flaxseed linseed oilFlaxseed health benefits are prompting some researchers to label the seeds and oil of Flax as new wonder foods. Preliminary reports show that flaxseed (Linseed) may help combat everything from heart disease and diabetes to breast cancer and Parkinson’s. Many are calling this plant one of the world’s most potent foods.

It’s a big challenge for a small seed that has been a part of man’s diet since the dawn of civilization. Flax was cultivated in Babylon before 3000 BC. In the eighth century, Charlemagne was so convinced of the benefits of flaxseed that he commanded his subjects to eat it. Now, some experts are saying that research backs up what Charlemagne suspected so many centuries ago.

Today, flaxseed is found in all types of foods, breads, frozen waffles oatmeal cookies, etc. Every year new products are launched with flaxseed listed as an ingredient. Not only has the demand for linseed increased, but agricultural use has also increased. Think of all the chickens eating flaxseed that are laying those golden eggs rich in Omega-3.

flaxseedWhile researchers are touting its many healthy components, flaxseed’s fame rests primarily on Omega-3 essential fatty acids, and lignans, which are estrogen-like chemicals that act as antioxidants. Omega-3 is “good” fat that has been shown to have beneficial effects on the heart. Each tablespoon of ground flaxseed contains about 1.8 grams of omega-3 oil. Flax seeds contain 75-800 times more lignans than other plant food as well as soluble and insoluble fiber.

Recent studies have suggested that flaxseed can have a protective effect against cancer, especially breast cancer, prostate cancer and colon cancer. At least two components of flaxseed seem to help. In animal studies, Omega-3 fatty acid found in flaxseed, called ALA, inhibits tumor incidence and growth. In addition, lignans in flaxseed may offer some protection against cancers that are sensitive to hormones. Some studies have suggested that exposure to lignans during adolescence reduces breast cancer risk. Lignans may help protect against cancer by blocking the enzymes involved in hormone metabolism, and interfere with the growth and proliferation of tumor cells. Some of the other components of flaxseed also have antioxidant properties that may help protect against cancer and heart disease.

Research suggests that Omega-3 helps the cardiovascular system through various mechanisms, including its anti-inflammation properties, and its ability to normalize heart rhythms. Several studies have suggested that diets rich in flaxseed help prevent hardening of the arteries and keep plaque from the arteries, in part by stopping white blood cells from sticking to the walls of internal blood vessels. Flax lignans have been shown to reduce atherosclerotic plaque accumulation up to 75%. Because the Omega-3 can also play a role in maintaining heart rhythm, it may be useful in the treatment of arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat) and heart failure, although research is still needed on this point.

Eating flaxseed every day can help your cholesterol, too. Small particles of LDL or “bad” cholesterol in the blood are associated with an increased risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes and metabolic syndrome. A French-Canadian study on post-menopausal women has reported that these small LDL particles decreased after the women ate 4 tablespoons of ground flaxseed every day for one year. The cholesterol-lowering effects of flax seed oil are the result of synergies between Omega-3 ALA, fiber and lignans. Preliminary research also suggests that the daily intake of lignans in flax can slightly improve the level of sugar in the blood (as measured by hemoglobin A1c blood tests in adults with type 2 diabetes).

Two components of flax, ALA and lignans, may reduce the inflammation that accompanies certain diseases (eg Parkinson’s disease and asthma), and help block the release of certain pro-inflammatory agents. The omega-3 ALA has been shown to decrease inflammatory reactions in humans, and studies in animals have shown that lignans may reduce the levels of several other pro-inflammatory agents. The reduction of inflammatory reactions associated with the accumulation of plaque in arteries can be another instance of flax seed helping prevent heart attacks and strokes. A preliminary study on post-menopausal women, published in 2007 indicated that two tablespoons of ground flaxseed (twice a day) cut hot flashes in half. And the intensity of hot flashes decreased by 57%. Women have noticed a difference after taking flaxseed daily for only one week and reached the maximum benefit within two weeks.

However, it is not recommended that pregnant women and nursing mothers increase their diet of flaxseed. Animal studies have shown that exposure to flaxseed during these stages may have a protective effect against breast cancer in offspring, but one study has shown the opposite effect. For full benefits, many experts believe it is better consume flax seed instead of the oil (which contains only part of the seed). Flax seeds, in general, are the first choice, but there may be situations in which linseed oil or lignans (taken in quantities naturally present in flaxseed) may be as good. The optimal dose for health benefits is not yet known. However, 1-2 tablespoons of ground flaxseed per day is the currently recommended dose, according to the Flax Council of Canada.

When eaten whole, flaxseed is more likely to make its way through the intestinal tract undigested, which means your body does not get all the health benefits. A coffee grinders works if you decide to grind whole seeds to meal. Do not be fooled by the names of the different flaxseed products. Milled or ground flaxseed is the same as linseed meal. Between the golden and the brown flax seed is little nutritional difference. Brown is more easily found in the marketplace, usually with flours or whole grains. Health food stores will probably offer a wider selection.

When you buy products containing flaxseed, check the label for “ground flaxseed” and not that whole seed was added. Store seeds in a cool, dark place until you’re ready to grind them. Dry, good quality flax seeds can be stored at room temperature for up to one year.

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