In Australia, like most other developed nations, the incidence of irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel diseases such as ulcerative colitis, are soaring. It is currently estimated that 12% of visits to primary care practitioners and 28% of visits to gastroenterologists are due to irritable bowel syndrome.
Many people affected by bowel or gastrointestinal problems, will often reach for fibre supplements or increase the intake of fibre rich foods. It is important thought to be very careful with fibre and both irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease. The wrong types of fibre can actually worsen conditions and lead to further inflammation of an already suffering part of the body.
If you are taking a fibre supplement, or trying to increase your intake of fibre from food sources here are three important things you need to know:
Not all Forms of Fibre are the Same
While foods may often just list fibre on their nutritional labels there are two distinct forms of fibre, with different affects in the body.
- Soluble fibre is a form of fibre that can be broken down and used by the good bacteria in our bowel.
- Insoluble fire can not be broken down and used and purely adds bulk to the stool.
In studies on the affects of fibre in people with irritable bowel syndrome increased insoluble fibre resulted in at best no improvements and in many cases worsened symptoms. Examples of insoluble fibre include the fibre in bran, cereals, and breads. This fibre passes through the digestive tract unchanged where it causes further irritation to the already sensitive mucous membranes of the colon and bowel.
On the other hand, increased consumption of soluble fibre improves symptoms.
We regularly find clients with irritable bowel syndrome to have an altered bowel flora that is low in good bacteria and high in bad bacteria. Soluble fibre intake helps to increase those levels of good bacteria and bring the bad bacteria back under control.
Increase Soluble Fibre Intake Slowly
Like all good things, moderation is very important. Increasing your intake of soluble fibre too quickly can lead to:
- increased gas, flatulence, and wind.
- feelings of bloating and abdominal distension.
This may lead to some confusion as to whether increasing soluble fibre is actually helping, but it’s worth getting through this stage. Remember, this is completely normal and is a by product of the digestion and fermentation of soluble fibre by the good bacteria in the bowel. These side products reduce as your body gets used to soluble fibre. For most people on a typical Australian diet, the intake of soluble fibre is incredibly low. Think of these side effects, not as a bad thing, but rather the good bacteria in your bowel having a real party after years of starvation.
In some people we have also seen a detox reaction start to occur. This is due to the increased colonies of good bacteria starting to get bad bacteria back under control. The associated die off can lead to a brief period of headaches, moodiness, and lethargy.
Emphasis Soluble Fibre from Food Sources not Supplements
Interestingly enough, soluble fibre’s benefits are best when consumed from real food sources rather than as supplements. As most forms of soluble fibre are generally fructans, artificially high levels, such as in supplements, can exacerbate symptoms of fructose malabsorption. Fructose malabsorption is a condition that we quite commonly find in people with irritable bowel syndrome.
Examples of soluble fibre include name likes inulin and fructooligosaccharides. They are often used as a plant’s energy store house so are often common in roots and tubers. Some common examples include foods such as:
- garlic, leek, and onions.
- asparagus and tomatoes.
These are all examples of foods that are commonly used in many traditional diets. Many sources have shown that it is only since the introduction of industrial agriculture that our intake of soluble fibre has largely been replaced by insoluble fibre from wheat and other cereals.