Is resistant starch the cure for chronic constipation?

Gut health makes the world go around. This is where the wellness movement is at right now. And crucial to good gut health is sturdy, regular poo action. For many, especially those of us with an autoimmune disease, regular poo action is but a pipe dream (which sounds like an ablution entendre; so many things do!).

sack of potatoes
Does ablution have to be so arduous? Image via Flickr

I’ve written about constipation quite a bit (you can catch up here). And I am on a committed journey to finding a safe, natural, gentle solution to my own periodic struggles with stuckness. The latest theme to emerge is resistant starch. And with it comes a very simple, cheap fix that I’m about to guinea pig for you.

Please note: This post has been updated with the results of my resistant starch experiment. I reckon you’ll want to read on. The results were very positive!

What is this resistant starch when it’s not sounding so recalcitrant?

Resistant starch (RS) is a type of food starch – contained in legumes, green bananas and cooked (and cooled) potatoes – that remains whole through the stomach and small intestine, and, unlike most foods, reaches the large intestine intact. Thus, it resists digestion. For many years it was believed that all starch was completely digested and absorbed in the small intestine. But a study published in the 1980s showed that certain starches reach the large intestine as malabsorbed, fermentable guff.

What does this mean? Well, when it reaches the large intestine (colon), good bacteria attaches to it and the digestion/fermentation process begins down here. Which produces a range of side effects, mostly good…

How does resistant starch cure constipation?

It goes like this: When we eat RS the carbohydrates resist digestion (fermentation) in the small intestine and instead move through to the large intestine (colon) where they begin to break down. The fermentation process stimulates the production of good bacteria in our guts.

These bacteria then produce three short-chain-fatty-acids (SCFAs) called propionic, acetic and butyric acids. These acids contribute towards the overall integrity of the gastrointestinal barrier function. There is evidence to suggest butyric acid can improve gut motility and decrease abdominal pain when doing a poo. Normally butyric acid is rapidly absorbed by the small intestine, but in the colon its properties are able to be used by the body. Studies (on rats) conducted in 2010 and 2014 suggested that butyric acid also increased contractility of the gut and helps move them stools through your system. These SCFAs also increase faecal bulk.

And while it’s down there…

The good gut bacteria produced in the colon via SCFAs increase the colon pH to become more acidic, which improves your overall gut health and decreases the risk of leaky gut. Plus, it improves stress resistance and reduce the risk of inflammatory conditions of the bowel. How so? The SCFAs that aren’t utilized by the colonic cells enter the bloodstream, travel to the liver, and spread throughout the body where they exert additional anti-inflammatory effects.

All good gut stuff. Got it?

Good resistant starch v bad resistant starch

There are a bunch of different types of resistant starch, many of which don’t help our guts for other, not always related reasons:

Type 1 (BAD): Found in grains, seeds and legumes. These tend to cause digestion problems in many of us due to toxins and harsh husks etc.

Type 2 (BAD AND GOOD): Found in green bananas, raw plantains and raw white potatoes, which are not really digestible or edible.

However, you can also get this kind of resistant starch as unrefined potato starch powder. This is the stuff I’ve been trying and recommend.

More on this below…

Type 3 Retrograde resistant starch (GOOD): This forms after Type 1 or Type 2 resistant starch has been cooked and cooled. So, cooked and cooled white potato, cooked and cooled white rice and cooked and cooled legumes.

This cooked ‘n’ cooled starch is the other effective and cheap way to go about the resistant starch experimenting.

For clever ways to get retrograde resistant starch, try this post on how to cook resistant starch for constipation.

Type 4 – Industrial resistant starch (BAD): Most powdered resistant starch is a chemically modified, man-made powder (not good). This type of RS doesn’t occur naturally and has been chemically modified; commonly found in “hi-maize resistant starch.” Avoid.

My choice: resistant potato starch

I decided to cut straight to the chase with the powdered unmodified resistant potato starch, a Type 2 RS. Why? It’s the most convenient and easiest to measure method of taking it. Plus, I don’t always react well to digestible carbs. Eating a stack of cold potato salad ain’t my thing.

I bought Bob’s Red Mill Unmodified Potato Starch. It’s a bit hard to find in Australia; not so in the US and UK. I bought mine online (feel free to share below if you’ve seen it in a store near you). Sprinkle it on your food, add it to water or a smoothie. Just don’t cook it.

For the next 3-4 weeks I’m going to start consuming the stuff. Starting out at Chris Kresser’s recommendation of 1/4 tsp a day, I’ll gradually increase as tolerated, with a goal of having 2-4 tablespoons daily. At this level the maximum benefits are said to be experienced. I’ll report back from the (hopefully) smoother front in a few weeks.

Update: Alright, as promised, I gave the stuff a crack. There is not much to say except the stuff works. I got to about 3/4 teaspoon after three weeks and then fast realised any more swung me the other way and also produced a bit of bloating and upset. So I backed off to about 2/3 teaspoon. I will try to up the amount again, slowly, mostly because I’m interested to see if the supplementary anti-inflammatory effects kick in for me.

Beware: It’s not all smooth sailing for everyone. Trawling through online forums by people who have tried resistant starch shows that it can be a bit of a balancing act. The introduction of RS can initially cause severe bloating and gas. If this happens, it’s recommended you decrease the amount you’re taking for a few days until your symptoms back off and then try increasing again gradually.

Update: Also, I’d recommend reading the links here which outline a few warnings. They flag that type 2 RS is not great for those with IBS and may make things worse for those with an autoimmune disease. I bore this in mind, but found my symptoms didn’t worsen at all during my n=1 testing. In fact, my inflammation dropped off noticeably.

Mark Sisson and Chris Kresser both have great articles on resistant starch. If this is a new area for you I strongly recommend you check them out.

And if you want to try making resistant starch with starchy carbs, check out these clever tips.

Do you use resistant starch? What has been your experience?

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