Flaxseed (Linum usitatissimun) has been
called a super- food—and with good reason. It’s amazing how powerfully
healthy these tiny seeds are. Harvested from the same plant that has
supplied the fiber for linen since the dawn of time, flaxseed should
be thought of as your strong-armed ally against high cholesterol,
heart disease, symptoms of menopause, and even some forms of cancer.
Make sure it has a permanent place in your pantry.
rooted in history
Flax is one of the world’s oldest cultivated plants; people have
grown it for its fiber, oil, and seeds for something like 10,000
years. The first record of its food use dates back to 3000 BC in
Babylonia. Its medicinal use was first recorded, so far as we know,
by Hippocrates, the father of medicine, who used flax to relieve
intestinal discomfort. Roman healers relied on flax to ease coughs,
urinary tract problems, and constipation.
North American healers, back in the day, used
crushed flaxseed as a poultice for abscesses, ulcers, and
inflammations. Linseed oil, a flaxseed product, was a popular cough
syrup ingredient. And flaxseed tea, with a
little lemon and honey, was often recommended for conghs and colds.
what’s in it?
Flaxseed is a bountiful source of phytoestrogens called lignans,
which act like a weak form of estrogen in the
body. Lignans bloc estrogen receptors on cells—which means they
prevent the uptake of stronger, pro-cancer estrogen—and may
contribute to reduced rates of certain hormone-related cancers,
including ovarian, breast, and prostate cancer. Other anticancer
benefits have been attributed to lignans’ ability to lower tumor
necrosis factor, a protein compound involved in the inflammatory
And that’s not all. Flax is an abundant source of
alphalinolenic acid (ALA), an essential fatty acid the body uses to
make omega-3 fatty acids. ALA thins the blood and makes it less
sticky, thus reducing the risk of heart attack and stroke. The
little seeds also lower cholesterol, thanks to their big stores of
soluble fiber: A tablespoon of ground flaxseed sprinkled over cereal
or yogurt provides an easy 2.3 grams of fiber. F anti-inflammatory
power may also help keep various conditions, from acne to asthma, at
what science says
According to a 2009 study published in the American Journal of
Clinical Nutrition, postmenopausal women and people who have high
cholesterol could lower their cholesterol significantly simply by
adding flaxseed to their diets. The researchers reviewed 28 studies
on flax published between 1990 and 2008 before arriving at their
on the horizon
When researchers study flaxseed and its potential for reducing the
incidence of cancer, intriguing—and hopeful evidence often emerges.
For example, studies suggest that flaxseed and other foods rich in
lignans (which include barley, oatmeal, and wheat bran) are potent
cancer fighters. A flax- supplemented diet prevented breast cancer
and slowed the growth and spread of malignant tumors in animal
What’s more, animal research shows that flaxseed
also appears to increase the effectiveness of tamoxifen, a drug that
reduces the risk of breast cancer by interfering with estrogen. Some
studies suggest that flaxseed may prevent other forms of cancer that
are fed by hormones, including prostate cancer.
While the research is exciting, little of it
involves humans. A few studies have found that women who consume the
most lignans have a lower-than-expected risk of breast cancer,
though the benefit may be limited to women who have not reached
menopause. Until more studies are completed, it’s too soon to call
flaxseed a cancer-fighter. However, its other benefits make it a
smart food to eat regularly, so if flax does turn out to fight
cancer, you can consider it a bonus.
Just as olives are different than olive oil, so is flaxseed
different than flaxseed oil. In particular, flaxseed oil doesn’t
contain the lignans that appear so useful on the cancer front.
However, flaxseed oil is 50 to 60 percent alpha-linolenic acid
(ALA), an essential omega-3 fatty acid. Unlike other well-known
omega-3 oils—like eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic
acid (DHA), which are found in fish—ALA comes strictly from plants.
Buy flaxseed oil at health-food stores. The best
products are made with fresh-pressed seeds, bottled in opaque
containers, and processed at low temperatures. The oil is highly
perishable and needs to be refrigerated. Don’t cook with fiaxseed
oil; use it raw as a salad dressing or veggie drizzle or an
ingredient in smoothies and other recipes that don’t require
To add flaxseed to your diet, buy it in bulk at a
natural foods store, and keep it in an airtight container in the
pantry. Pick up a coffee grinder and grind the amount you need every
day, because ground flaxseed is highly perishable. If you grind too
much, refrigerate the excess in a plastic bag and use promptly.
good to know
If you’re a woman past menopause or have
diabetes, read on. News about flaxseed oil that emerged in 2009
offers hope about avoiding osteoporosis. Researchers at the National
Research Center in Cairo, Egypt, studied the effect of diabetes on
bone health to see whether flaxseed oil could delay the onset of the
bone-weakening disease. One key finding: that diabetes puts
post-menopausal women at increased risk for osteoporosis. The
researchers concluded that flaxseed oil improves bone health and
could prevent osteoporosis. The study was conducted on lab rats, so
human studies need to confirm this effect in women. Bottom line:
Since flaxseed oil’s other health benefits are well-proven, it
certainly makes sense to add a spoonful or two to veggies and salads
in hopes of preventing osteoporosis, especially if you’re at risk
for the disease.