Nasal congestion and fiber; a glycocalyx clarification

In a previous post, Glycocalyx – What’s Snot All About?

Homemade chicken soup and mucilaginous fibers would be more likely to help promote healthy nasal mucous than the fiber found in broccoli or bran cereal. Bulky vegetable and whole grain fiber is more beneficial within the gastrointestinal tract for supporting healthy bacteria but it is not typically absorbed into the blood stream.

Fiber is made up of long branching or straight chains of sugar molecules. Cellulose, a common fiber in plants, is not typically digestible by humans. Bacteria in the guts of ruminant animals like cows help breakdown the fiber contained in grasses so the nutrients become available to the animal.

The nutrients from bulky long chain fibers are broken down and used to support the growth of the gut microbes rather than being digested by our enzymes and absorbed into the bloodstream. However some of the nutrients from fibers that would normally be indigestible by human enzymes may become available after they are partially broken down or modified by certain types of gut microbes. Butyrate / butyric acid is an example of a fatty acid with anti-inflammatory benefits that can be produced by certain types of bacteria from fiber that would be indigestible without the help of the bacteria. [1] The addition of a probiotic strain of bacteria, Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG, to infant formula has been found to help promote the production of butyric acid for infants with cow’s milk allergy and it helped reduce their level of allergic sensitivity. [11]

Having plenty of bulky fiber from foods like broccoli in addition to having plenty of water can help move everything through the GI tract at a steady rate and make constipation unlikely. Other types of mucilaginous fiber can have a laxative effect possibly by helping to attract and retain water in the bowels. [2] The word mucilaginous refers to something that contains or helps produce mucilage — that gooey stuff lining the cell membranes and the rest of the body.

Mucilaginous fibers are found in the vegetable called okra which is commonly used in Creole or Cajun gumbo type stews. The inner fiber of the slippery elm tree is also a source of mucilaginous fiber. Look for very finely ground slippery elm powder in herbal specialty stores. Slippery elm bark helped keep Revolutionary War soldiers alive during a harsh winter when they were left hungry enough to eat the inner lining of tree bark. Other settlers depended on it for food too. [3]

Marshmallow root powder [4] is similar to slippery elm powder but the marsh mallow plant is more available than slippery elm trees which may be help explain why more people have heard of marshmallows than slippery elm trees but it also might be the deliciousness of marshmallows. The sweet airy candies were originally made with marsh mallow powder. Either slippery elm powder or marshmallow root powder may help soothe sore throats or sore digestive systems when dissolved in tea or taken with some other food. I add a 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of slippery elm powder in a mug of herbal tea when I have a sore throat. Commercially slippery elm powder has been available in the Herbal Medicinal brand tea called Throat Coat. Marshmallow root powder is categorized as an expectorant within herbal medicine which means it may help loosen lung congestion.

Chia seeds also contain a mucilaginous fiber. Okra, slippery elm powder and chia seeds may also help prevent constipation or may help if constipation is already a problem. [2]

Chicken soup made the old fashioned way may also help loosen congestion because it acts as an anti-inflammatory agent and helps thin nasal congestion. [5] Glucosamine may be released from cartilage and bone marrow during the long slow cooking of a soup stock made with bones. [9]  Glucosamine is also the healthy type of sugar found in the tough shells of insects (chitin, [10]) and in the shells of shellfish. It has been found beneficial for reducing arthritis pain with a 1500 mg/day dose. [8]

Hot pepper also helps loosen nasal congestion but not because of mucilaginous fiber. The capsaicin content of hot peppers reduces nasal congestion by activating vanilloid receptors. Capsaicin is now available in a nasal spray for non-allergic rhinitis. It may be helping to desensitize overactive vanilloid receptors for some people. [6, 7]

Adequate fluid and sodium and other electrolytes are also important for a healthy glycocalyx. It is a protective layer where white blood cells patrol for pathogens and the sticky mucous helps collect dust and other debris and move it out of the lungs and nasal passages. The glycocalyx layer coating our GI tract may also help prevent allergens from entering the blood stream and add strength to the delicate layer of cells and tight junctions that make up the walls of intestines. A fiber rich diet not only feeds the good guy bacteria, it may also help prevent food allergies by strengthening the intestinal walls.

The branching water soluble mucilaginous fibers weave together and form an intricate network that might look semi solid but is really mostly water — like a gelatin dessert. The structure can be unstable however and dissolve easily in the presence of excess acidity or salt. So my self care treat when I’m feeling very congested is a trip to a restaurant for a bowl of Hot and Sour Soup. It has the capsaicin from hot pepper and the anti-inflammatory power of chicken broth and garlic and it also provides fiber and other nutrients from the two types of mushrooms, straw mushrooms and black fungus, and the baby sweet corn, bamboo shoots, and water_chestnuts.

This post is part of a series on the glycocalyx:

  • Food Additives, leaky intestinal membranes, and autoimmune disease
  • Fringe Report: The glycocalyx, fiber rich produce, and intestinal health, 
  • Transport across the glycocalyx; a link
  • Glycocalyx – What’s Snot All About?

/Disclosure: This information is provided for educational purposes within the guidelines of fair use. While I am a Registered Dietitian this information is not intended to provide individual health guidance. Please see a health professional for individual health care purposes./


  1. Butyric acid-producing anaerobic bacteria as a novel probiotic treatment approach for inflammatory bowel disease. [1]
  2. Michael Ravensthorpe, Three mucilaginous foods that make great natural laxatives, July 18, 2014, [2]
  3. By Victor A. Croley, Slippery Elm Uses: Learn the benefits of Slippery Elm trees, including how to use it as a natural health remedy., January/February 1977, [3]
  4. Marshmallow Root Powder [4]
  5. Mayo Clinic Staff, Chicken soup: Can it cure a cold? [5]
  6. Alisha Mehta, Chili Peppers and Nasal Congestion, Nov. 8, 2011, [6]
  7. Umesh SinghJonathan A. Bernstein, Intranasal Capsaicin in Management of Nonallergic (Vasomotor) Rhinitis., Capsaicin as a Therapeutic MoleculeVolume 68 of the series Progress in Drug Research pp 147-170 [7]
  8. WebMD, Supplement Guide: Glucosamine [8]
  9., Benefits of Bone Broth, [9]
  10., Chitin, [10]
  11. Roberto Berni Canani, et. al., Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG-supplemented formula expands butyrate-producing bacterial strains in food allergic infantsThe ISME Journal advance online publication, 22 September 2015; doi:10.1038/ismej.2015.151 [11]
  12. Fiber Consumption Increases Beneficial Bacteria in the Gut Microbiome, 8/20/2015, [12]
  13. Oh B, et. al., The Effect of Probiotics on Gut Microbiota during the Helicobacter pylori Eradication: Randomized Controlled Trial. Helicobacter. 2015 Sep 23. doi: 10.1111/hel.12270 [13]