Psyllium are the seeds of one species of the herb plantain. Plantain grows very low to the ground on roadsides and produces small white flowers. The seeds are smooth, dull ovals with a pinkish-white or dark brown coloring, and the leaves of the psyllium are 4-10 inches long. Plantain is commonly considered a weed. If seed pods are not harvested before they break open, the 15,000 seeds that the plant can grow may be scattered about by the wind.
Psyllium is an annual herb native to Mediterranean regions of Europe, the Canary Islands, Africa and Pakistan and is heavily cultivated in Spain, France, and India. While it has been planted and grown in the United States, most of the psyllium used in the U.S. is imported from France.
Traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic physicians have used both the seeds and the leaves of psyllium for centuries. Psyllium was esteemed by Indian, Persian, and Arab physicians of the Middle Ages as a lubricating agent for the lower intestinal tract. Psyllium entered European folk medicine in the 16th century and was eventually accepted by European physicians. Much later, in the 19th century, psyllium was also accepted for use in America. The plantain leaves have been used throughout history to soothe minor bites and stings. They were also applied to blisters and used to stop bleeding. In the New World, Native Americans used plantain leaves to treat abrasions, sprains, gout, and as a wash for sore eyes. Plantain has a powerful drawing action which helps to draw infection and poisons from the body.
The plantain or psyllium seeds are coated with mucilage, a glatinous material that swells upon contact with moisture. Psyllium is the most popular mucilaginous herb in use today. The seeds, taken with plenty of fluid, act as a laxative because of their considerable swelling power. The mucilaginous property of psyllium produces the swelling of the seeds from 8-14 times its original size.
Psyllium is among the safest and most gentle laxatives and aids especially in cases of chronic constipation. Intake of psyllium increases the volume of the intestinal contents which encourages bowel activity. Meanwhile, the mucilage facilitates the smooth passage of the intestinal contents.
Psyllium also absorbs excess fluid in the intestinal tract and restores normal bulk to stool. Recent research has found that psyllium’s ability to manage diarrhea may be useful for patients in intensive care who are being fed intravenously.
A diet including psyllium is very helpful for diabetics. In a study where non-insulin-dependent diabetics were given psyllium before meals, glucose levels following the meals were significantly reduced.
Recently scientists have discovered that psyllium has the remarkable ability to reduce cholesterol levels. One study at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine showed that 26 men with elevated cholesterol levels had an average drop in cholesterol of 15-20% after taking supplements containing significant amounts of psyllium.
Psyllium has no harmful side effects, if taken with ample amounts of water. If insufficient water is consumed when taking psyllium, constipation can result. It is one of the best sources of water-soluble fiber. The hulls contain more fiber than the seeds. Psyllium seeds are gentler and more suitable for spastic bowel conditions, while the hulls are more for serious bowel cleansing. The product is best taken in bulk form, about one heaping teaspoon in a large glass of water or juice, once or occasionally twice daily. This should be followed by a large glass of water. In capsule form, recommended intake is two capsules twice daily with a large glass of water.
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