Flax seed is often mentioned these days in health and diet blogs and articles, but is it really a miracle food or is it just another fad? Studies have shown that flax seed can help to fight and prevent against conditions ranging from diabetes to breast cancer to heart disease to stroke. It may in fact be one of nature’s most powerful plant foods.
The benefits of flax seed have been suspected for millennia. It was first used as far back as 3000 BC in Ancient Babylon. In the 8th century, Charlemagne was such a believer in flax seed that he mandated that his subjects consume it.
In the modern age, flax seed or its oil can be found in common foods such as pasta, oatmeal, ready-made waffles, crackers, energy bars, wholemeal foods, vegetarian meat products, and even in omega-3 enriched eggs because flax seed is fed to the hens.
Table of Contents
- Why is there such a clamour for the addition of flax seed to our diets?
- 1. Omega-3 ALA
- 2. Lignans
- 3. Fibre
- Let’s examine why these components are so essential to a healthy diet and the benefits believed to derive from them.
- 1. Cancer
- 2. Heart Disease and Stroke
- 3. Mental Health
- 4. Diabetes
- 5. Inflammation issues
- 6. Menopause
Why is there such a clamour for the addition of flax seed to our diets?
Credit can be given to three of the main components of flax seed: Omega-3, lignans, and fibre:
1. Omega-3 ALA
Omega-3 ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) is a good fatty acid with heart-healthy effects. One tablespoon of ground flax seed contains 1.8 grams of omega-3. Found mostly in marine and plant oils, essential fatty acids are those that cannot be synthesised by the human body but are still integral for normal metabolism.
ALA has been found to be essential for normal infant and fetal development of the brain, eyes, and nerves, as well as improving the immune system and preventing low birth weights and premature births.
Flax seed contains anywhere from 75 to 800 times more lignans than other plant foods. Lignans contain plant oestrogen and antioxidants. The main flaxseed lignan is secoisolariciresinol diglucoside (SDG), which is found in the hull but which occurs in the oil in very small quantities.
“In male rats, lifetime 10% flaxseed exposure raised serum testosterone and estradiol levels and produced higher relative sex organ weights and prostate cell proliferation.
Interestingly, lifetime exposure to 5% flaxseed reduced adult relative prostate weight and cell proliferation, suggesting potential protection against prostatic disease, although sex hormone levels were unaffected. In conclusion, flaxseed can potentially alter reproduction, depending on the dose and timing of exposure.”
Flax seed has both soluble and insoluble fibre. Flax seed contains a whopping 28 grams of fibre per 100 grams, so be sure to drink enough water when eating excessive amounts of flax seed in order to get the benefits of the fibre without the problems of bowel obstruction.
Let’s examine why these components are so essential to a healthy diet and the benefits believed to derive from them.
Studies have shown that flax seed may be particularly helpful in dealing with breast, colon, and prostate cancers. The particular omega-3 ALA found in flax seed seems to inhibit both the occurrence and the growth of tumours. It has been linked to slowing the spread of prostate cancer.
Lignans may protect against cancers that are sensitive to hormones such as the way oestrogen affects breast cancer.
Lignans can bond to oestrogen receptors and meddle with interactions between oestrogen and breast tissue, and they do this without counteracting the effects of breast cancer drugs such as Tamoxifen.
Some experts believe that exposure to lignans in adolescence can reduce the risk of breast cancer later in life and increase survival by blocking the enzymes involved in hormone metabolism and interfering with the development of cancer cells.
The antioxidants found in lignans can seek out free radicals that play a part in some diseases.
Free radicals are particular atoms, molecules, or ions that can play an integral role in some biological processes, but can at times cause cellular damage. This damage contributes to cancer, as well as problems such as stroke, heart disease, diabetes, emphysema, Parkinson’s, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, and alcohol-caused liver damage.
Healthy levels of fibre help to maintain a healthy digestive system, which is important in preventing colon cancer. There is evidence that omega-3 supplements given to cancer patients can improve their appetite, weight, quality of life, and the retainment of muscle mass. There are other antioxidants in flax seed which contribute to protection against both cancer and heart disease.
2. Heart Disease and Stroke
In the 1970s, scientists studied the Inuit of Greenland, a tribe with virtually no cardiovascular disease whose fat consumption came mostly from fish. They realised that omega-3 reduced the level of triglycerides which can cause heart disease and stroke, regulated heart rates and blood pressure, and limited vascular diseases such as atherosclerosis.
While both omega-3 and omega-6 are essential, Western diets tend to contain too much of omega-6. The ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 for optimum cardiovascular health should range from 1:1 to 1:4, but Westerners tend to average from 10:1 to 30:1.
Flax seed oil is the healthiest vegetable oil in terms of the omega ratio with 1:3. Olive oil ranges from 3:1 to 13:1, corn oil 2:1, and soybean oil 7:1, while the oils from sunflower, peanut, and grapeseed have little or no omega-3.
The ratio is important because while omega-3 can reduce inflammation, omega-6 can increase it. Omega-3 given to heart disease patients reduced the incidence of death, helped to reduce the thickness and hardening of arteries, improved blood circulation, lowered blood pressure, and reduced bad cholesterol levels.
Those who had previously had a myocardial infarction were then less likely to die from an arrhythmic event due to omega-3’s ability to raise the fibrillation threshold of heart tissue. The omega-3 ALAs help by acting as an anti-inflammatory and normalising heartbeat, which is useful in treating and preventing stroke, arrhythmia and heart failure. They can keep plaque deposits from forming by preventing white bloods cells from attaching to the inner linings of blood vessels.
Lignans also have anti-infammatory properties and have been shown to reduce atherosclerotic plaque buildup by as much as 75%. The combined action of omega-3 ALA, fibre, and lignans can reduce bad cholesterol levels.
3. Mental Health
Omega-3 may delay or prevent the onset of mental issues for young people in high-risk groups. Some studies show it helping with schizophrenia, memory impairment from Alzheimer’s, depression, and anxiety. Though there have not been any conclusive studies, flax seed seems to work to reduce some of the symptoms, particularly hyperactivity, in children with ADHD and autism.
Some diabetic patients given flax seed showed modest improvements in blood sugar levels. Diabetic subjects took a tablespoon of ground flax seeds every day for a month, and, compared to the control group, experienced a significant drop in fasting blood sugars, triglycerides, and cholesterol, as well as the most important thing, a drop in A1C level. If one’s sugars are already well controlled, though, there may be no additional benefit.
5. Inflammation issues
Both omega-3 ALA and lignans can reduce inflammation which factors into diseases such as Parkinson’s and asthma by blocking the release of pro-inflammatory agents.
In one study, two tablespoons of ground flax seed were given to menopausal women twice a day. Most noticed a reduction in the frequency and intensity of hot flashes after just one week, but a subsequent study found no difference.
Flax seed contains numerous micronutrients such as iron, zinc, and various vitamins, all of which are essential in maintaining health. Note that flax seed oil, also known as linseed oil, does not retain the lignans found in flax seed so it is lacking the antioxidant benefits associated with the lignans. Some brands do add lignans during production though, so check the label.
The health benefits have not been concretely proven, but are widely suspected and studied. You should be aware that some conflicting studies showed possible risks with excessive consumption such as increased bleeding, hemorrhagic stroke, and reduced glycemic control in diabetics.
While it is thought to be very beneficial for heart patients, those with cardiac issues which involve insufficient blood flow, such as congestive heart failure, should speak with their doctors as omega-3 may destroy some of the heart cells that still pump the blood.
Ask your doctor if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, as it has been theorised that flax seed could possibly raise the chances of breast cancer for the baby later in life.
You’ll find flax seed in either yellow or brown shades, either of which will give you equal health benefits except for a particular yellow one known as solin or linola, which has low omega-3. Experts say you get more benefits from ground flax seed as opposed to the oil.
Whole flax seeds are not as easily digested, so make sure they are ground. It can be found in health stores and many grocery stores. The terms milled, ground, and flax meal all refer to the same thing. The daily amount one should consume to obtain maximum benefits is not known, but the suggested amount is 1-2 tablespoons per day.
Add it to whatever you are eating by mixing it into a smoothie, juice, or yoghurt, or sprinkling it over your breakfast cereal and other meals. Substitute it for a portion of the flour called for in a recipe. Store it in the freezer to keep it from getting rancid or losing its potency.
Committed to your health,