We joke about it, geriatric constipation, and why not? If we can't laugh at the prospect of all our bodily functions sludging to a halt somewhere late in Old Age (hopefully), well, what fun would dying be?

As no less-august an author than dannye has related, right here across our hallowed nodegel in his one-of-a-kind writeup, hemorrhoids, the human rectum, like many a new sophomore, doesn't always work to its capacity, particularly in "the twilight years." And sure as George Carlin will joke about his heart attacking him, every comic worthy of your time is holding a Metamucil® riff in reserve, just in case all else fails. Not being able to take a dump is funny. And not funny, if you really want to get serious about it.

Metamucil® is "a bulk fiber laxative for treating occasional constipation and restoring regularity," according to its website, unh…www.Metamucil.com, and strictly-speaking, constipation has not all THAT much to do with hemorrhoids, but, unh, it's close enough. Since regular (ahem) use of Metamucil® has been proven to help heal these unwanted, not to mention unattractive, appendages to the last two inches of the human digestive tract, I feel it must be noted that the Metamucil® company has bottled, gel-tableted, compressed, and generally marketed a naturally-occurring substance that's been around since before man first stuffed stuff up his butt to soothe the searing agony of overindulgence in each of its possible manifestations.

The plant genus Plantago, commonly called plantain and not to be confused with the banana-like fruit of the same name, may very well be man's real best friend, for its seeds are used commercially world-wide for the production of mucilage, the clear, colorless naturally-gelling agent of regularity near and dear to the behinds of the elderly. Plantago (Latin, meaning sole of the foot) seeds, though native to the Mediterranean region of southern Europe and North Africa, were originally transported as sort of "magical" seeds from India and Pakistan by men who had to spend a long time sitting on camels. It has also been suggested that the seeds were accidentally introduced to the drylands of North America by the Spanish Conquistadores, perhaps via the sand used as their ships' ballast. The explorer Hernandez reported from Mexico in the 16th century that Plantago was a food-source for the Aztecs.

Plantago arenaria and P. psyllium are known commercially as Black, French, or Spanish psyllium. P. Ovata, white or blond psyllium, is harvested from Indian Plantago, also known as Isabgol. The Persian words isap and ghol, meaning "horse ear", describe the shape of the plant's seed. Psyllium in Greek means "flea," another reference to the size, shape, and color of the seed.

Plantago ovata is an annual herb, 12 to 18 inches high, with a large well-developed tap root and few fibrous secondary roots, that does well in cool, dry weather. Many flowering shoots arise from the base of the plant, and its flowers are small and white. The plant flowers about two months after planting and its seeds are enclosed in capsules that open at maturity

The outer coating, or husk, of the Plantago seed is ground or milled to obtain mucilage. The white fibrous milled seed husk is hydrophilic (water-loving). As soon as water touches the sand-like mucilage, it increases in volume by at least fourteen-fold, forming an extremely viscous gel, easily as thick as marmalade. Thus, in practical use, the psyllium is stirred into a glass of water and consumed quickly before it thickens. Since the fibre is not digested in the small intestine, its movement into the bowel produces a natural sort of lubrication, as well as a kind of scraping effect along the intestinal walls. Think of psyllium as Nature's Roto-Rooter. Since its action is purely mechanical, the product has no harmful side effects, unless ingested to the extreme, in which case, obviously, things could clog up to an unacceptable degree. Occasionally, allergic symptoms will preclude its use, particularly in regard to asthmatic attacks.

The United States imports more psyllium husk than any other country, with more than 60% of her imports going to pharmaceutical companies engaged in the production of so-called laxatives. Though the seed which remains after de-husking is used as chicken and cattle feed in India, in most of the world it is the husk which is most valued. It is also used in food processing as a thickener in ice cream and frozen desserts.

Recently, with the advent of the Alternative Health Industry, psyllium has been seen as more than a "natural" laxative. Studies suggest that it is effective in lowering cholesterol, promoting weight loss (its expansion makes one feel full), and treatment for conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, gallstones, diarrhea, bladder and kidney problems, urethritis and Candida Overgrowth Syndrome or yeast infection. During the Middle Ages in Europe, psyllium seeds were used to treat sores of the mouth and throat, stop nosebleeds, and help fix loose teeth. Sailors in the British Royal Navy used psyllium to moderate complications from scurvy and worms.

Researchers from the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, the University of Kentucky (Lexington) and the Procter & Gamble Company did a study in 1999 which evaluated the effectiveness of psyllium as a hypocholesterolemic and blood glucose modulator. Thirty-four men with Type II diabetes and mild-to-moderately high cholesterol received either 5.1 grams of psyllium or a cellulose placebo twice a day for two months. The psyllium patients showed significant improvements in glucose and lipid values compared with the placebo group. Serum total and LDL-cholesterol concentrations were 8.9% and 13.0% lower in the psyllium group compared to the placebo group. Glucose concentrations were 19.2% lower as well.

These extremely impressive results occur, scientists tell us, because the fiber binds bile acids, cholesterol, and fats, preventing their absorption by the body. Short-chain fatty acids—products of fiber fermentation in the colon—further inhibit cholesterol synthesis by the liver.

It has been shown that certain antibiotics also occur within the Plantago (or plantain) family. In this manifestation, psyllium has been used as a cough remedy for children, and as a cure for bronchitis.

Personally, I've enjoyed the benefits of Trader Joe's lovingly-packaged natural remedy-for-what-ails-you for more than twenty years, and I'm not even old-old (to borrow T. Coraghessan Boyle's phrase) yet. I daresay I might definitely be a different person without it.

I know for certain that morning is not…complete…sans psyllium


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