A source of fiber for linen fabric since ancient times, the slender flax plant (Linum usitatissimum) also boasts a long history as a healing herb. First cultivated in Europe, the plant’s brown seeds were regularly used to prepare balms for inflamed skin and healing slurries for constipation. Today, flaxseeds–also called linseeds–are best known for the therapeutic oil that is derived by pressing them. Rich in essential fatty acids, or EFAs, flaxseed oil has earned a solid reputation for treating a range of ailments, from heart disease to lupus.
Because they are high in dietary fiber, ground flaxseeds can help ease the passage of stools and thus relieve constipation, hemorrhoids and diverticular disease. In those with diverticular disease, flaxseeds may also keep intestinal pouches free of waste and thus keep potential infection at bay. Taken for inflammatory bowel disease, flaxseed oil can help to calm inflammation and repair any intestinal tract damage. In addition, the oil may prevent painful gallstones from developing and even dissolve existing stones.
Flaxseed oil is rich in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an essential fatty acid that appears to be beneficial for heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease, arthritis and a variety of other health conditions. Flaxseed, in addition to ALA, contains a group of chemicals called lignans that may play a role in the prevention of cancer. Please see the flaxseed monograph for further information on this herbal agent.
Research has suggested that omega-3 fatty acids, or essential fatty acids (EFAs), can help lower cholesterol, regulate heartbeat, and thin the blood, thereby lessening the risk of heart disease. It’s also possible that the omega-3 group may aid in treating depression, according to neuroscientist Andrew L. Stoll, MD, of Harvard Medical School, who has studied the effects of omega-3s on the illness.
Flaxseed oil is good for the heart because it is the richest source of alpha-linolenic acid. Flaxseed itself (ground or whole) also contains lignans, which may have antioxidant actions and may help protect against certain cancers, though not everyone agrees on this issue. All plant foods, including flax, have good things to offer. Garlic, onions, tomatoes, broccoli, legumes, and whole grains all have a range of beneficial chemicals. If you want to add flaxseeds to your diet, that’s a good idea. But if cheeseburgers are your main source of calories, adding flaxseeds won’t help much.
BENEFITS OF FLAXSEED OIL
Lower cholesterol, protect against heart disease and control high blood pressure. Several studies indicate that flaxseed oil, as well as ground flaxseeds, can lower cholesterol, thereby significantly reducing the risk of heart disease. Flaxseed oil may also have a protective effect against angina (chest pain) and high blood pressure. In addition, a 5-year study done recently at Boston’s Simmons College found that flaxseed oil may be useful in preventing a 2nd heart attack. It may also help prevent elevated blood pressure by inhibiting inflammatory reactions that cause poor circulation and artery-hardening plaque.
Recently small studies of cancer patients who consumed flaxseeds have produced some encouraging results. In one study men with prostate cancer who ate an ounce of ground flaxseeds (almost three tablespoons) a day as part of a very-low-fat diet were able to slow the progress of their cancers between the time they were diagnosed and the time of surgery. A similar study of women awaiting surgery for breast cancer found that those who ate a flaxseed muffin daily (with about four tablespoons of ground flaxseeds per muffin) had a slower tumor growth rate. Studies of animals, too, suggest some anti-cancer benefit from flaxseed. But it’s always difficult to know whether it’s the lignans that help, or some other element in the flaxseeds. And not all studies have yielded positive results.
Women who regularly consume foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids over many years may be less likely to develop breast cancer and to die from the disease than women who do not follow such a diet. Laboratory and animal studies indicate that omega-3 fatty acids can inhibit the growth of human breast cancer cells and may even prevent the spread of cancer to other parts of the body. Several experts speculate that omega-3 fatty acids in combination with other nutrients (namely, vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, selenium, and coenzyme Q10) may prove to be of particular value for preventing and treating breast cancer.
The abundant omega-3 fatty acids in flaxseed oil have been shown to contribute to healthy hair growth (in fact, low levels of these acids may cause dry and lackluster locks). Hair problems exacerbated by psoriasis or eczema of the scalp may respond to the skin-revitalizing and anti-inflammatory actions of flaxseed oil as well. Similarly, the oil’s EFAs work to nourish dry or brittle nails, stopping them from cracking or splitting
Flaxseed meal and flour provides a very good source of fiber that can lower cholesterol levels in people with atherosclerosis and diabetic heart disease, reduce the exposure of colon cells to cancer-causing chemicals, relieve the constipation or diarrhea of irritable bowel syndrome sufferers, and help stabilize blood sugar levels in diabetic patients. Flaxseeds are also a good source of magnesium, which helps to reduce the severity of asthma by keeping airways relaxed and open, lowers high blood pressure and reduces the risk of heart attack and stroke in people with atherosclerosis and diabetic heart disease, prevents the blood vessel spasm that leads to migraine attacks, and generally promotes relaxation and restores normal sleep patterns.
Flaxseed also contains a fiber-like compound, lignan, which is thought to bind to testosterone and possibly help remove it from the body. This could, in turn, help suppress the growth of prostate cancer cells.
SYMPTOMS OF HIGH INTAKE
Advocates of flaxseed oil speculate that a potential association between ALA and cancer may be due to the fact that meat contains ALA, thus implicating ALA when the real culprits are probably other components of meat. In some studies, however, saturated fat (and therefore probably meat) were taken into consideration, and ALA still correlated with increased risk. The associations between ALA and cancer might eventually be shown to be caused by substances found in foods rich in ALA rather than by ALA itself. However, ALA has been reported to become mutagenic (able to cause precancerous changes) when heated, 34 which concerns some doctors.
m For promoting bowel regularlity, 1 tablespoon (15 ml) of whole or ground flaxseed is taken one or two times per day, accompanied by a full glass of water. When used to treat other health conditions, it is used in amounts of 30 to 35 grams (1 to 2 ounces) per day.
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