If in your day to day life you are struggling to eat enough fibre, your bowels are sluggish, or you suffer from constipation regularly, you may hear recommendations for functional fibres such as Benefiber or Metamucil (the 2 leading brands). These products can be useful for some people. Some medications can cause bowels to struggle to function normally for instance. So how do they work, and are they suitable for everyone?
Firstly, I’d like to state that functional fibres are NOT a laxative. A laxative product is a bowel stimulant and taking them long term is not recommended. Bowel stimulants lead to bowel laziness, whereby they no longer function without a stimulant product. This is not something anyone wants. Products such as senna formulas are bowel stimulants. You might be familiar with products such as Coloxyl with Senna, Laxettes, Senokot, Prunelax and Nu-Lax.
These products are not to be used for prolonged periods unless prescribed by your doctor.
Please note that there is no better fibre then that of the dietary kind found in a good balanced diet, and as I mentioned above these products may be recommended for some people who have a daily struggle for normal bowel habits. Please seek advice if you have concerns. This information is general and is not intended as a diagnostic tool or personal advice. Do not go against your doctors or specialists recommendations, always consult with them regarding your concerns.
Functional fibre does not come with all the benefits of dietary fibre. It is used predominantly to treat constipation and sluggish bowel movements. Unlike laxatives, it is not addictive to the bowel and will not force a bowel movement. Instead they act by drawing water into the bowel, allowing it to respond naturally. Dietary fibre comes with the added perks of blood sugar control, lowering cholesterol, aids in bowel health, aids in healthy body composition, benefits heart health and promote good gut bacteria, it reduces the risk of some cancers, and more… so dietary fibre is definitely the gold choice! Functional fibre may assist with some of these benefits.
Lets look at our options:
Benefiber is a more natural option, it is tasteless and can be mixed with whatever beverage (and some foods) that you like. I recommend Benefiber based on this alone sometimes, because for some people it is less like having to ‘take something’. Especially if they are already having to take several medications or supplements already. As it is flavourless, doesn’t change to a gluggy consistency and is essentially ‘invisible’. You don’t notice it is there at all. This also makes it a better product for children in my opinion, (always seek medical advice from a doctor or pharmacist before dosing children).
Benefiber is made from wheat dextrin, a wheat starch. While it is considered to be gluten-free given the tiny amount it contains, it is not recommended for people with gluten intolerance or Celiac disease without medical advice.
Metamucil is purchasable as a flavoured drink mix, it contains sweeteners, flavours and other ingredients. It is made from psyllium husk. There may be some benefits for cholesterol and insulin levels associated with using Metamucil according to a small study. Psyllium does have the tendency to turn gluggy if left to sit too long. Psyllium can also result in firming stool as it acts to soak up excess liquid in the bowel, (while this sounds like a contradiction of the fibre action, if you have ever seen how it turns to a jelly like substance if left too long in a drink, you can imagine how, with ample fluid it would be effective for its purpose as a remedy for constipation). It is therefore a treatment for both bowel conditions. Confused?
It is really important to ensure you are drinking plenty of water when you are taking any fibre supplements.
Regardless of your preference, functional fibre is a much better choice than taking a laxative, and can avoid the need entirely. It can help with a variety of conditions including IBS, however seek advice for specific conditions. If you would rather try to get more dietary fibre (and I recommend doing so even if you do select a functional fibre product), see below for some great sources. As well as the above mentioned benefits of getting enough fibre in your diet, they are also full of nutrients which functional fibres are not.
Dietary Fibre, a few great places to start:
- Wholegrain – bread, cereals, pastas, brown rice, etc.
- Fruits (2 a day) – oranges, berries, apples, pears, bananas, etc.
- Vegetables (5 a day) – carrots (skin on), broccoli, corn, potato/sweet potato (skin on), etc.
- Legumes – lentils, kidney beans, etc.
- Nuts and seeds
Your gut health is so important as it impacts on so many areas of your life. If you feel like your gut health is letting you down please seek assistance from a dietary or medical professional.