is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease and diabetes. In a recent study of 524 subjects comparing dietary fibre intake with blood levels of C-reactive protein (CRP — a marker for acute inflammation), the higher the dietary fibre intake, the lower the CRP levels.

Cardiovascular disease. There’s plenty of evidence that fibre, particularly soluble fibre, is good for your heart. Through several different pathways, it lowers the amount of cholesterol you absorb from the animal-sourced foods you eat. But, contrary to popular belief, that’s not soluble fibre’s biggest contribution to your heart. In fact, only a fraction of your cholesterol comes from your food; most of it is manufactured, on purpose, by your liver, to try and patch over the damage done to your arteries by inflammation. Soluble fibre’s ability to help counteract inflammation is what does the real work to protect your arteries and heart. When there’s less inflammation, your arteries can finally heal, and there’s less need for cholesterol to patch over the damage — so your cholesterol levels drop naturally. This is why a lack of soluble fibre is widely recognized as a major contributor to cardiovascular disease, and why many cereal boxes have healthy heart claims proudly printed on them.

Decreased immunity. When your soluble fibre intake is inadequate, friendly colon bacteria such as Bifidobacteria , which need soluble fibre to support their colonies, can’t thrive. Substitute bacteria such as Bacteroides move in, but they’re not loyal benefactors — if conditions go sour, they’ll switch to the dark side and become pathogenic. The only sustainable way to increase your gut population of loyal bacteria, and thereby have a strong first-line immune system, is to increase your intake of soluble fibre.

Impaired healing. When your colon is healthy, it’s constantly sorting out nutrients from things that should go to the hazmat dump. But to do this job it has to get up close and personal with your hazardous wastes, and thereby suffers a certain amount of damage every day. Its ability to heal quickly and completely is vital to your ability to stay well, and soluble fibre is a cornerstone of that ability. In one study, researchers removed sections of colon from laboratory rats, and sewed the cut ends back together. Half the rats got a soluble fibre supplement added to their standard rat chow. And, half of each group got radiation “treatments” to the pelvic area before the surgery, which ordinarily impairs healing. Two weeks later, the degree of healing from the surgery was assessed. All the fibre-fed rats healed significantly faster and better than those that didn’t get soluble fibre — even those that didn’t get irradiated.

Diabetes. When soluble fibre arrives in the stomach, its gelatinous nature starts slowing down the rate at which your stomach empties its contents into your small intestine. This slows down the rate of glucose absorption, helps stabilize your blood glucose levels, and helps restore and protect your insulin sensitivity. The result: a much healthier metabolism. This is why lack of soluble fibre intake is widely recognized as a major cause of today’s diabetes epidemic, and why boosting soluble fibre is such a godsend in preventing and treating diabetes. It’s also a great way to curb an out-of-control appetite, because it helps keep you feeling fuller, longer.

The bottom line

The Canadian Diabetes Association’s daily fibre recommendation is 25 to 50 grams, and in several studies on cholesterol and heart effects the subjects consumed up to 100 grams per day. I know a lot of slender, vibrantly healthy, middle-aged men and women who easily get 75 grams per day — and look (and feel) half their age.

Here’s what I suggest for you –

1. Shoot for 50 grams, of which 25 to 60 per cent is soluble fibre. Work up to this amount gradually, giving your body time to adapt.

2. Let whole foods be your mainstay. Cook from scratch if you can, and scrub fruits and vegetables rather than peeling them (much of the fibre is in those peels). Check the fibre content before you choose ingredients.

3. Choose whole food fibre supplements such as freshly ground chia or flax seeds. Drink at least one 8-ounce glass of water for each serving to keep the fibre moving through.

It can be hard to believe that something as simple as fibre can have so many benefits. This is just one more example of the wisdom of nature.

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The content and opinions expressed in this article are the professional and/or personal view or opinion of the author only. Opinions expressed should not be construed as medical advice, and the article’s content is not a substitute for direct, personal, professional medical care and diagnosis. Individuals should always consult with their health care provider before beginning or changing any treatment program.

Photo © Robyn Mackenzie

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