Why you need flaxseed in your diet
Flaxseed is packed with powerful substances that enhance your health and help prevent the onset of certain degenerative diseases. Its long history of use throughout the ages is testament to the health benefits it can bestow.
Flaxseed, or linseed (Linum usitatissimum), is the seed from the flax plant, an annual herb the ancient Egyptians used for medicinal purposes as well as for making products such as clothes and fishnets. In fact, flax has been used in various ways for at least 10,000 years. Flax is thought to be one of the first plants grown for purposes other than food. It was used to make linen cloth for wrapping Egyptian mummies and was also the material for making paper. Today, flax fibres are still used to strengthen some paper money.
Flaxseed is a soothing, non-irritating bulk laxative and its traditional usage was for treating digestive complaints such as constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, diverticulitis and gastritis. Flaxseeds are high in both soluble and insoluble fibre and contain a large amount of mucilage, a natural gummy substance that doesn’t dissolve in water but forms a thick, gooey mass when exposed to fluids. The body doesn’t digest mucilage so when mucilaginous substances are consumed, the resulting large, soft mass moves through the intestine and triggers intestinal contractions, helping to move food through the intestinal tract. The mucilage also coats the walls of the intestine, relieving irritation and alleviating constipation.
In addition to treating digestive disorders, flaxseed is rich in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an essential fatty acid that is beneficial for a variety of health conditions including arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and heart disease. ALA is an omega-3 fatty acid that helps to reduce inflammation, in contrast to omega-6 fatty acids, which tend to increase inflammation. ALA is converted within the body to EPA and DHA, the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids that can be found in fish oil. EPA and DHA decrease the production of pro-inflammatory prostaglandins and thromboxanes, which explains the use of flaxseed in helping inflammatory conditions such as allergies, asthma, arthritis, psoriasis and period pain.
Flaxseed also contains lignan, a type of phyto-oestrogen, or plant compound, that has a very similar structure to that of the body’s own oestrogen. This means phyto-oestrogens can bind to oestrogen receptors within the body and can either produce or inhibit oestrogen effects. Some studies have shown lignans play a role in protecting you from cancer, however research into the effects of lignans on the development of hormone-dependent cancer such as certain types of breast and prostate cancer has produced conflicting results. At present, it has not yet been clearly established whether high intakes of plant lignans offer significant protective effects against hormone-dependent cancers.
Flaxseed can also be used to ease menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes. A study undertaken in 2007 revealed that women who consumed two tablespoons of flaxseed a day were able to halve their number of weekly hot flushes within six weeks. The women also reported the intensity of their hot flushes dropped by an average of 57 per cent. The addition of flaxseed to your diet offers a simple way of alleviating this debilitating symptom of menopause.
Another reason for you to include ground flaxseed in your daily diet is its ability to reduce cholesterol levels, helping to prevent the development of atherosclerosis. Research has shown that consuming ground flaxseeds can help to lower both total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol. The lignin fibre content of flaxseed can also help to control blood sugar levels.
Best form for consumption
To get the most from flaxseeds, consume them in ground form rather than the whole seed as it’s difficult for the body to break down the whole flaxseed. The absorption of ALA from ground flaxseeds and flaxseed oil is much greater than from the whole seed. Flaxseed oil is extracted from the interior of the seed and is a great source of your omega-3 fatty acids, however it does not provide the fibre component or lignan, which are gained from the exterior of the seed.
If sufficient amounts of water are consumed throughout the day, flaxseed is an extremely safe food to include in your daily diet. However, due to its bulking effect, the risk of bowel obstruction may be increased if your intake of water is inadequate. Whole flaxseeds are contraindicated in the case of impacted bowel or bowel blockage of any origin. As with any other source of mucilage, the absorption of other drugs may be negatively affected, so drugs should be taken either an hour before or an hour after taking flaxseed.
It’s important to never heat flaxseed oil as it decomposes at high temperatures and can create free radical damage within the body. Keep your flaxseed in the refrigerator to protect it from rancidity.
Add two teaspoons of ground flaxseeds or oil to your breakfast cereal, smoothie or salad to take full advantage of the health benefits provided by this mighty seed.
- Two tablespoons provide the following fatty acids, lignin fibre and lignan:
- Alpha linolenic acid (omega-3) 1710mg
- Linoleic acid (omega-6) 480mg
- Oleic acid (omega-9) 540mg
- Lignin fibre 1003mg
- Lignan 13.6mg