Fiber. It is one of the most important aspects to your diet, impacting your health on so many levels, but sadly, it is one of the things you do not get enough of. Everyone hears about fiber in the news or on commercials, or even from their doctor, but we don’t realize just how important this macronutrient is for our health. Let’s just say it is extremely important and it is not just because it helps you to stay regular or have a bowel movement. As usual, let’s dive into this one and see how easily you can bump those numbers up or in some cases, reduce others when it come to your health.
If you mention the word ‘fiber’ to the average person, they instantly think of their gut and having a bowel movement or being regular. In truth, most people would just equate fiber with being regular or if they increase their fiber intake, they will be on the toilet more often which would be inconvenient. We’ve been told for decades the importance of fiber, mainly focusing on this aspect of having a bowel movement or easing that bowel movement, but the truth is that the benefits of fiber go way beyond just having a pleasant experience in the bathroom.
Research has indicated a recommended daily intake of upwards of 30 grams of fiber per day. The average person, based on statistics and eating habits, consumes around 10-15 grams, which is at best half the recommended amount. There are some cultures in the world that consume close to 100 grams per day, which may make the average person cringe, assuming they’d be in the toilet all day long. However, those cultures also have not just excellent eating habits, mainly vegetarian based, but also excellent health in comparison.
So, what’s the big deal with fiber? It will just make me go to the bathroom more often or have an easier time having a bowel movement, right?
Nope! Way more to that story than what the average person believes. Being a veterinarian involved with horses and pets, I too thought this, but as I explored more and more, the hard facts hit me and I found that when I bumped up fiber intake in some, mainly horses, the health implications were huge. This ONE simple thing! Let me tell you what I discovered and even began to apply to my own daily health regimen.
Fiber, Your Bowel Health and Digestion
Of course, we all associate fiber with ease of having a bowel movement or improved regularity. This is generally plain knowledge as advertising pushes this concept upon us. Fiber comes in two forms in food, either digestible (soluble) or non-digestible (insoluble). There are benefits to both, but the insoluble form is what can feed the bacteria in our digestive tracts. Yes, that is what those bacteria thrive on, fiber! At least the ‘good’ bacteria. This is why it is so easy to shift your digestive microbiome one way or the other, from the good side to the bad side. You are what you eat and if you do not take in enough of the proper foods, including fiber, the good bacteria in your gut can die off pretty quickly. So, consuming all fiber types, especially the insoluble, is overall good for your gut and helps to stabilize your digestive microbiome. Fiber is considered one of the main prebiotics that are found in nature. It helps to modify the digestive microbiome and improve the host’s health. A healthy and balanced digestive microbiome is connected to greater health and less incidence of disease.
In addition, when it comes to the bowel movement portion of the discussion, fiber binds and attracts water. When you consume enough of the right type of fiber each day, it slips through your digestive tract and pulls water from the liquids you drink or even attracts water from your body. This increases the water content to your bowel movement, which then increases the volume or mass of your bowel movement and also the ease in which you have it because it is softer. So, if you are one that consumes OTC laxative items often to ease belly discomfort and constipation, you likely need to increase your fiber content.
Ever heard of ‘leaky gut syndrome“? This is not a true medical term which is tossed around, but something that has been coined and recognized in the alternative medicine field. Leaky gut syndrome is when the lining or ‘pores’ within the digestive tract (intestines) become damaged and leaky. This relates on a cellular level with tight cell junctions, which are spaces between cells in the intestinal lining. When these spaces are opened or ‘leaky’, then all sorts of bad things from your intestine can leak over into the blood stream and create health problems. Two of the most important factors that contribute to the health of the lining are the digestive microbiome and your gut immune response. Fiber intake helps to support both, by improving the bacterial balance of the microbiome and also enhancing the local immune response in your digestive tract. So, fiber intake in proper levels can help to support and reduce ‘leaky gut syndrome’, which is linked with almost every health condition found in man. Very, very important! Here is an article on the digestive microbiome and your health!
In addition, through the impact on the digestive microbiome and improvement, there are chemicals produced called short chain fatty acids (SCFA’s) which are very important to your health, impacting inflammatory and cellular activities throughout your body. These short chain fatty acids are only produced in adequate quantities when your digestive microbiome is healthy and balanced. As you increase the fiber intake in your diet, the microbiome in your gut can shift positively and bacterial numbers increase. This is called the bacterial ‘biomass’ in your gut. The more plentiful and diverse the population, the healthier your gut and your entire body.
So, outside of digestive health, what else can fiber do for your body and health??
Fiber, Your Heart and Cardiovascular Disease
An increased fiber intake has been directly associated with a reduction in cardiovascular disease. How does fiber in your belly impact your heart? Several ways actually. Always keep in mind one thing here moving forward, which I stress to my veterinary clients with pets and horses, the gut or digestive system is the key to health. Everything that happens in your gut happens in the rest of your body. The digestive tract is interconnected with every other organ system in your body from your brain to your heart and even your reproductive system. So, keep that in mind. Again, extremely important!
One way that fiber impacts cardiovascular health is through a reduction of LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol. Additionally, fiber has been connected with reducing C-reactive protein, blood pressure, and apolipoprotein levels. (Slavin, Nutrients, 2013). In addition, considering that most cases of cardiovascular disease are linked with chronic inflammatory problems, an increase fiber intake can likely modify these factors additionally, further reducing risk. This is noted in other inflammatory problems such as arthritis and the impact of inflammation.
Here is a list of other pertinent health benefits associated with high fiber intake:
- Improved body weight, glucose, and insulin function (Slavin, 2013 and Gonzalez, 2015)
- Appetite control due to perceived ‘filling or satiety’ effect (Slavin, 2013)
- Improved body weight due to change in diet and also shift in microbiome (Slavin, 2013)
- Improved immune function (beta-glucans and insoluble fiber)
- Impact on chronic inflammatory conditions (Slingerland, 2017)
- Improved outcomes and impact on rheumatoid arthritis (Hager, 2019)
- 20% reduction in rectal cancer (Gianfredi, 2019)
- Reduced risk of pancreatic cancer (Mao, 2017)
- Reduced risk of ovarian cancer (Zheng, 2018)
- Improved outcomes in irritable bowel syndrome and irritable bowel disease (Wong, 2016)
- Reduction of anxiety and depression, improved cognition due to microbiome (Deans, 2017)
This is just a short list of research that I have on my laptop at the moment. The entire list is quite extensive. In truth, in the world of medicine, whether it be human or veterinary, we tend to hone down on specific diseases, when in truth most are interconnected and many are linked not just with inflammation and the immune response, but digestive function and the microbiome. So, it is not hard to see or understand that if fiber can impact our digestive microbiome positively, in the right daily doses or volumes, then we can shift that microbiome positively, alter short chain fatty acid production, and directly impact the inflammatory response in the entire body. This can cover a host of medical complaints and improve them from digestive ailments to joints.
Obtaining the 30 grams or more of dietary fiber per day can be a challenge, even for someone like myself that tends to consume a lot of fruit. To understand how short we are coming to this 30 gram or more goal, you have to put the pencil to paper and outline your daily diet, then you will see just how short you are. One means of increasing fiber intake naturally, which I have discovered myself in recent times, is apple pectin. This is a plant based fiber source obtained from the apple itself and made readily available as a powder form. This is an insoluble fiber source, so the potential for impact on the digestive microbiome is great and has research to back it up. This is a viable, true plant-based form of fiber, rather than consuming typical often synthetic fiber sources found over the counter.
Apple Pectin Benefits:
- Shown to impact the digestive microbiome, improved gut barrier function (leaky gut) and impact inflammatory processes associated with LPS toxin (Jiang, 2016)
- Improved lipids, vascular function, and inflammation (Koutsos, 2015)
- Protects the heart muscle (myocardium) from inflammation (Lim, 2014)
- Cancer anti-metastatic properties (Glinsky, 2009)
Apple pectin has been used for years as a filler of sorts for a variety of foods being processed, but it readily available for daily consumption. Considering it has a natural ‘apple’ type of flavor and is 55% fiber by volume, it is an easy addition to any regimen, simply added to water or other beverage, and consumed daily.
Another option and source of fiber, not to mention many other phytochemicals for overall health support, is Beet Root Powder. This is a part of my daily regimen for cardiovascular support, but can pack a punch for fiber and digestion.
If I had to go outside of published research and just hypothesize based on my scientific experience and logic, I would have to conclude that fiber intake and the digestive microbiome are directly related to almost every health condition. This would imply a connection with something as serious as cancer but other innocuous conditions including dry eye conditions, allergies, dry skin, and even sore backs. But, that is just a hypothesis on my end.
Fiber is one of those relatively simple things that you can modify in your diet. Despite how easy it is to add to one’s regimen, it’s overall importance to our health is taken for granted. It is just one more thing that you are in control of in your life, which could make a huge difference for your well being, both mental and physical.
Here’s to your health!
Author: Tom Schell, D.V.M, CVCH, CHN