The Power of Fiber: Protecting Your Gut and Beyond
I would like to spare everyone the pain of reading this article by summarizing it up front in three words:
Eat More Plants!
Now that I have that out of the way, let’s get into the meat (haha) of the article – fiber.
Chance has had Crohn’s Disease, inflammation of the bowel, since childhood. He has tried every medication the doctor had. Some of the anti-inflammatory medications worked for a short time, but he continued to have problems with pain, diarrhea, and blood in the stool. Then, he went to a naturopathic doctor and was given butyrate enemas, which worked to keep his colon functioning. As long as he continues to use the enemas, he has reprieve from his disease.
Butyrate is a short-chain fatty acid (SCFA) made by the bacteria in the bowel from fiber. Those who eat more fiber, make more SCFA. One study had a group in America change to a low-fat, high-fiber diet like an African diet, and people in Africa change to a high-fat, low-fiber American-type diet. The results were striking in both the change of bacteria as well as the change of SCFA. Those on the high-fiber diet increased the production of SCFA, while those who changed to a low-fiber diet lost the benefits of the bowel flora, making less SCFA.
Why Is SCFA So Important?
SCFA regulates the function of the colon. It stops inflammation. It regulates the tight junctions of the cells, so people don’t get “leaky gut.” It literally feeds your colon cells, because the lining of your colon prefers SCFA (butyrate) for energy. Also, importantly, it allows for the abnormal cells to die so you don’t develop colon cancer. Therefore, having enough SCFA is the primary way to protect yourself from leaky gut, inflammatory bowel diseases, and colon cancer.
Chance decided to change his diet instead of using butyrate enemas. He went up to about 100 grams of fiber daily from a variety of foods, and was able to get off all medications, including the enemas with normal bowel function.
I remember as a child being told that future astronauts going to the moon would just have a pill to take with all their nutrients. The fiber would be removed, and they would have everything their bodies needed. But, fiber is not just a waste product that cannot be digested, bacteria use it for food, as well as changing it into things that your body can use, such as SCFA. The diverse nature of effects on the body is incredible! A high-fiber diet can help prevent:
- Crohn’s Disease
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Ulcerative colitis
- Colon cancer
- Colon polyps
- Diverticulosis and diverticulitis
- Obesity, especially in the abdominal fat
- Fatty liver disease
- Alzheimer’s Disease
- Autoimmune disease
Jonathan was chronically constipated with bleeding hemorrhoids. He was told that he needed to get rid of the constipation so the hemorrhoids would go away. He started taking magnesium to keep him regular, but still had blood in the stool. A colonoscopy revealed that he still had hemorrhoids, in spite of having normal, regular bowel movements for years!
While hemorrhoids are associated with constipation, this isn’t necessarily causative. The problem is not the hard stool, as previously thought, but rather the SCFA and bioflavonoids in the high-fiber foods. Just taking a laxative will not heal the hemorrhoids – a high-fiber diet is needed. It is the fiber that lowers the inflammation and allows healing.
TYPES OF FIBER
All fiber is made of carbohydrates that are not digestible by humans. Other animals may digest them because they have multiple stomachs. There are two main types of fiber: soluble and insoluble.
Soluble Fiber is made of carbohydrates that dissolve in water. They are like starch but are configured in a way that our digestive system can’t digest them because we don’t have the enzymes to break them into individual sugar molecules. Soluble fiber is fermented by bacteria in the colon and is made into short-chain fatty acids (SCFA), which decrease inflammation in the colon and body.
- Pectin: mostly from apples, citrus, and other fruits, but is found in all plants.
- Beta-Glucans: from oats and barley are long chains of glucose molecules.
- Inulin: found in foods like chicory root, onions, and garlic.
- Mucilage: from flaxseeds and psyllium husk – forms a gel when mixed with water.
- Gums: such as guar, or xanthan gum are stabilizers used in food.
- Resistant Starch: a type of starch that is only partially digested in the small intestine, found in green bananas, raw potatoes, cooked and cooled rice or pasta, and legumes.
- Arabinoxylan: Arabinoxylans are found in wheat bran and other cereal grains.
- Fructan: including fructooligosaccharide (FOS), wheat, onions, and garlic.
- Resistant Dextrins: such as maltodextrin are used as food additives.
- Chitin: Chitin is a fiber found in mushrooms, and the shells of crustaceans and insects. It feeds good bacteria in the colon.
Insoluble Fiber, as its name implies, does not dissolve in water. The carbohydrate fibers remain intact and are not digested by the intestines, nor the bacteria in the colon. It acts like a brush, cleaning out the intestines, forming the bulk of the stool, making the stool soft, promoting regular bowel movements.
- Cellulose: cardboard, wood, and the cell walls of all plants.
- Hemicellulose: also part of plant cell walls, as well as whole grains and bran.
- Lignin: stems of vegetables. It is part of the structure and waterproofing of plant cells.
Another very important factor in growing bacteria in the bowel is our own secretions. One of these is fucose, a type of sugar made by the cells that line the intestines if there is any inflammation or infection. This sugar feeds certain bacteria that suppress organisms that cause inflammation. Those who have inflammatory bowel diseases often have a defective ability to make fucose. Thus, for these people, adding fucose to the diet might be very useful. Also, the protective layer of the blood vessels includes fucose, so adding fucose to the diet also helps prevent vascular disease and heart disease.
Foods that contain fucose include seaweed and mushrooms. Also, you can get a supplement called Fucoidan.
As you can see, there are a lot of different types of fiber. These basic categories can be sub-divided into multiple other types of fiber. Thus, there is really a huge variety of food for the bacteria in the colon.
What About the CARNIVORE Diet?
Do people who eat only meat have bacteria in their bowel? Yes. There are many bacteria that live on amino acids instead of carbohydrates. Remember that all fiber is carbohydrates, but amino acids come from protein. One study showed that changes in the diet, from plant-based to animal-based changes the types and numbers of bacteria in one day. The types of bacteria increased in those eating a “carnivore” diet. The significance of this is not known.
One thing that seems to be an important difference between a plant-based and an animal-based diet is the mucous layer of the colon. The colon is completely lined with a mucous layer that keeps the bacteria away from the wall of the colon. If that mucous layer is not functioning, both humans and mice get inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn’s Disease. It seems that the bacteria that grow on plant fiber are the ones that help to grow the mucinous layer. People who eat only meat do not make SCFA such as butyrate that protect the colon and brain from inflammation. The types of bacteria that do grow seem to be associated with inflammation.
I want to be clear that this is not a definitive study, only a suggestion. There isn’t enough evidence to implicate a carnivore diet to any inflammatory condition. Those on the carnivore diet did have more types of bacteria in the studies. But, healing the bowel may take a large amount of fiber. It appears that some people do better on a high fiber diet, while others do well on a meat diet. There is not only one way.
What About Fiber Supplements?
Fiber supplements are great, if they don’t contain sweeteners; some of the common fiber laxatives have more sugar than fiber! The other issue with fiber supplements is that they are usually just one type. While fruit and vegetables give you both soluble and insoluble fibers of different types. Find a good supplement with several different types of fiber. You may also get different brands and mix them up, using a different one every day of the week.
Eat More Fiber: The 90/10 plan
One gastroenterologist who works with people who have inflammatory bowel disease recommends eating 90% high fiber foods. The other 10% can be meat, cheese, yogurt, and other foods that don’t have fiber.
The ideal amount of fiber to eat is 40 grams or more per day, which is not easy since an apple only has 5 grams. It isn’t recommended to do this all at once, just gradually increase your intake of fiber. The following will give you an idea of the amount of fiber in various foods.
|Type of food||Serving size||Fiber (grams)|
|Beans, peas, lentils, cooked||1 cup||15|
|Chia seeds||3 tbsp.||10|
|Artichoke hearts, cooked||1 cup||10|
|Whole wheat spaghetti, cooked||1 cup||6|
|Red delicious apple||1 medium||5|
|Brussels sprouts, cooked||1 cup||4|
|Whole wheat bread||1 slice||2|
|White bread||1 slice||0.2|
|Peanut butter||2 tbsp.||1.5|
|Brown rice, cooked||1 cup||3|
|White rice, cooked||1 cup||0.6|
|Popcorn, air-popped||1 cup||1|
|Kale, raw||1 cup||1|
This gives you an idea of how hard it is to get up to your 40 grams per day. It really is a lot of food. It works if you dramatically decrease the things you eat that DON’T have fiber, such as meat, and processed foods. White bread and white rice have no appreciable amount of fiber, whereas the whole grains do. Notice also that a salad with raw kale and lettuce needs a lot to give you a significant amount of fiber.
VARIETY is Important
Don’t eat the same thing every day. Change your diet a lot. Look for variety in all that you do. The greater the variety of fibers, the broader the scope of bacteria in the bowel. This gives you resilience. If there is some insult to the intestines like an infection, parasite, or you need to take antibiotics, you are not going to lose the only bacteria you have. You will have such a wide range of bacteria that you will still have a healthy colon. You will also recover faster from intestinal issues if you even experience any at all.
Diversity looks like having different kinds of fiber. It doesn’t mean you must eat something different every day, it just means expanding your repertoire. Fiber only comes from plants, and every plant has fiber, but they vary a great deal in the amount and types of fiber. Thus, eating a variety of fruit and vegetables assures you get a variety of fiber.
- Eat more plants!
- Consume 40 grams or more of fiber per day.
- Choose the higher-fiber options (brown rice, whole wheat, and so forth)
- Avoid processed foods (no fiber)
- Eat more varieties of fiber, including different vegetables, different kinds of fruit, nuts, seeds, whole grains, beans, peas, lentils, hummus, mushrooms, seaweed, and so forth.
It seems that feeding the good bacteria in the colon can help every organ in your body. Sure, the colon itself is more functional, but it can also lower inflammation in the whole body.