Health benefits of Flax seeds

Health benefits of Flax seeds

Flaxseed has health benefits on constipation, cardiovascular diseases like atherosclerosis/coronary artery disease, hypertension, breast cancer, prostate cancer, menopausal symptoms, diabetes, HIV, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and others. These benefits of flax seeds are due to presence of omega-3 fatty acids, dietary fibers, Lignan, along with other amino acids, vital minerals and vitamins.

History of Flaxseed

Flaxseed or linseed are seeds of flax plant herb (Linum usitatissimum. Flax seed has been cultivated and consumed 5000 years back in Babylon. Linen, is fabric which was made from flax and used for making various products then. It is found use in ancient Egyptian medicine and food. It has been traditionally used as laxative, with high fiber and mucilage gum; it helps in smoother movements of bowels and effective on constipation. Maori people in New Zealand used a different type of flax in their traditional medicine.

Flax seed is also known as linseed. Industrial grade linseed oil is used for wood polish and as preservative. Popularity of flax seed has developed ever since discovery of wonder nutrient Omega 3 fatty acids. Flax seed is believed to be richest plant source of omega 3 fatty acids.  Today flaxseed finds its application in all food items from snacks to desserts. Over 500 consumer products with flax seed or flax seed oil or flax based products are active in America itself. Flax seed meal is used to feed poultry and dairy animals. Animal products from such flax seed meal fed animals are found to be high in omega 3 fatty acid.

Various varieties of flax are available in today – brown flax or golden flax, yellow flax / solin / solinola flax, New Zealand flax. Brown flax is richest in nutrient content. Solin or linola flax contains only 10% of omega-3 fatty acid as Brown flax. While New Zealand flax doesn’t belong to flax species. Fiber flax is the other major variety of flax which is commercial produced for use as fibers in textile. Flax colour changes with maturity. Fully mature flax seeds are dark in colour.

Nutritional value of Flax seed

health benefits of flax seedWhile we look at nutritional value of flax seed, lets start at some of the striking points. Flax seed contains dietary fibers about 28% by weight; which means just less than 100 grams of seeds are sufficient to meet daily requirement of fibers – which play a vital role in digestion.

Around another 23% of Flax seeds by weight contains linolenic acid – an Omega-3 fatty acids. Which means 100 grams is equivalent to a 20 gram capsule of linolenic acid or omega-3 fatty acids. Benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids include prevention of cardio vascular diseases. But the high fatty acid content is also responsible for high calorific value of flax seed – more than 5 calories per gram of flax seed. Alpha Linolenic acid can be converted in body to heavier and longer fatty acid chains (docosahexaenoic acid or DHA, and eicosapentaenoic acid or EPA) as found in Fish oil which have health benefits, but conversion ratio is very small. Hence it is difficult to compare flax seed or flax seed oil with fish oil.

Flax seed is also good source of proteins and amino acids. But real treasure of flax seed lies in the vitamin and mineral content. They are rich source of Thiamin, Vitamin B6 and Folate. Minerals supplied by flax seed include Magnesium, Manganese (corresponds to ~100% Dietary value per 100 gram), Phosphorus and copper (~60% DV Dietary value per 100 gram) and Calcium, Iron, Selenium, Zinc and Potassium (~25% DV Dietary value per 100 gram). Manganese and Magnesium play vital role in body metabolism and growth of body.

Flaxseed is the richest in the vegetable world source of lignans (up to 0.7-1,5% of dry weight of seed, 7 times higher than sesame seeds which are second best source of Lignans) including secoisolariciresinol diglucoside.  Lignans are fiber-like compounds, but are associated with far more benefits like anti-inflammatory properties, anti-cancer properties, anti-lupus properties, cardiovascular enhancing properties, and prostate supporting properties. Lignans are phytoestrogens, and act like the hormone estrogen.

Health benefits of Flaxseed

Traditionally flaxseed has been used for treatment of intestinal problems and mainly due to fiber content in them. Lately renewed benefits of omega-3 fatty acids and importance of anti-oxidant have opened new areas of research in health and benefits of food. Health benefits of flax seeds are attributed for presence of linolenic acid, Lignans, vital minerals and fibers. Some of these health benefits of flax seed are listed below:

Flax benefits for heart and cardiovascular system

Study suggests that Omega-3 fatty acid rich diet reduces risk of heart attack and other heart diseases. Some human studies have found that Omega-3 fatty acids in Flax seed reduce blood pressure and thus help people with high blood pressure /hypertension. Adding ground flaxseed to baking products is good way of consuming flax seed regularly. Omega-3 fatty acids are also anti-inflammatory agent and along with other amino acids in flax seed help normalize heartbeat and treat arrhythmia. Some studies have shown that Omega-3 helps prevent deposition in arteries and resulting hardening of arteries.

Eating flaxseed daily also reduces level of harmful / bad cholesterol in blood which causes heart disorders, obesity, diabetes and other disorders. Flax seed with omega-3 and Lignans act as anti inflammatory and anti-oxidants as well and protects heart from free radicals.

Flax benefits for digestion

Flaxseed has been used as laxative for treatment of constipation. It is also found beneficial in treatment of diarrhea, reducing inflammation of intestinal lining, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcers in intestine and stomach. High water soluble fiber content of flaxseed keeps digestive tract healthy.

Further fibers in flax seed contain mucilage which form gel on water absorption. It prevents rapid emptying of stomach and increase absorption of nutrients in body. It helps reduce food craving and helpful for people on weight reducing diet.  Studies have found that Flaxseed dietary fibers suppress postprandial lipemia and appetite sensation in young men.

Flax seed benefits for Weight management

Though nutrition facts of flax seed don’t support benefits of flax seed for weight loss, it should definitely along with other food help in weight management. It is packed with essential amino acids, vitamins and minerals which are essential for any one on diet to reduce weight.

Anti oxidant properties of Flax seed

Research is ongoing on antioxidant components of flax seed. Lignans along with minerals like magnesium, zinc and selenium provides antioxidant properties to flax seed and helpful prevent free  radicals and oxidative stress on vital organs of body.

Flaxseeds benefits on Post-Menopausal Symptoms

Flaxseed is found effective on treatment of post menopausal symptoms like hot flashes, mood disturbances, vaginal dryness or hormone replacement therapies. Lignan in flax seed resemble human hormone estrogen. Studies are still ongoing to establish relationship between mechanisms in which flax seed benefits treating such symptoms.

Flax seed benefits on Breast Pain

In one study, Flax seed is found useful in treatment of Breast pain or mastalgia. Eating flax seed regularly showed significant reduction of breast pain associated with start of menstrual cycle in women.

Flax seed benefits on Diabetes

Preliminary research suggests ability of flax seed to regulate blood sugar and thus treat diabetes. In a study, daily consumption of flax seed helped improve glycemic control in obese people with pre diabetes. It decreased glucose and insulin and improved insulin sensitivity in these people.

Flax seed for treating lupus

Omega-3 fatty acids which Flax seed supply are suggested to inhibit inflammatory mechanism and modulate blood fats in Lupus nephritis. Flax seed is found useful in treatment for lupus nephritis

A study found that flax seed was helpful in treating people with kidney damage due to Systemic lupus erythematosus. Flax seed improves kidney function by reducing cholesterol and inflammation.

Flax seed and Breast Cancer

Some lab studies on rats have reported to reduction of breast tumour and prevention of cancer by flax seed. Clinical study suggests that flax seed reduces risk of breast cancer. A Canadian study found statistical evidence of consumption of flax seed and flax seed bread and reduction of breast cancer risk.

Flax seed and other Cancer

Flaxseed exhibit antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and are considered good for prevention of cancer. Health and nutrition with the Flax Council of Canada has been encouraging research on cancer preventive properties of flax seed.

Lignan content of flax seed helps prevent hormone related cancers like breast cancer, prostate cancer and colon cancer. Three of the lignans in flaxseeds—secoisolariciresinol, matairecinol, and pinoresinol—can be converted into  enterolactone (ENL) and enterodiol (END) by bacteria in intestine, which play important role in hormone balance and preventing hormone related cancer.

A study found that long term intake of flax seed decreased ovarian cancer incidence and prostaglandin in hens. Similar animal studies show that flaxseed lignans inhibits growth of colon tumor cells. Initial research has showed that intake of Omega -3 fatty acid can reduce risk of prostate cancer. Claims are yet to be established.

Flax seed oil benefits for skin

Flaxseed oil can be applied to skin for smooth texture. There are claims that flaxseed can help treat eczema, acne. Most of these claims are based on antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of flaxseed. However medical studies are yet to support such claims. Flax seed oil is often used in creams, gels as moisturizer. It is recommended to test flaxseed oil for any allergies, before applying directly to face or body.

Flax seed oil benefits for hair

There are claims (mainly surrogate flax seed oil producers) that flax seed oil or flax seed oil gel is useful for hair. There is no such medicinal evidence to support the same. Personal judgments and care is advised before use of flaxseed oil for hair growth or preventing hair loss.

Other benefits of flax seed

Flax seed is also found useful in treatment of attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), rheumatoid arthritis, sore throat, upper respiratory tract infections (URTI), and cough. These benefits are mostly related to anti inflammatory properties of flax seed and helping in reduction of inflammation of brain, lungs or joints.

Which form offers maximum health benefits?

Flax seed is available in various forms – one can used milled flax seed or whole flax seed. Grounding of flax seed results in oxidation of fats and reduces shelf life. Hence freshly ground flax seed are often better and easier to digest in comparison to whole flax seed.

Organic ground flax seed and organic flax seed are also available in market. They are further tagged with organic benefits.

Further ripe seeds, linseed cakes, powder, capsules, and flaxseed oil are other forms they are available in market.

Flax seed should be stored in dark, dry and cool place in airtight containers for longer shelf life. Heat increases rancidity of fats in flax seed.

Side effects of Flax seed:

  • A study has showed that over consumption of omega-3 fatty acids is an health risk
  • Raw flax seed could be cause allergy
  • Women with hormonal therapy should consulting doctor before consuming flax seed.
  • Consumption of flax seed in pregnancy or while nursing babies should be avoided
  • Condition like bowel obstruction, inflamed bowel, or narrowed esophagus worsens with fiber intake and hence flaxseed should be avoided.
  • Linamarin and lotaustralin are two of the primary cyanide generating found in flaxseeds. Overconsumption of flax seed could be harmful. Cooking reduces these chemicals in flax seed.
  • Sudden large consumption of flax seed for people with problems like flatulence or bloating should be avoided.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids interact with some drugs like Blood-thinning medications, Medications for diabetes, oral contraceptives, hormonal medications, etc. Hence caution and proper consultation is advised.

Flax seed tea

Flax seed tea has got recent popularity. However Omega-3 fatty acids are not water soluble. Further at temperatures of boiling water, it seems difficult they shall ooze out of the seed. We don’t think that flax seed tea offers any health benefits. Even warm water is good enough to relieve sore throats. Claims that flax seed tea helps relieve sore throats are beyond logic. Water soluble lignan though would offer gelatinous texture and helpful for digestion. But benefits of lignan shall be better if allowed to absorb water in intestine or stomach.

Image Credits: Wikimedia, Flickr - Sean Dreilinger

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