Flax: A Superseed With Bountiful Health Benefits

Used for both food and medicine since 3000 BC, flax has been called one of the most powerful plant foods on the planet. In the 8th Century, King Charlemagne was such a passionate believer in its benefits that he passed laws requiring citizens to eat it, to protect their health.

Now, scientists have confirmed that this royal endorsement was merited, since flax really does have disease-fighting properties. Also known as linseed, flax contains three primary health-boosting components:

    • Fiber. Each tablespoon contains about 8 grams of fiber, which helps promote digestive health. What’s more, eating a fiber-rich diet could also add years to your life, according to a study of nearly 400,000 people, conducted by the National Institutes of Health and American Association of Retired People (AARP). The researchers found that men and women, ages 50 and older, who ate the most fiber were up to 56 percent less likely to die from cardiovascular disease, the leading killer of Americans, infectious disease, and respiratory conditions, compared to those who ate the least.

      Another large study also estimated that more than 64,000 cases of cancer could be prevented each year if we upped our fiber intake. Flaxseed–but not the oil–contains both soluble and insoluble fiber.

    • Omega-3 fatty acids. Both flaxseed and its oil are rich in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid that may help reduce risk for heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease, arthritis, and a variety of other health problems. However, flaxseed oil doesn’t replace fish oil, which contains two essential–and particularly beneficial–long chain omega-3 fatty acids: DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (ecosapentaenoic acid). ALA is a short chain fatty acid that must be converted to DHA and EPA in the body for beneficial effects.

      In animal studies and lab tests, flaxseed oil was found to cut cholesterol, but human studies have had mixed results. However, there’s evidence that people who eat flaxseed have a lower risk for a fatal heart attack, University of Maryland Medical Center reports.

      Here’s another benefit: In a small 3-month study, the high omega-3 content of flaxseed oil relieved symptoms of dry eye, such as itching, burning and eye fatigue. Research also suggests that omega-3 fatty acids may lower risk for age-related macular degeneration and cataracts.

    • Ligands. Compared to other plants, flaxseed (but not oil) is extremely rich in compounds called ligands, which have antioxidant and plant estrogen properties. Flaxseed-derived ligands have been shown to reduce blood sugar and may also help combat some forms of cancer: In animal and lab studies, flaxseed inhibited growth and spread of breast cancer, prostate cancer and melanoma (the deadliest form of skin cancer), Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center reports.

Flax also has been shown to reduce tumor biomarkers in men with prostate cancer and women with breast cancer. Animal studies suggest that the superseed’s ligands may slow the growth of colon cancer, but the effects on people haven’t yet been investigated.

Because flax has phytoestrogen effects, it should be used with caution by women who have estrogen receptor positive breast cancer, oncologists warn. In addition, flaxseed may interact with certain medications. It’s always wise to check with a healthcare provider before taking any supplement, to make sure it’s appropriate for you.

 

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