Psyllium plant seeds were likened to fleas by ancient people (Greek psylla). The great Greek physician, pharmacologist, botanist, and author Pedanius Dioscorides recommended it in the 1st century A.D. as an emollient (soothing). It has been used this way from then until the mid-twentieth century when it also was discovered to have mild laxative effects. At present, psyllium is part of several pharmaceutical preparations for constipation.
Psyllium Plant Scientific Facts
- Other names: Fleawort.
- French: Psyllium.
- Spanish: Zaragatona.
- Environment: The psyllium plant grows in sandy or rocky soil all over the Mediterranean area. It is also cultivated as a medicinal herb.
- Description: The psyllium plant is an annual member of the Plantaginaceae family, with an herbaceous, upright stem growing up to 30 cm high. Its flowers are small, white, and grow in oval spikes. The fruits contain two three mm-sized seeds, smooth and brown.
- Parts of the plant used medicinally: The seeds.
Healing Properties and Medicinal Uses
The seeds of the psyllium plant contain high amounts of mucilage which gives them laxative, emollient, and anti-inflammatory properties. Psyllium is one of the plants with a higher amount of mucilage known, even higher than linseeds (flax seeds). It also contains fats with plant steroids (sitosterols), potassium salts, and trace elements. These are its properties:
- Digestive afflictions: Mucilage acts as a hydrophilous colloidal substance; that is, its molecules become surrounded by many water molecules, increasing its volume and becoming a soft mass of gelatinous appearance. This way, mucilage achieves two effects:
1) It creates a protective viscous layer that covers the whole interior of the digestive tract, from the stomach to the large intestine. This offers a soothing and anti-inflammatory action on the digestive mucosa, which is highly beneficial for gastritis, gastric or duodenal ulcer, and colitis. It eases pyrosis (acidity) and stomach ache and stops colic pains and diarrhea from colitis.
2) It increases the volume of feces and makes them softer; thus, these substances pass more quickly through the digestive tract, demanding less peristaltic effort from the colon. All these facts result in a mild laxative effect, with no cramps or irritation, without creating an addiction or producing potassium or mineral salts loss, that is to say, without undesirable side effects. The mucilage in psyllium can be continuously used for months or even years. It is beneficial in treating chronic constipation and its consequences, such as hemorrhoids or colon diverticulosis. It also prevents such conditions.
Diverticulosis results from excessive pressure by the colon to make hard or dry feces progress through it. Meat-rich diets lacking in vegetables, fruits, and integral grains, produce heavy, scant feces, which demand great efforts from the large intestine. The result is constipation and its complications, the most severe of which is cancer of the colon.
A change in dietary habits must accompany treatment with mucilage. The mucilage’s laxative properties are enhanced by hemicellulose, a fiber that forms the seed covering.
The beneficial effects of mucilage on the intestine can also be obtained when administering it in enemas, which are recommended for anal and rectal inflammation. It reduces the inflammation of hemorrhoids and eases discomfort caused by anal fissures. It is also recommended for proctitis (inflammation of the rectum), and colitis, even ulcerative colitis. In this last case, it is used to complement the specific treatment.
- Obesity treatment: Psyllium seed intake with plenty of water during meals produces a full sensation in the stomach, decreasing the appetite. This action is due to the hydrophilous ability of mucilage, which swells and increases its volume with the water. This effect also contributes to the weight loss achieved when taking psyllium.
Moreover, it has been proven that mucilage decreases cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the blood. This is likely due to its interference with the fat absorption process in the small intestine.
- Urine afflictions: Psyllium mucilage also acts as an anti-inflammatory substance on the urinary mucosa. It helps ease cystitis discomforts and promotes the regeneration of irritated mucosa. It is usually employed in combination with other treatments.
- Skin afflictions: When applied locally as poultices, it protects and reduces the inflammation of the skin when it has been irritated from eczema, dermatosis, or rashes. It has wound healing properties when used on burns, wounds, or varicose ulceration. It is also used in cosmetics to improve skin beauty.
Farmed Species of The Genus Plantago
Other Plantago species similar to common psyllium are also used. They have similar properties, such as the Spanish psyllium, which is cultivated in Europe and Asia to obtain its mucilage, with which several pharmaceutical preparations are prepared. With the same aim, the Indian Plantago is grown in some Mediterranean areas and Asia.
How to use Psyllium
- Seeds cold extract. Grind or mash psyllium plant seeds and steep them for one or two hours (a spoonful of seeds per glass of water). Then take the resulting mucilage by straining the liquid. If desired, add a teaspoonful of anise seeds to improve the flavor. Drink a glass in the morning and another at night before going to bed.
- Seed poultices. After cold extract, heat the seeds and prepare a poultice, which should be put on the affected area for at least 15 minutes, two or three times daily.
- Enema. It is done with the liquid resulting from the cold extract. From 100 to 250 ml is enough for each application. Administer up to three enemas daily.
George D. Pamplona-Roger, M.D. “Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants.” George D. Pamplona-Roger, M.D. Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants. Ed. Francesc X. Gelabert. vols. 2 San Fernando de Henares: Editorial Safeliz, 2000. 515, 516. Print.[psyllium plant]