Excerpts from “Flax: Seeds and Oil,” by Kate Gilbert Udall
Flaxseed: Triple the Benefits
Flaxseed is one of the few plant sources that contain essential omega-3 fatty acids in significant amounts. Flaxseed also has benefits that flaxseed oil does not have. Flaxseed’s incredible potential comes from three components: omega-3 fatty acids, lignans, and fiber. Lignans are phytoestrogens that may help the body in the fight against breast cancer, prostate cancer and colon cancer. Some manufacturers process flaxseed oil so it retains particles of the seed coat, which contains the phytoestrogenic lignans. However, flaxseed oil does not normally contain lignans unless the label specifies that it does. In addition to lignans, flaxseed (but not flaxseed oil) is an excellent source of dietary fiber, which is a vital component in a healthy diet. Because of its high fiber content, flaxseed is an excellent remedy for digestive discomfort.
Fatty acids are categorized as omega-3s or omega-6s. A fatty acid is placed in one of the categories according to its chemical structure. Omega-3s are the fatty acid found in flaxseed. Omega-3s help prevent complications associated with inflammation by decreasing inflammation. Both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids are necessary for optimum health.
Recent research has established that the fatty acids produced from alpha-linolenic acid have anti-inflammatory properties and synthesize certain anti-inflammatory prostaglandins that offer support the body when faced with the effects of both coronary heart disease and stroke. Such fatty acids may be helpful in supporting cardiovascular function, including supporting healthy cholesterol levels and blood pressure. Omega-3 fatty acids may also benefit individuals who suffer from migraines and arthritis.
Lignans are phytoestrogens or plant estrogens, which can interfere with estrogen metabolism in animals and humans. Lignans may help support the body in the fight against the development of certain fat and hormone sensitive types of cancer. Additionally, lignans have anti-bacterial, antifungal and antiviral activity. Such effects can aid the body’s immune response by helping the immune system function at optimal capacity.
Individuals with high intakes of phytoestrogens—such as a high-fiber diet rich in lignans from vegetables and grains—have lower incidence and mortality rates of breast, endometrial and prostate cancer. Flaxseeds are among the richest plant sources of lignans, containing from 75 to 800 times more lignans than other lignan sources. The lignan component of flaxseed makes it an even more beneficial form of nutritional supplementation than other omega-3 sources.
In addition to its EFA and lignan content, flaxseed is a good source of fiber. Fiber is an important component of any diet. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans released by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends that adults consume 14 grams of fiber for every 1,000 calories consumed. If following the typically recommended 2,000 calorie diet, most people should consume about 28 grams of fiber daily.
Several studies confirm that the soluble fiber in flaxseed can function as a cholesterol-lowering agent similar to other foods that contain soluble fiber. Because it contains omega-3 fatty acids and soluble fiber together, flaxseed presents two ingredients that favor healthy blood lipid patterns. The nutrient composition of flaxseed is given below. Keep in mind that while whole flaxseeds, ground flaxseed, and flaxseed meal are all sources of fiber, flaxseed oil does not contain fiber.
Health Benefits of Flaxseed
A balance in EFAs is necessary for many body functions. In particular, omega-3 fatty acids, such as the alpha-linolenic acid found in flaxseed, are essential for human development and important in achieving good health throughout life. The tissues of the body require the omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids for proper functioning. Whole and ground flaxseeds also contain lignans and fiber, which show positive effects on cancer and constipation. Supplementing the diet with flaxseed oil or flaxseed can help to support the body when faced with a variety of health conditions, including:
- Heart disease
- High cholesterol
- High blood pressure
- Multiple sclerosis
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
Additional Roles of Flaxseed and Flaxseed Oil
So far, we’ve discussed some impressive conclusions about the health benefits of flaxseed oil. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Because flaxseed research is in its infancy, additional uses will likely be uncovered in the future. Below is a summary of some uses for which flaxseed is beginning to be recognized as useful therapy.
- Cyclic mastalgia (breast pain)
- Dry eye syndrome
Tips for Purchasing Flaxseed Oil
It can be tough to know exactly what to look for when purchasing flaxseed oil, so we’ve compiled a list of things to keep in mind:
- Find a flaxseed oil derived from 100 percent third-party certified organic flaxseed. Oil expressed from non-organic flaxseed may contain pesticides and herbicides.
- Make sure the oil is as fresh as possible and not past the expiration date.
- Check the label to be sure it clearly indicates that the oil is expeller-pressed, not extracted using heat or a solvent method (which uses hexane, a poisonous chemical).
- Flaxseed oil should be refrigerated in an opaque bottle, which protects the oil from the heat, light and oxygen.
- For the greatest benefit, look for a flaxseed oil high in lignans. Most flaxseed oils do not contain lignans, but some manufacturers process the oil and include particles of flaxseeds to capture the lignan content. The bottle will indicate whether the manufacturer including linigans.
Promoting Whole-Body Health
Because of its high omega-3 fatty acid content in the form of alpha-lin-olenic acid, flaxseed and flaxseed oil have a wide array of health benefits. The omega-3 fatty acids in flaxseed and flaxseed oil are important because they are essential nutrients often lacking in the standard American diet. The omega-3s in flaxseed are particularly attractive for vegans and vegetarians, who often do not get enough omega-3 fatty acids, as such nutrients typically come from fish sources.
In addition to being an agent in the prevention of heart disease, flaxseed and flaxseed oil can help improve skin problems and autoimmune disorders. And flaxseed is a well-known source of healthy dietary fiber, which aids in relieving digestive discomfort among other benefits. Flaxseed and flaxseed oil supplementation can help the body function at an optimum performance level.