Flaxseed's Health Benefits
By Laura Ng
Once only available to the average consumer in health food stores and specialty markets, flaxseed now makes a prominent, almost celebrity-like appearance at every local supermarket in numerous products from breakfast cereals and sliced bread, to protein bars and nutritional supplements, all touting incredible flaxseed benefits just waiting to be reaped.
What exactly are the health benefits of this remarkable flaxseed? And is there any evidence that including flaxseeds in your average diet can make a big difference to your physical health and well-being? The answers may surprise you.
How Flaxseed Benefits You - It All Begins with EFAs
To fully understand the terrific health benefits of flaxseed, we need to delve into the popular health topic of essential fatty acids (EFAs).
Omega-3 fatty acids, one of the indispensable EFAs, have grabbed most of the attention in the news as well as being the focal point of much discussion and nutritional research over the past few decades. But a true discussion of EFAs doesn't stop there. Two other important players - omega-6 and omega-9 - join with omega-3 to constitute these all important "essential fatty acids".
Why are they essential?
Of all the different types of fat that exist in the edible world, we must bring them into our body to function or else we cannot survive. Our body cannot manufacture its own EFAs, unlike some other nutrients we require, and must ultimately rely on the food we ingest to provide us with this most "essential" of substances.
What is it that these EFAs do for us and why are they so important for good health?
EFAs are responsible for the construction of hormone-like substances called prostaglandins which are found in most tissues and organs of the body. You need prostaglandins for a healthy cardiovascular system as well as a well-oiled immune and nervous system. Also sometimes referred to as lipid compounds, prostaglandins can affect everything from your cell growth to platelet aggregation to muscle constriction. They also play an important role in your body's inflammatory response. This is particularly significant.
In order to ward off inflammation, which is believed to be at the root of many modern day disorders and conditions including heart disease, depression, and even Alzheimer's, it is not only critical to have a good supply of EFAs, but to maintain a proper balance of all the omegas, in particular omega-3 and omega-6.
Are You Balanced?
Unfortunately, it has become increasingly evident that omega-3 is sorely lacking in most people's diets, causing an unhealthy balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. How bad is it?
Although researchers have suggested a variety of appropriate ratios of between 10:1 and 1:1, omega-6 to omega-3, it is generally accepted that something close to 4:1 or even 2:1 would be ideal. In fact, the average diet is estimated to have a ratio of 14:1, and possibly even 20:1!
Clearly, this is something we need to correct if we are to maintain healthy functioning of our vital inner workings. What is it that accounts for this extreme imbalance and what can we do to make it better?
What Cause(s) the Imbalance?
The main reason we're often overloaded with omega-6 fatty acids is really no big surprise. Our modern day diet, jam-packed with processed, mass-produced food, contains omega-6 in extraordinarily huge amounts.
Polyunsaturated oils such as corn, safflower, and sunflower oil as well as products made from them, like snack food and junk food, are often the culprits. Cutting back on these types of "foods" and increasing your intake of omega-3, however, will go a long way in improving the ratio. It will also go a long way in reducing your risk of obesity and its related diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.
Correcting the BalanceYou'll definitely improve your overall health with a better balance and a higher intake of omega-3. And there's plenty of evidence that show omega-3 fatty acids help you keep off a number of health problems from cardiovascular disease to arthritis. In fact, when it comes to heart health specifically, numerous studies have shown that omega-3 can instrumentally benefit your health by:
- reducing your blood pressure
- lowering your cholesterol
- lowering your triglycerides
- reducing your risk of cardiac death
One trial in particular which examined statistics from 22 clinical centers and nearly 13,000 men believed to be at high risk for heart disease over a period of 10.5 years, found that those subjects who ingested 664 mg of omega-3 fatty acids every day had a significant reduction in mortality. The results were startling and included:
- 50% lower risk of death from heart disease
- 45% lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease
- 27% lower risk of death from all causes
With this kind of evidence, it is clear that we need to up our intake of omega-3 fatty acids. But how? And which sources of omega-3 provide the best health benefits for you?
Why Flaxseed Benefits Your Health Better?
Many people are aware that salmon and various other fish species provide rich sources of omega-3 in the form of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) - that are made from micro algae which the fish, in turn, digest and ultimately pass on to us when we consume them. However, your health may suffer as a consequence of obtaining omega-3 fatty acids from marine sources. Why?
Did you know that the levels of mercury content in fish, particularly salmon, have been associated with a number of health problems including autism in children and pregnancy complications?
Even fish capsules themselves, unbeknownst to most consumers, can carry dangerous levels of mercury! And the problem appears to only be getting worse. However, there's good news when it comes to adding a generous supply of omega-3 in your diet without risking your health.
There are actually several plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids, and this is where flaxseed has made an enormous splash in the nutritional pool. Soybean and canola oil, as well as walnuts, some dairy products, certain types of beans, and broccoli all contain omega-3 in varying amounts, as does a little known leafy green called purslane.
But, believe it or not, by far the best source of omega-3 fatty acid is the humble little flaxseed which renders enormous health benefits!
Just as the type of omega-3 found in fish is composed of EPA and DHA, flaxseed and other vegetable sources of omega-3 consist of a third form called ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), a type of precursor to EPA and DHA. Although ALA in its original form cannot be utilized by our bodies, it is easily converted, once digested, into the more usable forms of EPA and DHA and provides the exact same health benefits.
Although it's necessary to consume a somewhat larger quantity of ALA in order to reap these benefits, it's certainly no problem for the mighty flaxseed! Just 2 tablespoons provide over 146% of the daily recommended amount of omega-3 fatty acids. And that's impressive! But that's not all.
More Health Benefits of Flaxseed
Although most discussions of flaxseed's health benefits revolve around omega-3 fatty acids, the magic of flaxseeds does not end there. They also provide you with excellent amount of manganese, magnesium, folate, copper, phosphorous, and even Vitamin B6 for your bone health, nerve functioning, and muscle tone, among other important functions.
In addition and perhaps even more importantly, flaxseed benefits your health by protecting you against many autoimmune disorders and hormone-related cancers such as breast, endometrial, and prostate, through the presence of lignans (aka phytoestrogens).
These special compounds are converted into two hormone-like substances called enterolactone and enterodiol with the help of friendly bacteria in the colon and it is these two substances that have shown to be highly protective against breast cancer in particular.
Proof of Flaxseed's Health Benefits
In a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, when postmenopausal women ate a daily muffin containing either 25 grams of soy protein, 25 grams of ground flaxseed, or a placebo muffin containing neither for 16 weeks, the estrogen metabolism of those eating flaxseed, but not soy or placebo, was altered in several important protective ways. Although an increase in protective estrogen metabolites was observed, blood levels of other estrogen measurements did not change! This is very significant because women (as they age) need to maintain blood levels in order to fend off the possibility of osteoporosis, a common postmenopausal risk.
Clearly, adding flaxseeds to your diet can have tremendous health benefits as you age, but there's more.
How Flaxseed Benefits Women
In addition to lessening a woman's risk of developing cancer and osteoporosis, the lignans abundant in flaxseed can promote normal ovulation and extend the second, progesterone-dominant half of their cycle. This is helpful in several ways.
For example, for women trying to become pregnant, consistent ovulation significantly improves their chances of conception. And for women between the ages of 35 and 55 who are experiencing peri-menopausal symptoms such as irregular menstrual cycles, breast cysts, headaches, sleep difficulties, fluid retention, anxiety, irritability, mood swings, weight gain, lowered sex drive, brain fog, fibroid tumors, and heavy bleeding, flaxseed can help with the probable cause of all these symptoms - estrogen dominance.
Typically, during the 10 years preceding the cessation of periods at midlife, estrogen levels fluctuate while progesterone levels steadily decline. Flaxseed, by promoting normal ovulation and lengthening the second half of the menstrual cycle, in which progesterone is the dominant hormone, helps restore hormonal balance and alleviate many of the peri-menopausal symptoms typically reported.
These give women more reasons to add flaxseed to their diets for more health benefits.
Also, preliminary research suggests that flaxseeds may serve a role in protecting post-menopausal woman in particular — as opposed to most studies involving men - from cardiovascular disease, the number one killer for women! In a recent double-blind randomized study, flaxseeds reduced total cholesterol levels in the blood of postmenopausal women who were not on hormone replacement therapy by an average of 6%.
Is that all for flaxseed's health benefits for women? Wait till you see the next one. Let's move on.
Weight Loss Benefits of Flaxseed
If the health highlights of flaxseeds haven't persuaded you to begin reaping its benefits yet, the role that flax can play in digestive health and weight loss will surely convince you. How?
Flaxseeds are a great source of soluble and insoluble fiber, macronutrients necessary for proper metabolism and overall healthy digestion.
Because of their high fiber content, a diet that includes flaxseed can help lose pounds and maintain a healthy weight. This is because the fiber found in flaxseed provides fullness and an extended feeling of satiation - crucial factors in being able to stick to a diet and keep energy levels high without experiencing slumps and fatigue in between meals.
With weight gain, the danger of developing type 2 diabetes increases, but flaxseed's lignan-rich fiber can also help to decrease your insulin resistance, the primary force behind the development of this disease.
This means that flaxseed can doubly protect you against diabetes, which has reached epidemic proportions in our modern day society. And as an added health benefit, flaxseed in turn reduces bio-available estrogen, which also lessens breast cancer risk, while lowering insulin resistance.
In addition to the fiber in flaxseed that provides weight loss benefits, there's another supplementary benefit for weight control that flaxseeds have to offer.
In addition to omega-3, flax contains a fair amount of polyunsaturated fats compared to other sources of omega-3. Many diets recommend that you lower your fat intake, which is helpful only up to a point. Saturated fats, like the kind found in greasy French fries and pizza, are certainly bad for you and should be avoided. But as you recall, omega-6 fatty acids in the form of polyunsaturated fats, however, are an essential part of your diet in moderation, and should not be cut out. Low-fat diets often give people the feeling of never being "full," since fats in large part are what give you a "full" feeling. This, of course, just makes you eat more, and has been the downfall of many a determined dieter!
Consuming the proper amount of polyunsaturated fat, as found in flaxseed, can help to give you that "full" feeling without the harm of saturated fats, and thereby help you maintain a healthy diet. This, along with their fiber content, can make flaxseeds a truly helpful addition to any weight loss program.
How the Protein from Flaxseed Benefits Your Health
Remarkably, flaxseed is also a significant source of high-quality protein. In fact, pound-for-pound, whole flaxseed contains as much protein as beef, chicken, pork or fish! Surprised? As a vegetable source of protein for health benefits it is virtually unmatched.
And it's not just flaxseed's protein content that vitally benefits your health. Protein quality, as measured by the type and quantity of amino acids that the protein contains, and, even more important, its proportion of those amino acids that human metabolism can't create on its own, make flaxseed an unbeatable source.
In fact, the amino acid quality of flax seed protein is very similar to that of soybean protein, recognized to be one of the most nutritious plant-based proteins in existence. And as an added health benefits, flaxseed is naturally gluten-free, a growing concern for many.
Although further research is needed, flaxseeds and omega-3 fatty acids in general may help protect you against certain infections and treating a variety of conditions, including ulcers, migraine headaches, attention deficit / hyperactivity disorder, addiction, eating disorders, preterm labor, emphysema, psoriasis, glaucoma, Lyme disease, lupus, and panic attacks.
It's likely that the actual wide ranging health benefits of flaxseed have yet to be discovered and it may turn out to be even more of a super food than originally thought.
Still, with all the positive evidence we have to date, surely the health-beneficial flaxseed should be included in your diets on a regular basis. For most people, the little flaxseed can be just a little intimidating when it comes to figuring out how to tap into its massive health benefits.
Let's explore how you can easily reap the benefits of flaxseed and utilize it every day to improve and maintain your overall health.
Best Way to Reap the Full Health Benefits of Flaxseed
When you eat whole flaxseeds, such as in seeded breads or crackers, they'll pass through your body and provide a good dose of insoluble fiber.
But by far, the best way to reap the enormous health benefits of flaxseed is to grind them. You can either purchase bags of whole flaxseeds and grind them yourself in a coffee grinder, or you can buy flaxseed that has already been processed and ground by the manufacturer, sometimes referred to as flax meal.
Whether or not you choose brown or golden flaxseeds is a matter of personal preference. You'll more often find brown flaxseeds being pre-ground whereas you may need to purchase whole golden flaxseeds and grind them yourself for use.
How to Store Flaxseed to Retain Most of Its Health Benefits & Nutritional Value
There are pros and cons as to whether you'll want to purchase your seeds whole or in ground form.
Whole flaxseeds have a much longer shelf life so consequently, if you do not use them very often or are a single person with less of a quantity requirement than a family, you may wish to grind them only when you need them. This is also the most economical choice as whole flaxseeds tend to cost less than those that have been processed.
Pre-ground flaxseeds (flax meal) on the other hand, are extremely convenient and you may be tempted to use them more often as they're ready to go.
Supermarkets generally carry boxed flax meal on the shelf near other grains and seeds, but once opened and exposed to the air, you should store them in your refrigerator. You should also keep your flax seed and flax meal away from moisture. That's because both moisture and air can endanger flaxseed's health benefits, causing them to quickly lose their nutritional value and begin to go rancid.
So, make sure you keep them in a cool, dry place. That's the key to preserving flaxseed's nutritional benefits, flavor and freshness.
Some health food stores will keep ground flaxseeds and even whole flaxseeds refrigerated as a rule, but usually, unless the package has been opened, it is not a necessity to keep them cold until opened. Here's a note though - freezer storage, although good for maintaining flax seed's nutritional value and increasing shelf life (up to a year), can sometimes alter the taste and should be considered as a personal storage preference rather than a requirement.
Reaping Flaxseed's Benefits in Oil Form
Flaxseed oil, if you choose to incorporate it into your diet as well, should also be stored in the refrigerator. Although it lacks the beneficial lignans that the seeds contain, it's still a good source of omega-3 and other nutrients.
But take note, once your flaxseed oil begins to smell a bit like oil paint, however, it's time to dispose of it and replenish your supply with another bottle. Flaxseed oil should always be refrigerated, so do not purchase any bottles that you come across on store shelves at room temperature. Bear in mind.
Similarly, the bottle should always be opaque rather than clear to avoid nutritional deterioration from light.
Once you begin to enjoy the dietary delights and benefits of flaxseed in its different forms, you may choose to keep an ample supply of whole seeds and ground seeds, as well as flaxseed oil on hand. From smoothies to cookies, you'll be amazed at the variety of uses you'll find. Here are just some of the many ways you can add this super powerful seed to your daily eating routine.
Using Flaxseed for Maximum Health Benefits
Start a great daily habit of grinding a portion of flaxseeds in a coffee or seed grinder. Preparing just the right amount for a day's serving will encourage you to find places to add its unique sweet and nutty flavor. Remember, however, when adding ground flaxseeds to a cooked cereal or grain dish, do so at the end of cooking since the soluble fiber in flaxseeds can thicken liquids if left too long.
Here are a few quick serving ideas:
- Sprinkle ground flaxseeds onto your hot or cold cereal.
- Add flaxseeds to your homemade muffin, cookie or bread recipe.
- For extra nutritional value add a spoonful to a daily breakfast shake.
- Give cooked vegetables a nuttier flavor with a sprinkle of ground flaxseeds on top.
- Add a tablespoon of flaxseed oil to smoothies.
- Sprinkle whole seeds on yogurt or ice cream.
- Add flax meal to veggie burgers and vegan casseroles.
- Use as an egg substitute in baking.
When grinding whole flax seeds, bear in mind that the quantity will be nearly doubled. For example, 1/4 cup of flaxseeds will yield 7 tablespoons (just shy of 1/2 cup) of flax meal.
Because of its high oil content, ground flaxseeds make a good substitute for canola oil or butter in baking recipes at a ratio of 3:1. For example, if your recipe requires 1/3 cup canola oil, you can substitute it with 1 cup of flax meal. Baked goods that contain a large amount of flax will brown quickly, so keep an eye on the oven and lower the temperature somewhat, if necessary.
You can also use flax meal as a substitute for dry ingredients by reducing the amount of flour called for by 25% and replacing it with an equal amount of ground flaxseeds.
Disadvantages of Flaxseed
Although, as we've seen, the benefits of flaxseed are incredibly broad and far-reaching, as with any regular addition to your diet, it's important to understand any potential side effects or interactions that may exist on your health. Let's take a look at some of the most common disadvantages of flaxseed you may encounter.
Flaxseed, due to its high fiber content, can have a laxative effect on the bowels and may produce excessive bloating, especially when first introduced to your diet. So, be sure to monitor your and your family's intake, especially small children. Always drink plenty of water as well which will help with any uncomfortable symptoms.
The current recommended amounts of flaxseed intake are:
- Children (2 - 12 years) — 1 teaspoon daily of ground flaxseeds, or 1 teaspoon of fresh flaxseed oil for treating constipation.
- Adults (over 12 years) — 1 tablespoon of ground flaxseeds, 2 - 3 times daily or 2 - 4 tbsp, 1 time daily.
As a substitute for fish oil supplements, a dose of 7.2 grams of flaxseed is approximately equivalent to 1 gram of fish oil, the usual daily recommended amount. To match the same benefits, increase the dose of flaxseed slightly to accommodate its ALA content.
Here are a few further precautions you should take note before embarking on a dietary regimen of flaxseed. Similar to the introduction of any vitamin or herb supplementation you may wish to try, you should consult your physician beforehand, particularly if you have any notable health disorders or concerns.
The following is a brief list of potential known precautions associated with flaxseed and the ALA it contains:
- Although studies have found that regular consumption of fish (which includes the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA) may reduce the risk of macular degeneration, a recent study including two large groups of men and women found that diets rich in ALA may increase the risk of this disease. If you're genetically predisposed to macular degeneration, speak with your doctor on the appropriate level of flaxseed you can ingest in order to reduce your risk but still obtain flaxseed's healthy benefits.
- Flaxseed may slow down the absorption of oral medications or other nutrients if taken at the same time. Therefore, you should ingest flaxseed several hours before, or after medicines or supplements.
- People with either diabetes or schizophrenia may lack the ability, to some extent, to convert ALA to EPA and DHA, the forms of omega-3 fatty acids that are generally made from ALA and are more readily used by the body. Therefore, people with these conditions may need to obtain their omega-3 fatty acids directly from algae-based DHA, EPA supplements commonly extracted from chlorella or spirulina. Speak with your doctor about the suitable dosage for your condition.
- Before using flaxseed products or ALA, those with diabetes, prostate problems, breast cancer, or schizophrenia should always seek the advice and supervision of a qualified health care provider.
Further, flaxseed supplementation may not only affect the absorption time but could alter the actual effects of some prescription and nonprescription medications. If you're currently being treated with any of the following medications, you should not use flaxseed without first talking to your health care provider:
- Blood-Thinning Medications — Omega-3 fatty acids may increase the effects of blood-thinning medications, including aspirin and warfarin. While the combination of aspirin and omega-3 fatty acids may help you with certain circumstances (such as heart disease), you should only take them together under the guidance and supervision of a qualified health care provider.
- Diabetic Medications — If you're taking medicines for diabetes, including insulin, you should only use flaxseed (ALA) under the supervision of a qualified health care provider.
- Oral Contraceptives or Hormonal replacement therapy (HRT) — Flaxseed may alter hormonal levels and alter the effects of oral contraceptives or HRT.
Flaxseed's Health Benefits in a Nutshell
Despite some rare and uncommon precautions and so-called disadvantages, flaxseed is overall, one of the smartest additions you can make to your diet. From better heart health to weight loss to cancer prevention, the little flaxseed holds a great deal of healing power. Learning to tap into that power is the key to enjoying its health benefits.
One of the best ways to help you decide how to take advantage of the health benefits of flaxseed in your daily routine and make those good habits stick is through experimentation.
Some people adore the unique flavor that ground flaxseeds add to nearly every dish, while others, although they would like to take advantage of flaxseeds' benefits, prefer to disguise the taste in some way.
Since everyone is different, try adding more or less to your favorite recipes until you hit on the perfect amount for you. Similarly, a sprinkle here and there, rather than a large dose at one time, might just end up being your favorite way to enjoy your flaxseeds every day.
Either way, you'll be glad you discovered the wonderful benefits of adding flaxseed to your diet as you and your family become healthier and more vibrant as a result. And all from a tiny little seed!
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