Produced by several Plantago species—P. ovata, P. psyllium, and P. indica—psyllium has been used as a safe and effective laxative for thousands of years in Europe, North Africa, and Asia. Given their small size and brown color, psyllium husks and seeds have been mistaken for fleas, hence their folk name flea seed. Bland-tasting, they swell when moistened, and have a jellylike consistency in the mouth.
Habitat & Cultivation
The three species that produce psyllium grow throughout southern Europe, North Africa, and Asia, especially in India, and are extensively cultivated. They are propagated from seed in spring and require plenty of sun. The seeds are harvested when ripe in late summer and early autumn.
Common plantain (P. major) is prescribed for diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome. Che qian zi (P. asiatica) is used in China as a diuretic, for diarrhea, and for bronchial congestion. The powdered husk is given late in pregnancy to aid normal presentation of the fetus (head-down position in the uterus).
- Mucilage (arabinoxylan)
- Fixed oil (2.5%)—mainly linoleic, oleic, and palmitic fatty acids
- Bulk laxative
Regulating bowel function: Clinical trials in the U.S., Germany, and Scandinavia during the 1980s have shown that psyllium has both a laxative and an antidiarrheal action.
Diabetes: A 1998 clinical trial with 125 patients concluded that 5 g of psyllium taken 3 times a day helped to lower blood-fat and -glucose levels in people with type 2 diabetes.
Traditional & Current Uses
Laxative: Psyllium is prescribed in conventional as well as herbal medicine for constipation, especially when the condition results from an over-tensed or over-relaxed bowel. Both husks and seeds contain high levels of fiber (the mucilage) and expand, becoming highly gelatinous when soaked in water. By maintaining a high water content within the large intestine, they increase the bulk of the stool, easing its passage.
Other bowel problems: Contrary to expectation, psyllium is a useful remedy for diarrhea. It is also an effective treatment for many other bowel problems, including irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, and Crohn’s disease. In India, psyllium is commonly used to treat dysentery.
Hemorrhoid relief: Psyllium is valuable for hemorrhoids, helping to soften the stool and to reduce irritation of the veins.
Detoxifying herb: The jellylike mucilage produced when psyllium is soaked in water has the ability to absorb toxins within the large intestine. Psyllium is commonly taken to reduce auto-toxicity (the toxins are expelled from the body with the husks and seeds in the feces).
Digestive ailments: The soothing, protective effect imparted by the mucilage-rich husks and seeds benefits the whole gastrointestinal tract. Psyllium is taken for stomach and duodenal ulcers, and for acid indigestion.
Urinary infections: The demulcent action of psyllium extends to the urinary tract. In India, an infusion of the seeds (the only time this preparation is used) is given for urethritis.
External uses: When psyllium husks are soaked in an infusion of calendula (Calendula officinalis), they make an effective poultice for external use, drawing out infection from boils, abscesses, and whitlows (pus-filled swellings on the fingertips).