Flax seed is one of humanity’s oldest grains dating as far back as 4,000 years ago; it has been a long-held staple of the human diet in Africa, Asia and Europe. Much later in history, flax seed has reaped much attention in North America for its many nutritional benefits in fighting against life-threatening diseases such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes just to name a few.
Flax seeds might be tiny but they’re loaded with goodness through and through. They contain high levels of dietary fiber and an abundance of micro-nutrients and are a rich source of lignans, which has plant estrogen as well as antioxidants. Studies have revealed that flax seeds may lower cholesterol levels, and may lessen the severity of diabetes by stabilizing blood-sugar levels. And as far as Omega-3 plant foods go, flax seed stands high above all the others.
There are two types of flax seed: one is gold-colored and the other is brown; both add a subtle nutty flavor to food. Flax seed can be bought as a whole seed or grounded as a fibrous substance. Use ground flax seed instead of the whole seed before consumption because the whole seed passes through the digestive tract without releasing its beneficial components. Whenever possible, it is best to grind the seeds right before using and you can do this with an ordinary coffee grinder.
Recent studies have suggested that flax seed may have a protective effect against breast cancer, prostate cancer, and colon cancer. At least two of the components in flax seed seem to contribute, says Kelley C. Fitzpatrick, director of health and nutrition with the Flax Council of Canada.
In animal studies, the plant omega-3 fatty acid found in flax seed, called ALA, inhibited tumor incidence and growth.
The lignans in flax seed may provide some protection against cancers that are sensitive to hormones without interfering with the breast cancer drug tamoxifen. Thompson says some studies have suggested that exposure to lignans during adolescence helps reduce the risk of breast cancer and may also increase the survival of breast cancer patients.
Lignans may help protect against cancer by blocking enzymes that are involved in hormone metabolism and interfering with the growth and spread of tumor cells.
Some of the other components in flax seed also have antioxidant properties, which may contribute to protection against cancer and heart disease.
Research suggests that plant omega-3s help the cardiovascular system through several different mechanisms, including anti-inflammatory action and normalizing the heartbeat. Fitzpatrick says new research also suggests significant blood pressure-lowering effects of flax seed. Those effects may be due to both the omega-3 fatty acids as well as the amino acid groups found in flax seed.
Several studies have suggested that diets rich in flax seed omega-3s help prevent hardening of the arteries and keep plaque from being deposited in the arteries partly by keeping white blood cells from sticking to the blood vessels’ inner linings.
“Lignans in flax seed have been shown to reduce atherosclerotic plaque buildup by up to 75%,” Fitzpatrick says.
Because plant omega-3s may also play a role in maintaining the heart’s natural rhythm, they may be useful in treating arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat) and heart failure. More research is needed on this.
Eating flax seed daily may also help your cholesterol levels. The level of LDL or “bad” cholesterol in the bloodstream has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome. A study of menopausal women showed a decrease in LDL level after the women ate 4 tablespoons of ground flax seed each day for a year. Fitzpatrick says the cholesterol-lowering effects of flax seed are the result of the combined benefits of the omega-3 ALA, fiber, and lignans.
Preliminary research also suggests that daily intake of the lignans in flax seed may modestly improve blood sugar (as measured by hemoglobin A1c blood tests in adults with type 2 diabetes).
Two components in flax seed, ALA and lignans, may reduce the inflammation that accompanies certain illnesses (such as Parkinson’s disease and asthma) by helping block the release of certain pro-inflammatory agents, Fitzpatrick says.
ALA has been shown to decrease inflammatory reactions in humans. And studies in animals have found that lignans can decrease levels of several pro-inflammatory agents.
Reducing inflammation associated with plaque buildup in the arteries may be another way flax seed helps prevent heart attack and strokes.
One study of menopausal women, published in 2007, reported that 2 tablespoons of ground flax seed mixed into cereal, juice, or yogurt twice a day cut their hot flashes in half. The intensity of their hot flashes also dropped by 57%. The women noticed a difference after taking the daily flax seed for just one week and achieved the maximum benefit within two weeks.
But another study reported no significant reduction in hot flashes between postmenopausal women and breast cancer patients eating a bar containing 410 milligrams of phytoestrogens from ground flax seed and women eating a placebo bar.
The results, says Thompson, are consistent with other studies that have shown no significant difference in the effect on hot flashes between flax seed and placebo.
Tips for Using Flax seed
Many experts believe it’s better to consume flax seed than flax oil (which contains just part of the seed) so you get all the components. But stay tuned as researchers continue to investigate.
Thompson says, “Ground flax seed, in general, is a great first choice, but there may be specific situations where flax oil or the lignans (taken in amounts naturally found in flax seed) might be as good.”
How much flax seed do you need? The optimum dose to obtain health benefits is not yet known. But 1 to 2 tablespoons of ground flax seed a day is currently the suggested dose, according to the Flax Council of Canada.
Here are more tips for using, buying, and storing flax seed:
Buy it ground or grind it yourself. Flax seed, when eaten whole, is more likely to pass through the intestinal tract undigested, which means your body doesn’t get all the healthful components. If you want to grind flax seed yourself, those little electric coffee grinders seem to work best.
Milled = ground = flax meal. Don’t be confused by the different product names for ground flax seed. Milled or ground flax seed is the same thing as flax meal.
Buy either brown or golden flax seed. Golden flax seed is easier on the eyes, but brown flax seed is easier to find in most supermarkets. There is very little difference nutritionally between the two, so the choice is up to you.
Find it in stores or on the Internet. Many supermarket chains now carry ground flax seed (or flax meal). It’s usually in the flour or “grain” aisle or the whole-grain cereal section and is often sold in 1-pound bags. You can also find it in health food stores or order it on various web sites.
Check the product label. When buying products containing flax seed, check the label to make sure ground flax seed, not whole flax seed, was added. Flax seed is a featured ingredient in cereals, pasta, whole grain breads and crackers, energy bars, meatless meal products, and snack foods.
Add flax seed to a food you habitually eat. Every time you have a certain food, like oatmeal, smoothies, soup, or yogurt, stir in a couple tablespoons of ground flax seed. Soon it will be a habit and you won’t have to think about it, you’ll just do it.
Hide flax seed in dark, moist dishes. The dishes that hide flax seed the best are dark sauces or meat mixtures. No one tends to notice flax seed when it’s stirred into enchilada casserole, chicken parmesan, chili, beef stew, meatloaf, or meatballs. For a 4-serving casserole, you can usually get away with adding 2 to 4 tablespoons of ground flax seed. For a dish serving 6 to 8, use 4 to 8 tablespoons.
Use it in baking. Substitute ground flax seed for part of the flour in recipes for quick breads, muffins, rolls, bread, bagels, pancakes, and waffles. Try replacing 1/4 to 1/2 cup of the flour with ground flax seed if the recipe calls for 2 or more cups of flour.
Keep it in the freezer. The best place to store ground flax seed is the freezer. Freeze pre-ground flax seed in the bag you bought it in or in a plastic seal-able bag if you ground it yourself. The freezer will keep the ground flax from oxidizing and losing its nutritional potency.
Whole flax seed keeps longer. The outside shell in whole flax seed appears to keep the fatty acids inside well protected. It’s a good idea to keep your whole flax seed in a dark, cool place until you grind it. But as long as it is dry and of good quality, whole flax seed can be stored at room temperature for up to a year.
Sprinkle flax seed on cereal, oatmeal, veggies, yogurts, smoothies and salads. You can use flax seed in pancake mix, and for baked goods such as muffins, and breads. Flax seed makes a good substitute for bread crumbs when coating chicken or fish. For best results, store ground flax seed in the refrigerator.
Just one ounce of flax seed contains 32% of the daily fiber recommended by the US Department of Agriculture. Remember to drink plenty of water whenever you increase your consumption of flax seed.
Flax seed Isn’t a Magic Bullet
It’s tempting to think of flax seed as a super food because of its many potential health benefits. But keep in mind there is no magic food or nutrient that guarantees improved health.
What matters is consistently making great dietary choices as part of an overall healthy lifestyle.
Who Shouldn’t Use Flax seed?
Until more is known, Thompson says, pregnant women and possibly breastfeeding mothers should not supplement their diets with ground flax seed.
“Our own animal studies showed that flax seed exposure during these stages may be protective against breast cancer in the offspring. But a study of another investigator showed the opposite effect,” Thompson says.
Below is an easy recipe for making a delicious and nutritious breakfast:
Simple Yogurt Breakfast
2 cups plain yogurt
3 strawberries or 6 blackberries or raspberries
1 Tbsp freshly ground flax seed
1 Tbsp maple syrup (optional)
In a bowl, add chopped banana and strawberries to the yogurt. Sprinkle ground flax seed over the yogurt and drizzle the maple syrup.