Flaxseed has been described as a ‘complete food source’ and is a must-have addition to any healthy diet.
It is a naturally sourced, sustainable, nutrient-dense seed.
I love it, and I eat it as often as I can.
- It tastes great.
- It fills you up.
- It’s easy to add to other foods.
- Flaxseed contains little else other than; nutrients, protein, fibre and essential fatty acids.
If you don’t know much about flaxseed or flaxseed oil, (if anything) then read on. The health benefits are quite something.
I’ve split this article into 2 parts:
- The first part covers flaxseed and flaxseed oil, and its health benefits.
- The second part answers many ‘common questions’ you may have.
Part 1 – Flaxseed (Also Known as Linseed)
What is Flaxseed?
Flaxseed is also known as linseed in the UK – The name originates from the flax plant, (Latin name: ‘Linum Usitatissimum’, hence the name ‘Linseed’.) – a broad-leaf plant with small, narrow leaves.
However linseed reminds me of the oil I used to rub on my cricket bat at school, (flaxseed oil is a natural wood preservative) so I prefer to use the name ‘flaxseed’.
The flax plant grows up to around 35 inches high with multiple stems that divide at their tips, bearing attractive blue/purple flowers.
Each flower develops into a round seed capsule measuring 2 – 3 cm’s in diameter, where it produces the flaxseeds.
Each capsule contains on average 5-6 seeds.
The seeds are a little larger than sesame seeds, and are protected within a shiny, hard shell.
Historically flaxseeds are brown in colour, but more attractive golden colours are being produced to boost their appeal to consumers. There are no nutrient differences between the colours.
The flaxseed plant is grown all over the world, but the 2 main countries responsible for the majority of flax exports are Canada and China.
The Rise of Flaxseed Popularity
Flaxseed and its uses steadily declined after the Second World War when petroleum became increasingly used, and other crops such as wheat and oats started replacing flaxseed.
Since its health properties have been discovered, flaxseed has become popular again, and demand for this super-healthy food is rising.
The health industry has seen a dramatic rise in the number of people consuming it for medicinal purposes.
According to Webmd.com “The Flax Council estimates close to 300 new flax-based products were launched in the U.S. and Canada in 2010 alone.”
How We Get Our Flaxseed
Flaxseeds are harvested mechanically or manually and sold in 3 different ways:
- As a whole seed, which should then be crushed or ground before consuming.
- Ground-down and sold as ground flaxseed.
- As flaxseed oil. The seeds go through a process of ‘cold pressing’ (which preserves the nutrients) to extract the oil.
The health benefits of the seed are slightly different to the oil because the seeds provide extra nutrients that aren’t present in the oil.
However, flaxseed oil contains high amounts of omega-3 essential fatty acids. So consuming both the flaxseed and the oil is highly recommended.
Approximately 40% of the flaxseed (by weight) is oil and 55% of that oil is the all important alpha linolenic acid (ALA).
The rest of the seed is made up of approx 22% protein, 12% fiber and 10% mucilage.
It contains lignans, vitamins A, B1, B2 C, D and E, and boasts the majority of major and trace minerals.
It’s no wonder this amazing seed is described as a ‘complete food source‘.
Essential Fatty Acids – Omega-3
The most significant ‘by-product’ of flaxseed oil is without doubt its ‘essential fatty acids’ (EFA) – particularly omega-3.
Omega-3 is one of those food sources nearly all of us need to consume more of. Its health benefits are widely documented and scientifically proven.
Omega-3 (also known as a ‘polyunsaturated fat‘) is an ‘essential’, unsaturated fatty-acid, needed in the body to maintain good health.
The body cannot produce these fats by itself (this is why they are called ‘essential’) and so we rely on various foods for their intake.
Consuming larger doses of omega-3 has been shown to help prevent and treat a number of medical conditions including; cancer, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, depression, and asthma.
We also need to consume omega-6 EFA’s for optimal health.
It is recommended that we consume approximately 2 to 4 times as much omega-3 as omega-6.
This is where we have a problem because due to the relatively unhealthy diet in the Western world, the typical ratio is nearer 20 to 1 in favor of omega-6, which is a dangerous combination.
The good news is:
Flaxseed contains an ideal 3 – 1 ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
Consuming the oil with a low-fat protein such as low-fat cottage cheese, is supposed to be the most efficient way of absorbing the essential fatty acids.
Whatever methods you use to get this super-oil inside you, it will still provide significant health benefits.
What About Fish Oil?
Fish – especially oily fish such as salmon, sardines, halibut and tuna, contain good quantities of omega-3, as does olive oil and walnuts.
However, consuming fish isn’t an option for everyone, and doing so can result in health problems such as overexposure to marine pollutants.
Personally I eat a ton of fish. I rarely eat animal meat these days, but gorge on fish. You just need to be sensible as to where and how your fish is caught.
Flaxseed Oil v Fish Oil
Going back to fish oil, here’s the thing – Fish oil and fish oil supplements do not contain essential fatty acids.
They contain derivatives of it, in the form of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
While these two components of omega-3 are important, the body doesn’t need them in the incredibly high doses that are present in fish oil.
Apart from the brain and nervous system, which make up only 3% of total body weight, there are normally only trace amounts of these derivatives in the plasma, cellular membranes and tissues of the human body.
Fish oil supplements contain up to 500 times the amount of EPA and DHA the body actually needs for optimum health.
We simply don’t need this much in our system.
It also explains why fish oil supplements have consistently failed to treat medical conditions that it claims to, such as cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Further more, these ‘supplements’ have been reported to actually increase the risk of prostate cancer as well as worsening diabetic patients by raising blood sugars and blunting insulin response.
Flaxseed oil is made up primarily of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) which is one of the fatty acids that make up omega-3. ALA is an essential fatty acid the body needs, and is the parent of EPA and DHA.
This is significant because although flaxseed oil doesn’t contain EPA and DHA, enzymes in the body are able to convert ALA into whatever amounts of EPA and DHA it needs.
This parent attribute gives flaxseed oil the health benefits of the essential fatty acid – ALA, as well as the derivatives EPA and DHA, but in safer doses.
Fish oil does not contain ALA (which is considered essential) and far too much EPA and DHA.
Big Pharma Profits
Unfortunately we live in a world where the pharmaceutical companies make more profits than any other industry in the world.
Fish oil has long been promoted and sold as the definitive solution to the western world’s diet that is lacking in essential fatty acids.
But despite the massive promotion, the major medical conditions it is supposed to help, such as cancer and heart disease, have not shown any benefit as a result of consuming fish oil supplements.
The packaging is misleading and the research is biased – mainly because it is sponsored by the companies that sell it!
But while profits continue to soar, fish oil will continue to be sold.
Here’s why I would recommend flaxseed oil over any fish oil supplement:
- Flaxseed oil comes from a sustainable crop, rather than from potentially harmful, mercury-polluted fish or other poisonous metals.
- Flaxseed oil is a natural alternative for vegetarians and vegans or anyone who cannot consume fish products for whatever reason.
- Flaxseed oil contains the essential fatty acids that make up Omega-3 and Omega-6 the body needs in the form of ALA; and in the perfect ratio of 3 to 1.
- Fish oil contains just EPA and DHA – derivatives of ALA and in too high a dose.
- Flaxseed oil is the world’s most abundant food source of omega-3 fatty acids, containing more than twice as much as fish oil.
- Flaxseed oil has a pleasant, nutty taste, whereas fish gives you fishy breath!
- Flaxseed oil is much cheaper than fish oil, and comes from a sustainable source.
- The benefits of flaxseed oil can also be obtained (albeit in smaller quantities) from flaxseeds, which have other health promoting nutrients such as protein, fiber, lignans and vitamins.
flaxseed oil benefits are not as widely documented as fish oil, largely because big pharmacy companies have a vested interest in promoting the higher ‘mark-up’ of fish oil supplements compared to the lesser lucrative flaxseed.
I always believed fish oil supplements were really healthy. But like anything, once you undertake your own research, it is surprising what you discover.
Lower Blood Pressure
More often than not, high blood pressure is a result of a poor diet, stress, and a lack of exercise.
Scientists have confirmed that a diet rich in omega-3, polyunsaturated fats has been shown to reduce high blood pressure.
Flaxseeds (particularly flaxseed oil) are the richest known source of these essential fatty acids and are an excellent natural treatment.
A double-blind experiment on 60 adults confirmed that alpha linolenic acid (ALA) found in flaxseeds, significantly reduced systolic and diastolic blood pressure readings.
Just one tablespoon of flaxseed oil or 1 tablespoons of ground flaxseed every day, will provide you with enough ALA to help lower high blood pressure.
You could obviously help to reduce high blood pressure even more, by reducing stress in your life, exercising more and eating healthier food.
Helps Lower High Cholesterol
When people seek professional help to lower high cholesterol, they are often advised to take statin drugs. My mum is one of those who take statins and I wish she would come off them.
This view-point seems to be a doctors ‘standard practice’ when it comes to treating high cholesterol, and is another example of ‘Big Pharma’ making trillions of dollars off the back of unnecessary and potentially harmful drugs.
There was a study involving 40 patients with high cholesterol levels – more than 6.2 mmol (Europe) / L240 mg/dL (USA).
Half the group was given 20 grams of ground flaxseed per day and the other half was treated using statin drugs.
After 60 days both groups showed a reduction in LDL and HDL cholesterol but with virtually no difference in the levels of reduction between the two.
Flaxseed did the same job as statins but without any side effects and at a fraction of the cost!
If your cholesterol level is higher than you would like, then try eating flaxseed (approx 2 – 3 tablespoons a day) for a few months.
After this time, check your levels again. All things equal, I bet you see a reduction.
This is a lot of ground flaxseed to consume, but it is a natural food source, and certainly beats taking potentially dangerous statin drugs.
If this alone isn’t reason to start eating flaxseed, I don’t know what is! Plus a year’s worth of flaxseed costs less than £100 compared to £2000+ for statin drugs.
Antioxidant Rich Lignans
Flaxseeds contain high amounts of lignans which are a chemical compound found in plants.
They are a powerful antioxidant that help fight against harmful ‘free radicals’. Free radicals are attributed to a number of diseases, including cancer.
Certain cancers that need natural estrogen to thrive have been shown to slowdown in growth and stopped altogether when high levels of lignans are introduced into the body.
Studies by the US Food and Drug Administration, the American Cancer Society and the Mayo Clinic have all recognized that lignans contain powerful anti-cancer properties that may be linked to a lower rate of breast and colon cancer.
Here are some more lignan related facts:
- Lignans are primarily found in the flax seed, although good quality flaxseed oil such as Barlean’s Highest Lignan Flax Oil retain good measures of lignans which can otherwise be lost in the processing of the oil.
- Lignans ward off the ill effects of certain bacteria and fungi.
- Lignans contain anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties.
- Flaxseeds have the highest concentration of lignans than any other plant source – up to 800% more than any other vegetables or grains.
Many popular (and believed to be healthy) food sources such as margarine, animal fats and vegetable oils, like sunflower oil, are particularly high in omega-6.
Omega-6 acts as a pro-inflammatory, whereas omega-3 is recognized as a good anti-inflammatory.
The omega-3 fats found in flaxseeds help to reduce inflammation that is a significant factor in conditions such as arthritis, osteoporosis and asthma.
The need to ensure a better balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fats in our diet also correlates to the amount of bone loss we suffer.
Studies have revealed that bone loss is significantly less in people who consumed more anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids in their diet.
There is growing evidence to suggest many brain conditions such as ADHD and depression can be linked to a deficiency of healthy fatty acids such as those found in flaxseed oil.
Around one fifth of the brain is made up of fatty acids, so it should be reasonable to expect that a lack of omega-3 in our diets could have some detrimental effect.
There is a lot of research linking low levels of omega-3 fatty acids to numerous psychiatric conditions, and many indications that omega-3 fatty acids can improve the mental function of people in their elder years.
Dry Eye Symptoms
Dry eye syndrome (DES), known as keratoconjunctivitis sicca is a result of inadequate water in the middle layer of the tear.
However, the symptoms of DES can often be brought on due to a lack of protection from the outer layer of the tear (the oily part).
Essential fatty acids in the form of omega-3 are needed to supply the outer tear film with the necessary fats to protect the water layer.
Consuming flaxseed oil on a daily basis could very well reduce or even eliminate the symptoms of dry-eye syndrome.
These finding are backed up by the American Optometric Association (AOA):
There is a lot of help and some excellent resources online that you can turn to for advice, such as The Dry Eye Zone.
This is a comprehensive resource dedicated to dry eye problems with a lot of treatment suggestions, and a forum where fellow suffers can share their experiences.
Here’s what they say about the use of flaxseed oil and omega-3:
“It is widely believed that omega-3 essential fatty acids, of which North Americans in particular are believed to have a very low dietary intake normally, may have benefits for keeping the tear production system healthy.”
They recommend flaxseed oil and/or fish oil be consumed to treat patients with ‘dry eye’, and acknowledge this form of supplementation as a “common additional treatment”.
Here’s a great little video of a guy from the UK who has Bells Palsy and suffers from dry eyes.
He has tried everything in relation to his condition and says that taking flaxseed oil has definitely helped his eyes.
A popular book on the subject is The Dry Eye Remedy: The Complete Guide to Restoring the Health and Beauty of Your Eyes by Robert Latkany MD ‘The complete guide to restoring the health and beauty if your eyes’.
It has very good reviews on Amazon from people who have benefited from the book.
Healthier Skin, Hair and Nails
Flaxseed oil has been shown to improve the condition of the skin, hair and nails.
Applying the oil to the skin has shown to reduce scar tissue, and can help to reduce and totally eliminate sun spots.
Flaxseed gel (FSG) is a by-product of the flaxseed, which consists of healthy compounds including vitamins, minerals, protein and fiber. So it’s no wonder it will benefit your hair and scalp!
The gel cannot be ready-bought from a store as a hair treatment product. The only way you can benefit from the healthy, natural properties of flax gel, is to make it yourself.
The good news is; homemade flaxseed gel is far superior to nearly every store-bought hair product. Here’s why:
- It is easy and quick to make.
- It is a 100% natural product.
- You can add your own favorite ingredients to the recipe to make an amazing, personalized hair product.
- It is cheap to make.
- It will last for weeks if kept in the refrigerator.
A lot of people are starting to use FSG on their hair due to the ‘natural’ element of it.
The moisturising properties of the gel give the hair a soft hold without the flakes or dryness.
It works especially well to enhance curls.
There is no evidence to suggest there are any concerns or possible side effects through eating flaxseed or consuming flax oil.
Obviously if you consume more than the recommended daily amount of flaxseed (a couple of tablespoons a day, or around 30 grams) you may experience some side-effects, especially as flaxseed oil is high in soluble and non-soluble dietary fiber.
These symptoms commonly appear as diarrhea or loose stools but nothing more serious than that.
Pregnant women should naturally be cautious while taking flaxseed oil or any type of supplement for that matter, and always consult with a medical expert.
Buying and Eating Flaxseed/Oil
Whole Grain Flaxseed is simply the seed as it is cultivated from the pod of the flax plant.
It is sold totally unprocessed or refined in any way.
It is cheaper to buy flaxseed this way and the flaxseeds have a much longer shelf-life.
Their natural, protective shell will keep the kernel fresh, and if stored in a cool, dark place such as a pantry or the refrigerator, whole flaxseed will stay fresh for at least 12 months.
This is how I buy mine and it really does last ages.
Lots of bread/muffin recipes and similar foods include the addition of whole flaxseed.
If flaxseed is consumed as ‘whole seeds’ i.e. pre-milled, (as you’ll often find on specialty breads), the seeds will generally pass straight through the intestinal tract and out of the body without any of the healthy nutrients being absorbed.
The shell needs to be split in order for the body to benefit from these nutrients and oils; and the easiest way to do this is through grinding or milling.
Here’s a quick video that shows how easy it is to grind your own flaxseed..
Grinding Your Own
I actually enjoy the process of grinding my own flaxseed, as and when I need it.
I sometimes grind some to store in an airtight jar and keep it in the refrigerator for a few weeks.
Once ground flaxseed is exposed to air it will turn rancid unless stored in a dark, airtight container, preferably in the refrigerator or the freezer.
Doing so will keep it fresh for around 3 months – so still quite a long shelf life if you use it daily.
Ground flaxseed is also more expensive than whole flaxseed due to the cold milled processing and storing.
Buy a good quality coffee/spice grinder and you’ll have fresh, ground flaxseed within seconds!
I bought a great coffee/spice grinder from Amazon for less than £20 ($25) and it has been used constantly for well over 2 years now.
It is also the same grinder used in the video above.
Here’s the link to the grinder I use – Krups 203-42 Electric Coffee and Spice Grinder .
By grinding flaxseed yourself, you can decide how crunchy or fine you want it. Some people prefer a more crunchy taste, whereas others like a finely ground powder.
Consuming flaxseed this way enables you to grind it as you use it. You will also get the maximum benefits from all the nutrients, and obtain the freshest (i.e the least oxidized and damaged) fatty acids.
Ground flaxseed is also referred to as ‘flaxseed meal’ or ‘milled flaxseed’.
Don’t be confused by the different terminology as there is no difference between the phrases; they are products resulting from flaxseed being ground-down or milled, to produce a fine powder.
The benefits of ground flaxseed when bought from stores simply saves you the trouble of grinding them yourself.
Ground flaxseed still contains the healthy fatty acids and nutrients of whole flaxseed, but once opened, will not keep for as long as whole flaxseed.
Stored in a dark container, ground flaxseed will keep in the refrigerator for around 3 months. It will keep even longer if stored in the freezer.
If you still prefer to buy the convenience of flaxseed already ground for you, then I recommend Bob’s Red Mill Organic Flaxseed Meal – also available from Amazon.
If you buy flaxseed oil, make sure you use it as an addition to your cooked or prepared food.
Cooking with it can actually turn it into a ‘bad’ fat and strip it of its nutrients.
Add it instead to dishes like salads, yoghurt, cottage cheese, soups and smoothie drinks.
I eat lots of salads and often drizzle a little flaxseed oil over the top. It gives it a really delicious, nutty flavor.
Fact: Flaxseed oil taken with a meal can actually increase the nutritional value of other foods.
There’s also nothing wrong in just drinking it from the spoon. You might want to drink some fruit juice afterwards if the taste is too strong for you.
One of the best flaxseed oil products on the market at the moment is Barlean’s High Lignan Flax Oil.
The great reviews it has on Amazon speaks for itself.
Flaxseed oil capsules and soft gels are also a popular choice and offer an easy and convenient form whilst still providing high quantities of Omega-3.
How To Use Flaxseed in Your Diet
Adding flaxseed to your daily diet is so easy to do.
The taste is subtle, and the crunchy nutty flavor can be added to virtually any meal.
Here are just a few suggestions that I’ve personally used.
Add flaxseed to:
- Baked goods, such as bread and muffins.
- Cereals (great in hot porridge)
- Smoothies (makes an awesome protein shake).
- Over a pizza
Just about anything edible to boost its nutritive value and add a pleasant nutty taste.
You could even coat fish or homemade chicken nuggets in ground flaxseed and oven bake for a delicious family treat.
Hopefully you’re feeling the love for flaxseed!
If you care about your health, this is a ‘no-brainer’. Go get some, and try it.
In part 2, I answer a lot of the common questions regarding flaxseed and flaxseed oil.
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