Is Mucilaginous Fiber All it is Cracked Up to Be?

By: Michael Lam, MD, MPH; Justin Lam, ABAAHP, FMNM; Carrie Lam, MD


Understanding mucilaginous fiber and the effects it has on the bodyMucilage is a slimy substance found in certain plants. It is usually formed by the plant sugars (polysaccharides). Its main functions are to store food, thicken plant membranes, store water, and help with seed germination. Mucilaginous fiber has a mending ability when it comes to humans and plays quite an important role in the body’s immune system. It does, however, also have a few drawbacks, as we shall see.

Foods Rich in Mucilaginous Fiber

Examples of these foods include:

  • Cassava
  • Plantain
  • Fenugreek
  • Opuntia (also known as Prickly Pear Cactus, Nopales, or Paddle Cactus – an edible cactus pad)
  • Flaxseeds
  • Okra
  • Kelp (seaweed)
  • Chia seeds
  • Figs
  • Algae (Agar agar)
  • Fermented soybeans (natto)
  • Marshmallow root
  • Licorice root
  • Aloe Vera
  • Slippery elm

Although mucilaginous fiber is indeed a healthy addition to most diets, it may not be great for everyone and care should be taken when ingesting too much.

Benefits Associated with Mucilaginous Fiber

Research indicates that mucilaginous fiber has a number of health benefits.

Mucilaginous Fiber May Have a Prebiotic Effect

Certain sources of mucilaginous fiber, such as the cactus family, for example, have shown a prebiotic effect on gut bacteria. There are five criteria needed for a food to be classified as a prebiotic. These are:

  1. They are fermented by your gut flora
  2. They stimulate the growth of gut bacteria associated with your health
  3. They are resistant to gut acidity
  4. They are not easily absorbed by the upper gastrointestinal tract
  5. They resist hydrolysis by mammalian enzymes

By increasing the good bacteria in the gut, while reducing the population of ‘bad’ bacteria, your gut’s health increases. This, in turn, has a beneficial outcome on other body systems.

Mucilaginous Fiber May Help Correct Bowel Movement

Digestive issues and mucilaginous fiberMucilaginous fiber is also beneficial for those who have either constipation or mild diarrhea. Although this may seem a contradiction, on the one hand fiber encourages bowel function – thereby aiding in cases of constipation. While on the other hand fiber’s water-absorbing properties aid in stopping diarrhea.

Up to 80 percent of the population will suffer from constipation at some point in their lives, according to the American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons. The most common reasons for this probably have to do with diet, not staying adequately hydrated, environmental factors, and lack of exercise.

Although most people know that fiber is great for ensuring regular bowel movements, hydration while taking in fiber is of the utmost necessity.

Mucilaginous fiber is not a ‘dry’ fiber. In fact, it has a gooey, gelatinous consistency, i.e. it has a high liquid content. This makes it great at helping with easier bowel movements.

Diarrhea, however, is typically the result of an imbalance in your body’s digestive system. It may be caused by a number of factors, including a food sensitivity, an allergic reaction to certain food, an overgrowth of certain bacteria, a lack of fiber in the diet, intestinal parasites, or even a vitamin or enzyme deficiency.

One of the worst things people with diarrhea can do is not to drink sufficient water. This leads to dehydration. Consuming foods rich in mucilage may not only help with the dehydration but also aid with the diarrhea problem.

Mucilaginous Fiber May Help Heal the Gut’s Lining

Certain plants rich in mucilaginous fiber (such as slippery elm) soothe the membranes of your digestive system, stimulating your own gut to secrete more mucus. This, in turn, helps to combat against excessive acidity and the formation of ulcers. Slippery elm also has powerful antioxidants that help protect against inflammation.

Mucilaginous Fiber May Remove Toxins

Research has found that the mucilaginous fiber found in cactus plants can remove toxins (e.g. arsenic and bacteria) from water. It captures these toxins, forming what is known as ‘floc’, a substance easily removable from water sources. Other research is looking at mucilaginous fiber as a way of removing oil spills from seawater and even using it to clean drinking water.

What does this have to do with the human body? Mucilaginous fiber, when in the gastrointestinal tract, draws and absorbs toxins, which is then eliminated from the body through the bowel movements.

Mucilaginous Fiber May Suppress Blood Sugar Response and Have a Beneficial Effect on Cholesterol

Recent research on the effect of mucilage on people with Type-2 diabetes is promising. It found that diabetics who incorporated mucilaginous fiber in their diet showed a marked improvement in their fasting blood sugar levels. Their cholesterol levels also showed a marked reduction.

Mucilaginous Fiber May Boost the Immune System

mucilaginous fiber and the effects on the immune systemMucilaginous fiber has antibacterial, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory properties. These are all properties needed by those who have any form of digestive problems​, including those with inflammatory bowel syndrome (IBS or leaky gut), peptic ulcers, ulcerative colitis, and Crohn’s disease. People with these conditions also happen to have adrenal fatigue (for the most part), according to adrenal fatigue research. Digestive problems tend to have a strong link to a compromised immune system.

Effects on Your Immune System

The effects of a compromised digestive system have far-reaching consequences, especially on your immune system:

  • Food is not broken down for proper absorption thus not enough fuel is harnessed for repair and endotoxins are not removed
  • White blood cells (immune system cells) do not get the energy and oxygen needed to carry out their normal function – thus compromising your immune system as outlined in the following steps:
    1. Undigested proteins leak into your system and blood circulation – your compromised immune system tries to deal with the foreign invaders.
    2. The immune system is not able to cope, oxygen is depleted, and energy used up.
    3. The body is not able to produce enough immune cells to cope with the situation.
    4. A myriad of symptoms are manifested that further compromise the problem.

Digestive Issues are a Symptom of a Greater Problem

There are many factors causing digestive issues. Of these, three are the most common. They are also related.

Stress

Your gut health and emotions are closely related. We know that serotonin (the feel good hormone) is secreted in the brain. What most people don’t realize is that 80 percent of your body’s serotonin is secreted in the gut.

Stress has an immense effect on the gut and often leads to poor digestion and an imbalance in your gut flora. The emotional effects of stress often lead us to poor eating habits and lack of exercise, compounding the situation even further.

Stress often leads to anxiety, depression, and fatigue. Even with antidepressants, the brain is unable to make up for such a large potential deficit in serotonin.

Fermentation

As the name suggests, fermentation is when food and drink in the gut start fermenting, usually due to sugars and starches not being broken down as they are supposed to be. Symptoms associated with this include gas, bloating, nausea, body odor, cold hands and feet, and fatigue.

Gut fermentation is often the result of stress that causes the body to produce less stomach acid. This is known as hypochlorhydria.

Yeast Infection

The gut microbiome has many different organisms. One of these is Candida Albicans. Under normal conditions, this bacteria is quite harmless. When gut dysbiosis (imbalance) occurs, however, and there is a candida overgrowth, you are presented with myriad symptoms, including chronic fatigue, rashes, diarrhea, constipation, bloating, brain fog, and constipation.

Stress is one of the most common causes of an intestinal state of dysbiosis.

The Problem With Chronic Stress

How mucilaginous fiber can help with stress.Stress has an immense impact on your body’s health, and it all starts with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.

When your brain acknowledges a threat, in this case, stress due to one of many different factors, it sends a chemical message (from the hypothalamus) to the pituitary gland which in turn sends one to the adrenal gland, telling it to prepare itself for a fight or flight situation. The adrenal glands do this by means of increasing their cortisol production (an adrenal hormone).

The extra cortisol production puts the body in a state of readiness to meet the situation. Once the situation is over, cortisol production returns to normal. Under abnormal situations, when the stress-factor stays or even increases, the adrenals produce increasing amounts of cortisol in order to cope.

The problem with an increased, constant cortisol production is that it has a system-wide negative effect in the long run. Additionally, the adrenal glands become exhausted and cannot keep up with the demand. The end result is often adrenal fatigue with its associated symptoms, including chronic fatigue, weight gain/loss, anxiety, depression, digestive issues, bloating, gas, headaches/migraines, and certain debilitating illnesses, to name but a few.

Cortisol and the Digestive System

The production of high levels of cortisol influences a number of bodily functions:

  • It raises your blood sugar
  • Prevents the formation of certain proteins
  • Raises blood pressure
  • Shuts down the immune system
  • Increases your heart rate
  • Results in the digestive system shutting down/being compromised (resulting in constipation and other gut-related issues)

It is not only mental stress, however, that causes this state of affairs. The stress may be physical or environmental in nature as well.

Stress and the consequent production of cortisol has a marked effect on the correct functioning of the upper GI tract, compromising the absorption and use of vitamin B12 (necessary for DNA, nerve cells, and red blood cell synthesis), resulting in vitamin B12 deficiency, lower energy levels, and a weakened memory.

Due to the gut movement slowing down during stress, fermentation occurs, resulting in an overgrowth of gut bacteria. This could lead to inflammation and yeast infection.

When the gut’s ecosystem is out of balance, it results in a dysregulated response system, which in turn has a cascading effect as the cortisol levels become more unbalanced.

Mucilaginous Fiber May Help Those With Adrenal Fatigue

There is no doubt that gut health and adrenal fatigue go hand in hand. The mucilaginous fiber in the diet and its subsequent beneficial action could go a long way in helping to restore gut health.

There is a downside to this, however, as certain types of mucilage stimulate either your Th1 immune response or your Th2 response. People who have an autoimmune disease may be dominant in either one and if the wrong pathway is stimulated, you could aggravate the situation.

The type of mucilaginous fiber eaten should thus be determined by your particular problem in order not to trigger or add to a dysregulation of any sort.

© Copyright 2017 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.


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