Inulin and its benefits for intestinal health

Inulin and its benefits for intestinal health

This time, we are going to talk about inulin, its properties and effects on intestinal health

Currently, it is quite common to see bodybuilders and other athletes taking this supplement. Because sometimes, they take copious meals that can alter the intestinal microbiota.

What is the intestinal microbiota?

It is a group of living microorganisms from our bowel that support the digestion and nutrient absorption. Moreover, they help to produce group B vitamins, preserving the integrity of the intestinal mucosa and preventing the onset of permeability.

A classic example of bowel permeability is celiac disease. Someone who is not capable of digesting gluten properly, working as an immune barrier.

Each time, it is more common to come across pathological conditions like leaky gut syndrome, intestinal inflammation, metabolic disorders and even colorectal cancer. They are all due to a microbial chronic affectation caused by environmental factors (Guinane and Cotter, 2013)

Gut microbial balance

Figure I. Microbrial balance and pathogenesis in humans. (Guinane and Cotter, 2013)

What is inulin, where does it come from and what are its effects?

Inulin is a polysaccharide made up of fructose chains, a fructan. It is present in nature, more specifically, in the roots of spermatophyte plants.

Usually, it is extracted to be sold as chicory food supplements. This is done through a process known as “pulsed electric field”, which consists of purifying and isolating it for its micronization.

Insulin extraction

Figure II. Extraction, purification and isolation of Raw Inulin.

Actually, these are the most abundant non-structural polysaccharides from nature (they are present in plants, fungi and bacteria). In fact, they are cataloged as oligosaccharides, that is, simple groups made up of simple sugar molecules.

Their molecule, highly hydrosoluble, is made up of non-branched chains made up by 40 and 100 fructose molecules.

We could define inulin as a energy reserve carbohydrate. Moreover, it has the structural and functional features of soluble fiber, unlike others like starch.

Origin of inulin

It was isolated and purified at the beginning of the 19th century from the species Inula helenium. This is a perennial plant that is very common in the British islands, as well as in south and central Europe and Asia.

More than 36000 species share the presence of inulin as reserve carbohydrate. This is a good way of illustrating its importance for the vegetable metabolism.

Most vegetables species do not store inulin in its stem and leaves. On the contrary, they store it in their hypogeal parts (root, bulb, tuber, rhizome…).

However, there is always an exception to the rule. In this case, the Poaceae family stores inulin in its green structures.

In fact, there are not many plants that are suitable for their industrial processing as a source of fructosans. Ten years ago, we could only obtain inulin from sunroot, Jerusalem artichoke and chicory, specially from the last one.

Chicory flowers

Prebiotic effect

Inulin performs a prebiotic effect on the body. In other words, it stimulates the growth of living microorganisms from the intestinal bacteria. Moreover, it also stimulates the growth of bifidobacteria among other species.

Inulin is nutritionally considered a fiber. Actually, the body cannot break down this substance because it lacks the necessary enzymes to do so.

Therefore, inulin reaches the whole almost intact. There, the bacteria capable of fermenting and breaking down this substance. Then, they use it as “sustenance” for their growth and development (García, Bourcourt, Albelo and Núñez, 2007)

Other functions on the organismIntestinal flora

In reality, inulin plays several roles on the body after being consumed. For instance, it can control the glycemia by improving the intestinal transit, relieving constipation and conditions caused by a weakened immune system (Shoaib et al, 2017).

But all of this comes from its effect on the intestinal bacteria and its improved integrity. In fact, this is properly illustrated in the first image that shows the consequences of damaged bacteria

Inulin and its bifidogenic action

However, not all the bacterial strains present in our bowel are “good bacteria”.

There are more than 400 types of bacteria and some of them can be potentially pathogenic (Eckburg et al., 2005; Kamarul Zaman,Chin, Rai & Majid, 2015, quoted in Shoaib et al., 2017):

  • Good for health: Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria:
  • Harmful for health: Clostridia, among others.
  • “Mixed”, with both good and harmful effects for our health: Bacteroides.

Inulin is good for intestinal health

However, inulin stimulates the environment and activity of a limited number of bacteria in the colon. Specially those from the first group, which is why it is a good way of improving our intestinal health.

“Inulin and oligofructose have proven to re-establish the microbial stability in patients who suffer intestinal irregularity and some serious diseases.” (Shoaib et al., 2017)

“This can improve the defense against both endogenous and exogenous microbial attacks and translocation” (Bosscher, Van Loo & Franck, 2006, quoted in Shoaib et al., 2017)

Insulin pharmacokinetics

Figure III. Pharmacokinetics of inulin and its effects on markers

The combined intake of inulin and oligofructose has shown to reduce the colitis and improve the growth of bifidobacteria and lactobacilli in transgenic rats

“This is due to a low production of pro-inflammatory cytokines in the intestinal mucosa. Moreover, it increases the immune regulating transforming TGF-β” (Schultz et al., 2004, quoted in Shoaib et al., 2017)

Medical uses of inulin

Inulin has a long history on medical practices, more specifically on glomerular filtration index. This is a useful method of gathering information about the renal blood filtration capacity per unit of time. In fact, it has a special aptitude for this task because it refracts the degrading effect of enzymes. The result of this filtration is practically a 100% of the renal glomeruli, without re-absorption nor excretion.

In the therapeutic field, its administration could be useful in specific treatments against Crohn’s disease, ulcerous colitis, primary hypercholesterolemia and chronic constipation

Child on a lake

Properties and benefits of inulin

We have already seen that we are dealing with a natural substance of a great potential. Specially when it comes to contributing to our well being.

For example, it improves the intestinal absorption of some macrominerals like calcium, magnesium and phosphorus. In fact, it seems that it contributes to keeping a proper mineral density in the bone matrix. This property is crucial when it comes to preventing the onset of osteoporosis.

It is advisable for children to take it regularly (to ensure a proper bone mineralization), as well as for adolescents, pregnant women and the elderly.

It helps to regulate the insulin synthesis and, consequently, its levels and the blood glucose. Therefore, it is extremely important to control and prevent the onset of diabetes

For the LDL cholesterol

It is an effective way of keeping the cholesterol levels on track (mainly LDL) and inhibiting the accumulation of triglycerides in the liver. Therefore, it can help to prevent the risk of suffering arteriosclerosis and the consequent heart diseases and strokes.

It improves the absorption of vitamins, mainly group B vitamins, whose role in the body involves almost all its functions.

Moreover, the intake of inulin for obese people can improve the bacteria population from the intestinal flora. In fact, it can helps them lose weight as well (a gram of inulin provides 1.5 kilocalories). In addition, it can lower the risk of suffering diabetes, since obesity is a predisposing factor for its onset.

Diabetes test

Controlling Type II Diabetes

A second way of controlling type II diabetes could be its direct antioxidant effect. As we already know, oxidative stress caused by high insulin levels in the blood is a determining factor for the onset of diabetes. In fact, it seems that inulin is capable of neutralizing this phenomenon thanks to its antioxidant properties.

Above all, we need to highlight two of the main consequences of taking this fructosan: having a strong immune system and a better fluidity in the intestinal tract. Consequently, it will stop the accumulation of toxic substances in the organism.

Its involvement in functional foods

Inulin is regarded as safe by the official organizations. The authorization to use it in food industrial processes in Europe was approved in 2007.
Smoothie
Actually, this group of foods is quite big and its nutritional profiles cover a very diverse spectrum. In fact, each one of them has different active ingredients that grant them this peculiar feature.

Other functional oligosaccharides:

  • Oligosaccharides from protein products such as soy, like raffinose and stachyose
  • Isomaltooligosaccharides: they are extracted by hydrolyzing the starch from cereal grains and tubers. In fact, we can benefit from them by eating fermented products like rice miso (made with soy and whole rice) or sake (a popular japanese drink made from rice)
  • Galactooligosaccharides: which are substances obtained from galactose (a sugar) from milk
  • Lactulose: it is obtained from milk by subjecting lactose to high temperatures

Inulin molecules

Industrial uses of inulin

Inulin is a widely renowned product in the food industry due to its technological properties.

For example, it can improve the texture and stability of very different products such as: dairy products, baking dough, processed cereals and even some meat products.

The customers demand is moving towards light products that are still tasty. Inulin can help us achieve this goal.

In fact, those meat products that include this ingredient to replace saturated fats keep their flavor. In addition, their fat content make them much healthier.

That is why inulin is increasingly becoming more present in many products. The objective is to replace saturated fats, specially in meats, dairy products and ice-creams

Industrial products

Formation:

In principle, this replacement should negatively affect the palatability or taste of foods. But inulin is the one that actually prevents this from happening. How you ask? Well, it is quite simple. It basically forms a gel when it is combined with water.

Said gel provides a texture to the finished product that equals that of the missing fatty particles.

This feature is one of the things that make it different from insoluble fibers. Mainly because it can replace the fat thanks to its ability to immobilize water when it forms said gel. An additional advantage would be that it does not affect the flavor due to its neutrality in this aspect.

Products that use insulin

  • Frankfurt Sausages: it reduces the fat content of this product to a 5%.
  • Liver sausages and pate: inulin provides an excellent texture to spread it on bread. The fat content is not higher than a 10%.
  • Salami: it improves its structure, which makes it possible to make it with a 12% of fatty matter.

Which products contain inulin?

There is not a wide range of products, but here are some of them:

Jerusalem Artichoke

Between a 14 and 20% of its weight is made up of inulin. Without any doubt, it is one of the best sources of this nutrient.

In fact, conventional artichoke only has an 8% of its weight as inulin at most.

Chicory

Jerusalem Artichoke

Its inulin percentage is quite similar to the previous product, sharing the best source title with Jerusalem Artichoke.

Obviously, the chicory root is not an easy to use ingredient for cooking. However, there are some processed products that already have this ingredient. For instance, some supplement bars or snacks, which can also help us benefit from the properties of inulin.

Leek, onion and garlic

Around a 3 and 10% of the weight of leek, a 2 to 6% of onion and 9 to 16% of garlic is inulin. That is why it is advisable to use it in recipes and stews.

Cooking leek

Asparagus

It is a vegetable that is rich in minerals with a high metabolic value, folate and inulin, around a 3%. These are the ingredients responsible for its popular ability to increase the population of beneficial bacteria in the colon. Mainly because they are constantly competing for growth, space and nutrients against pathogen bacteria which trigger diseases.

BananaBanana

It has around a 0.7%. Therefore, the prebiotic effect of bananas is relatively scarce if we compare it to chicory root or Jerusalem artichoke.

Rye and Barley

Two cereals that have 0.5-1% of this oligosaccharide in rye and 1-1.5% in barley.

A good formula to take a good supply of inulin from this natural source would be eating bread made from rye flour. Moreover, many bars designed for weight control diets tend to be made of rye.

Rye bread

Dandelion extract

Its dry extract (a gram of extract needs 5 grams of plant) provides 120mg of this fructose per recommended daily dose. Moreover, it is available in capsules.

Agave juice and honey

It can have from a 18 up to 22% of inulin in its composition: it is harvested when it starts to bloom. The resulting product is a dehydrated agave juice concentrate.

It can also be used to produce agave honey. Said juice undergoes a thermal treatment to break down its fructose chains.

How to take inulin

After describing the important benefits of this substance, it becomes easier to understand why it should not be missing from a balanced diet.

Chicory root extract can also be used in vitamin complexes for weight loss. Moreover, common foods like leeks or garlic can also provide other benefits thanks to their properties for health.

You should consult your doctor before taking processed inulin regularly (that is, not from foods as such).

If you want to purchase a product enriched with inulin, the best is to head to a specialized store like HSN. There, you will be able to buy inulin supplements. In general, it tends to be available in powder format.

Inulin powder

Treatment against gastroenteritis or colitis

For instance, drink a cup of chamomile tea on an empty stomach with a tablespoon of inulin powder. Do not add any sweeteners, neither natural nor synthetic. Moreover, you should drink two liters of water daily, avoiding sugary drinks by all means.

Treatment to lower the cholesterol or triglycerides to lose weight

You can drink a dandelion infusion with a teaspoon of inulin powder. Once again, avoid taking sugars, white flours and cow milk. Also, drink two liters of water daily. Perform this process twice: once on an empty stomach and another at night.

Treatment against constipation

Constipation is a health problem that we should not underestimate, since it produces an important accumulation of toxins.

Drink a linseed with a tablespoon of inulin to restore your intestinal transit

Avoid taking solid foods and replace with papaya for two days. Then, start to eat raw or steam-cooked vegetables progressively. It is important to remove red meat, poultry, flours and refined sugars from the diets at least for a month. Taking 15 grams of inulin supplement daily improves the quality of life of those who suffer this problem.

Linseed

Treatment against diabetes

There is evidence that inulin prevents sudden changes in the glucose levels. This is due to the fact that it mainly produces fructose during its metabolization. Consequently, it does not stimulate the insulin synthesis because it later transformation into glucose takes place in the liver.

In addition, it can also transform into fat through the so called lipogenesis. Although this phenomenon does not depend on insulin either to reach the cells. That is why inulin could perfectly work in the diet of diabetic people, always consulting our doctor first.

Inulin from agave

It is obtained by drying agave, the very same plant that is used to produce tequila.

Moreover, people use it to cook desserts, since it works like a humectant. Or you can also add it to juices, shakes and any kind of drink really.

Possible side effects and contraindications of inulin

Evidently, inulin can also be problematic in certain situations, since some people can be sensitive to it. For instance, it can trigger adverse reactions in people who cannot properly absorb sugar. This becomes a problem, which is why they should limit their intake two half a gram.

Its condition of soluble fiber can result in fermentation in the large bowel. Consequently, it can trigger flatulence, swelling, abdominal discomfort or diarrhea

Therefore, it is advisable to take it gradually so that our bowel can get used to it. Moreover, you can consult a professional to make sure that you avoid any problem.

To sum up, taking a minimum of five grams of inulin daily ensures good digestions without feeling bloated. Some people believe that the daily dose should be up to 40 grams daily, but between 10 and 14 grams should be enough.

What do the experts think about inulin?

There are not many trials on humans. That is why it is difficult to establish a recommended intake. In fact, it will also depend on each person, pathology or condition, severity of the symptoms, etc…

However, we can see how Lindsay et al., 2006 proved that taking 15g. of inulin and FOS significantly improved the symptoms (Harvey Bradshaw Index) of 10 patients with active Crohn’s disease

Therefore, they proved how it increased the fecal concentration of bifidobacteria and the IL-10 percentage. This is a cytokine with anti-inflammatory properties that is capable of inhibiting the synthesis of pro-inflammatory cytokines.

Harvey Bradshaw Index

Figure IV. HBI of patients that showed a significant improvement of the symptomatology of the disease (left); and an increase of the 10 interleukin concentrations (right) (Lindsay et al. 2006)

Bibliography

  1. García, Y., Boucourt, R., & Albelo, N. (2007). Fermentación de inulina por bacterias ácido lácticas con características probióticas. Revista Cubana de Ciencia Agricola, 3(41), 262–266.
  2. Guinane, C. M., & Cotter, P. D. (2013, July). Role of the gut microbiota in health and chronic gastrointestinal disease: understanding a hidden metabolic organ. Therapeutic Advances in Gastroenterology. Sage UK: London, England. https://doi.org/10.1177/1756283X13482996
  3. Lindsay, J. O., Whelan, K., Stagg, A. J., Gobin, P., Al‐Hassi, H. O., Rayment, N., … Forbes, A. (2006, March). Clinical, microbiological, and immunological effects of fructo‐oligosaccharide in patients with Crohn’s disease. Gut. https://doi.org/10.1136/gut.2005.074971
  4. Shoaib, M., Shehzad, A., Omar, M., Rakha, A., Raza, H., Sharif, H. R., … Niazi, S. (2016). Inulin: Properties, health benefits and food applications. Carbohydrate Polymers, 147, 444–454. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.carbpol.2016.04.020

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About Alberto Ricón
Alberto Ricón
Alberto Ricón is a specialist in nutrition and food hygiene with a lot of experience in this field. He works as a Food Safety Technician in Castilla La Mancha.
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