Sometimes an insight comes through the most random of things.
In a discussion about mucilage following this post, reader Roelm brought up something I hadn’t heard before. Mucilage is a soluble, gel-forming fermentable fiber in the class of non-starch polysaccharides. A good one to have in the mix. Okra is rich in mucilage (it’s my favorite source of it), but it can also be found in flaxseed, psyllium, cacti, and chia seeds. Roelm writes:
My neighbor who has blood sugar level problems told me a while back that he consumes okra mucilage and that helps him control his blood sugar. He cuts in two a couple of okra fruits, puts them in a water container and he then drinks from the container throughout the day. Apparently he is not the only one to do this as he got the idea from the wife of a medical doctor. I can surmise that the mechanism is at least in part increased butyrate production like that with scFOS and resistant starch.
I had never heard of okra as a diabetes or blood sugar remedy before. But a search for “okra” + “diabetes” or “okra” + “blood sugar” turns up a lot of results. But nothing about how or why, save for a bunch of unsubstantiated conjecture about sugar metabolization and cholesterol (we’ll get to that in a moment).
As I said, the mucilage in okra is a prebiotic, fermentable fiber. And that’s confirmed in the research. Mucilage has a prebiotic effect and a significant effect on SCFA production — specifically propionate and butyrate:
Increased levels of the short-chain fatty acids (SCFA) were attained in the cultures at rates of 35 and 16% in response to MO and PO treatments, respectively. Propionic acid (propionate) and butanoic acid (butyrate) production increased at least 50% throughout MO and PO treatments.
And okra has specifically been found to improve metabolic disorder in mice and have an anti-diabetic effect, as well as counteract hyperlipidemia, which is also a contributing factor to cardiovascular disease.
But if you read these studies, you’ll find that they can’t make any real conclusions about why or how it has these effects.
And then it came back to me: fiber in general has had a long-standing correlation with less heart disease. And it, too, has never been shown why or how.
If you’ve been following along, you’ll know that one of the more exciting and interesting discoveries we’ve made thus far is that the cessation of smoking — which is the number one predictor of heart disease — seems to cause the exact same microbial shift as consuming plant fiber. And what I found to be notable was that these are two acts that are completely different yet both considered to be healthful. But it was much better than that! They are completely different acts that are not only generally healthful, but are specifically correlated with less heart disease. And they result in the same microbial shift.
Like I said, as we find in the specific case of okra, there have never been very good explanations for why fiber has this effect. All you will find is a lot of conjecture about cholesterol-binding and displacement of dietary fat consumption. But if you read closely, you’ll find these claims are always preceded by “may” and “is said to.” That’s because there’s no research backing any of that up. (I’ve found that the medical establishment invokes the “evidence-based” requirement rather selectively.) This is likely due to preconceived biases, ie, “cholesterol and fat are obviously bad and cause heart disease so it must have something to do with that.” (How evidence-based of them.) And a meta-analysis has in fact shown that cholesterol-lowering is not the mechanism, which remains undefined.
So to put it all together:
Smoking is the number one predictor of heart disease, and happens to cause a microbial shift when you stop. That microbial shift is the exact same shift caused when consuming fermentable plant fiber. And plant fiber is correlated with less heart disease. (Oh, and we’ve also shown that same microbial shift to be responsible for the insulin sensitization caused in human subjects who underwent fecal microbiota transplantation.)
Identifying factors that are completely different (plants & smoking), yet have the same effect (less heart disease), is a very good way to isolate a mechanism of action.
And, for that reason, in my next post we’re going to drill down even more deeply into this line of inquiry by completely departing from the land of metabolic disorder and venturing into an entirely different, but no less significant, area of health. I’ll let you guess as to what I might be referring to.
Ok, hint: Some say it’s the reason that tiny gut of yours is so bad at converting all of that plant cellulose into anything useful, but why you’re capable of reading this right now.
Alright, I need a break. I’m hungry and I’m mentally drained. You might say I have a gut-brain problem.