Fiber supports the structures of a plant- its leaves and stems. In the body, fiber functions as a facilitator in the digestive process and in elimination. Fibers in the digestive tract play an important role in the absorption of nutrients and cholesterol, excretion of bile, stimulation of bacterial fermentation in the colon and increasing the amount of stool. The actions of dietary fiber within the digestive tract provides overall health benefits such as reducing the risk of heart disease and stroke, lowering the risk for the development of diabetes, maintaining weight within healthy limits and promoting the health of the digestive system.
Fiber is classified into insoluble and soluble. Insoluble fibers are indigestible food components that do not dissolve in water. Soluble fibers are also indigestible but as food components, are readily dissolved in water. Soluble fibers cannot be digested by human enzymes but they may be broken down by the bacteria in the intestinal tract for absorption.
Soluble fibers reduces the absorption of LDL cholesterol (the "bad" cholesterol), therefore lowering the risk for heart and artery disease as well as stroke. Fiber binds to the bile, which is cholesterol converted by the liver, and is excreted out of the body in feces. The binding of fiber and the bile results in the removal of most of the cholesterol (as bile) from the body. Soluble fibers also regulate the blood sugar in order to control diabetes. It neutralizes blood glucose by slowly absorbing the sugars that are released. Additionally, soluble fibers promote the feeling of fullness by slowing down the movement of food through the upper digestive tract. This helps maintain an ideal body weight by delaying hunger.
Excellent food sources for soluble fiber are low carbohydrate bread, legumes, psyllium husks, dried beans, flax seeds, and nuts.
Insoluble fibers promote regular bowel movements by moving the bulk through the intestines and maintaining an optimal pH balance in the intestines. It makes it easier to pass stool and increase stool bulk. Insoluble fibers help prevent constipation, hemorrhoids, appendicitis, weakening of the intestinal walls and development of cancerous substances that leads to colon cancer. Insoluble-fiber rich food sources are green vegetables, seeds and nuts, flax seeds, and psyllium husks.
There are no specific diseases that are due to fiber deficiency. However, low intake of fiber is associated with numerous health problems such as constipation, bowel irregularities, increased LDL cholesterol levels, obesity and possibly colon cancer. Those that are high-risk for fiber depletion are individuals who have high intake of junk foods and whole wheat products and low intake of fiber-rich foods. In a day, it is recommended to consume 25-30 grams/day.
Excess amounts of fiber in the body can result in displacement of other nutrients from the diet. Too much fiber from supplements can also cause malabsorption of other nutrients and minerals causing their deficiencies. Additionally, fiber carries water out of the body and high intake of fiber may cause fluid imbalances resulting in dehydration. Excessive intake of fiber can also result in obstruction of the intestines.
Dr. James E. Carlson B.S.,D.O.,M.B.A.,J.D.
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