Psyllium husk supplements, which are high in soluble fiber and usually used as laxatives, may also have certain benefits in cancer patients such as reduced radiation-induced diarrhea. An ecological study has also found that consuming Plantago ovata (the plant from which psyllium fiber is extracted) may reduce the deaths due to Colorectal Cancer, however more studies are needed to confirm this. Few preclinical studies have also suggested a synergistic/additive effect of psyllium husk and wheat bran in inhibiting colon cancer and breast cancer. However, there is also some evidence that high intake of psyllium fiber supplements may increase the risk of colorectal adenoma recurrence in patients with high dietary calcium intake. Hence, when it comes to cancer, one should avoid randomly consuming supplements like psyllium husk, and get a personalized nutrition plan with the right foods and supplements that can complement the cancer treatment and stay safe.
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What is Psyllium Husk?
Psyllium is a soluble fiber derived from the seeds of the plant Plantago ovata, a herb commonly cultivated in India and the Mediterranean region. The seed is covered by psyllium husk, which is rich in dietary soluble fiber. Up to 85% of fiber in Psyllium is dietary soluble fiber.
Psyllium husk has strong water-absorbing and gelling capacities. The soluble fibers in Psyllium husk can form a viscous gel in the intestine. Hence, it can act as a bulk forming laxative and is a key ingredient in some of the commonly used bulk laxatives, such as Metamucil.
What are the Health Benefits of Psyllium Husk?
Psyllium is used as a dietary supplement and is available in various forms such as husk, capsules and powder. Following are some of the purported uses and health benefits of Psyllium/ Psyllium Husk :
Treat Constipation : Psyllium husk fiber is commonly used to treat constipation as it increases the bulk in the stool, thereby causing movement of the bowel. It also makes the stool softer and easier to pass.
Reduce Bad Cholesterol : Psyllium husk fiber is also used along with statins to treat high cholesterol. A meta-analysis done by Mayo Clinic Foundation and Procter and Gamble Health Care in the United States found that Psyllium fiber may help in reducing Low-Density Lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol or bad cholesterol when taken along with statin, almost equivalent to doubling the statin dose. (Jose Brum et al, American Journal of Cardiology, 2018)
Reduce Blood Glucose and Insulin levels : Taking psyllium husk may help reduce blood glucose levels (post meal) and insulin levels in patients with type 2 diabetes.
Treat Diarrhea : Due to its strong water-absorbing properties, psyllium husk fiber can increase the stool thickness and slow down its passage through the large intestine. Hence, taking psyllium husk fiber can relieve diarrhea.
Reduce Blood Pressure/Hypertension : Psyllium supplementation may help in reducing blood pressure in people with hypertension.
Reduce weight/Obesity : Psyllium husk fiber intake may help in reducing appetite thereby supporting weight loss and reducing obesity.
Psyllium Husk may also have benefits in many other conditions such as:
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Crohn disease
- Ulcerative Colitis
- For reducing gastro-intestinal side effects from the weight loss drug Orlistat
Below are some of the clinical, observational and pre-clinical studies associated with the use of psyllium husk fiber in Cancer.
Metamucil containing Psyllium Husk Fiber may Reduce the Incidence and Severity of Radiation-Induced Diarrhea
Researchers from the Ottawa Hospital in Ontario, United States analyzed results from 60 cancer patients, who were undergoing radiation therapy to the pelvis, for the presence of radiation-induced diarrhea. Out of 60 patients, 30 patients were also given Metamucil, a bulk forming fiber supplement with psyllium husk fiber as the main active ingredient. Their analysis found that Metamucil significantly decreased the incidence and severity of diarrhea. (J Murphy et al, Can Oncol Nurs J., Summer 2000)
Consuming Plantago ovata may Reduce Colorectal Cancer Mortality
Researchers from the Complutense University in Spain conducted a comparative ecological study to determine mortality rates and distribution of colorectal cancer in different provinces in Spain and evaluate the association between the intake of Plantago ovata (from where psyllium is extracted) and mortality from colorectal cancer. The study found that the consumption of Plantago ovata reduced the risk of deaths due to colorectal cancer. However, additional well-defined studies are needed to confirm these findings. (José Carlos López et al, J Epidemiol., 2009)
Psyllium Seed Powder intake may Increase the production of Butyrate
Butyrate may have the ability to inhibit the growth and spread of colorectal cancer cells. Butyrate, acetate and propionate are produced by the fermentation of the dietary fiber in the large intestine. In an interventional study done by the researchers from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark on 20 colon cancer patients who had undergone surgery, it was found that the supplementation of 20 grams of fiber from psyllium seed powder (plantago ovata) per day for three months increased the production of butyrate and acetate, with the faecal concentrations of butyrate increased by 42%. (I Nordgaard et al, Scand J Gastroenterol., 1996)
Calcium and Dietary Psyllium Fiber Supplementation do not Reduce the Risk of Colorectal Adenoma Recurrence
A randomized intervention trial on 552 patients with a history of colorectal adenomas, carried out by the European Cancer Prevention Organization Study Group found that taking oral psyllium husk fiber 3.5 grams per day may not reduce the risk of colorectal adenoma recurrence. Additionally, the study also found that supplementation of psyllium husk fiber may have adverse effects on colorectal adenoma recurrence, and might actually increase the risk of adenoma recurrence in patients with high dietary calcium intake. (C Bonithon-Kopp et al, Lancet., 2000)
Wheat Bran and Psyllium Husk Intake may Enhance the Inhibition of Colon Cancer and Breast Cancer : Pre-Clinical Study
- In a preclinical study done in rats, the researchers from the George Washington University found that intake of wheat bran (which contains insoluble fiber) and Psyllium husk (which mainly contains soluble fiber) individually, and to a greater degree in combination, can offer protection against colon cancer promoted by high fat, low calcium diets. (O Alabaster et al, Cancer Lett., 1993)
- Another preclinical study done in rats, by the researchers from the American Health Foundation in New York, found that compared to the rats fed with wheat bran alone, the rats fed with a mixture of an insoluble wheat bran fiber and a soluble psyllium husk fiber in equal amounts to a high-fat diet provided maximum tumor-inhibiting effects in the mammary tumor (breast cancer) model. (L A Cohen et al, J Natl Cancer Inst., 1996)
Psyllium husk fiber supplements are used as laxatives to relieve constipation. They may also have certain health benefits in cancer patients such as reduced radiation-induced diarrhea. An ecological study has found that consuming Plantago ovata may reduce deaths due to Colorectal Cancer, however more studies are needed to confirm this. Psyllium husk may also have the potential to inhibit colon cancer and breast cancer when taken along with wheat bran, as suggested by few pre-clinical studies. However, there is also some evidence that psyllium fiber supplementation may increase the risk of colorectal adenoma recurrence in patients with high dietary calcium intake. Hence, consume psyllium husk supplements only after consultation with a healthcare provider.
Cancer patients often have to deal with different chemotherapy side effects which affect their quality of life and look out for alternative therapies for cancer. Taking the right nutrition and supplements based on scientific considerations (avoiding guesswork and random selection) is the best natural remedy for cancer and treatment related side-effects.