While you’re busy concentrating on consuming plenty of the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants crucial to health, don’t forget about fibre. In this article we’ll discover the many health benefits of this often–overlooked part of your diet.
Fibre is contained in the carbohydrate found in plant foods. It’s the part humans are unable to digest. Most foods contain a mixture of two kinds of fibre, soluble and insoluble.
Insoluble fibre is the type most people think of when the word fibre is mentioned, and it’s often known as roughage. This is the course fibre found in the outer husk of grains as well as vegetables. Insoluble fibre doesn’t dissolve in water and travels through the digestive system unchanged.
If your diet includes insoluble fibre, your stool will naturally be bulky and soft. This helps it pass smoothly through your digestive system, reducing the likelihood of constipation.
Soluble fibre dissolves in water to form a gel-like substance in the intestines. Although we ourselves can’t digest insoluble fibre, it does not leave our body unchanged. This type of fibre provides fuel for the bacteria living in your gut, collectively called your microbiome, helping them to flourish. You may have heard of prebiotics, often found as food supplements and designed to feed your intestinal bacteria. In fact, prebiotics are a type of soluble fibre naturally found in many types of food.
Soluble fibre exists in different forms, such as inulin, fructooligosaccharides (FOS) and pectin.
For many years science only knew about the benefits of regular bowel movements from insoluble fibre. Avoiding constipation, in turn, prevents digestive problems such as haemorrhoids, diverticular disease and even colorectal cancer.
Regular bowel movements can also cleanse the gut, sweeping along with them toxins destined for the outside world. This reduces the likelihood of these toxins being reabsorbed into the bloodstream. If this happens, the liver’s workload will increase as it’s forced to process the toxins all over again.
Fibre can also be useful in reducing the rate in which sugar is absorbed from food, stabilising blood glucose levels. Soluble fibre, because it absorbs water, can help relieve diarrhoea and loose stools.
However, we now know fibre can significantly influence health all over the body due to its influence on the wellbeing of your gut bacteria.
Because the microbiome influences how the body uses and excretes hormones, balancing the gut bacteria by providing them with food can support hormone balance. An unhealthy microbiome is often connected with an excess of oestrogen. This can be a factor in menstrual irregularities, PMS and even hormone-dependent cancers such as breast cancer.
Research has found soluble fibre has a beneficial effect on blood cholesterol levels. One review of studies found consuming a diet high in fibre significantly reduced the incidence of cardiovascular disease.
When soluble fibre is used as a food source by the intestinal bacteria, they produce special types of fatty acids (SCFAs) such as butyrate and propionate. These substances nourish the cells lining the large intestine. They also assist insulin control, important to avoid metabolic disease.
But the widest influence of SCFAs is their beneficial effect on immune system function and their ability to reduce inflammatory molecules all over the body. With increased inflammation now believed to be a factor in most if not all chronic diseases, it’s easy to see how eating sufficient fibre can play a significant role in overall health and wellness.
Boosting your fibre intake is simple – just increase the proportion of plant-based foods in your diet. Good sources of soluble fibre include apples, pears, raspberries, oats, flax and chia seeds, nuts, beans, lentils, leeks, Jerusalem artichoke, asparagus, onions and garlic.
When increasing your fibre intake, make sure you drink plenty of liquid, because fibre absorbs water. If you don’t, you may find your bowel movements become less frequent.
In some people, consuming fibre causes uncomfortable digestive symptoms. If this is you, make sure to increase it gradually, giving your intestinal bacteria time to adjust. This could be an indication you are suffering from SIBO, or small intestine bacterial overgrowth, which occurs when the beneficial bacteria normally resident in your large intestine migrate into your small intestine. When they feed on fibre they can cause bloating, gas and cramps. Rather than an indication to avoid consuming beneficial fibre, this is a sign your digestive system would benefit from support, including encouraging the bacteria to thrive in your colon where they belong.
We are all unique, and Functional Medicine recognises each person has differing requirements for fibre. A practitioner can advise the best types and amounts of fibre for your personal circumstances.
The gut is central to good health. Contact me to start your journey to optimal gut and whole-body health.
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