Why You Should Choose Psyllium Over Bran for IBS

If you’re one of the 20% of Americans who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), you’ve probably been told that consuming more fiber will alleviate your symptoms — but were you told what kind? A new study, published in British Medical Journal, finds that the soluble fiber found in psyllium supplements may be more effective than insoluble bran fiber for relieving the constipation, bloating and diarrhea that accompany IBS.

Researchers at University Medical Center in Utrecht randomly assigned participants to one of three groups. Each participant took 10 grams of psyllium, insoluble bran or a placebo (rice flour in this case) twice daily for 12 weeks. Researchers evaluated patients at one, two and three months to see how they fared in terms of relief of symptoms, severity of abdominal pain and overall quality of life.

Over the course of the trial, psyllium was significantly better than both bran and the placebo at reducing abdominal pain and other issues with IBS — and this was true whether a patient’s IBS was dominated by constipation or diarrhea or both. Even more surprising, though, was the fact that the bran did worst of all — in fact, the bran actually seemed to worsen patients’ symptoms.

Why Bran Bombed

This result was so unexpected that I checked in with our medical editor, Andrew L. Rubman, ND, to see whether he had any theories about why the bran group got such poor results. Dr. Rubman pointed out that the study was relatively small — 275 patients — and that by the end 40% of the participants had dropped out. He found it telling that, though participants initially did not know which group they belonged to (psyllium, bran or placebo), the research report noted that most of them were able to guess correctly which treatment they were getting.

Dr. Rubman believes these results are likely due to the fact that bran must be metabolized, and people with IBS lack the “good gut bacteria” necessary to properly break it down, which made life unpleasant for that particular study group. Dr. Rubman noted that bran is insoluble and has a rough texture that sometimes acts as an irritant on the stomach lining in those with chronic gastritis.

Psyllium, on the other hand, can soothe the stomach lining. Psyllium is soluble, meaning it disperses in water, and forms a gel which travels through the digestive system, coating and calming its lining, making for a very different journey.

So, if you have IBS and currently take bran, you may want to ask your doctor whether it’s advisable to switch to psyllium. If you decide to give it a try, keep in mind that plain psyllium seed husks are best. There’s no need to buy expensive products touting exotic sources, special compounding benefits or exclusive additives that supposedly improve the material. Also avoid commercial psyllium brands sweetened with loads of sugar. Dr. Rubman suggests buying psyllium in bulk at health food stores, where the best stuff also happens to be the least expensive.