Flax Seeds - Full of Healthy Nutrients

Flax Seeds - Full of Healthy Nutrients

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Flax seeds - versatile, inexpensive & packed full of health giving nutrients


Flax seeds may be tiny but they pack a punch in terms of health benefits and flavour and are easy to fit into your daily diet.

Containing a range of health supportive nutrients they are a useful addition to your weekly shopping list.

We always take an evidence-based approach, with actionable knowledge and tips to help you on your journey to optimal health, so let’s take a closer look at this tiny seed. 

Flax seed or Linum usitatissimum is derived from the flax plant and has been grown for millennia.

It is also commonly called linseed.

According to historical records, people throughout the world have celebrated its usefulness as far back as 3000 B.C.E. 

It is thought to have originated in Egypt and was first brought to North America by early colonists.

Flax was first introduced and planted in Canada in the seventeenth century and is now produced world-wide.

However Canada is currently the largest producer of this extremely beneficial seed, representing about 40% of global production.

Linum usitatissimum

The Latin name for flax seed translates to ‘very useful’ which is apt given its versatility. 

From a practical and commercial viewpoint, every part of the plant is utilised either directly after harvesting, or after it’s been processed.

It comes in two basic varieties - brown and yellow (or golden); brown flax is better known for its use as an ingredient in varnish, paints, cattle feed and fibre.

The stem of the flax plant provides very strong and durable fibres which were used historically up until the 1990s to produce cloth and paper.

The oil and its by-products were used in the production of animal feed.

In recent years interest in flaxseeds as a functional food with multiple health benefits has increased as researchers have identified some of its biologically active components. 

Flax seeds have a range of nutritional characteristics and are a particularly rich source of an omega-3 fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).

They also provide:

  • polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs)
  • lignans
  • proteins
  • soluble and insoluble fibres
  • phenolic compounds
  • numerous antioxidants
  • vitamins A, C & E and a range of minerals

Omega-3 fatty acids are particularly important to human health - as our bodies are unable to manufacture them they have to be consumed from dietary sources. 

They have two primary functions in the body:

  1. As structural fats that make up our cell membranes.
  2. As precursors for the production of substances called prostaglandins which are involved in controlling many physiological activities including blood clotting, blood pressure and immunity.

 

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The conversion of omega-3 to the active substances EPA and DHA


In order for ALAs to be used as a precursor to prostaglandin, they first have to be converted to eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic (DHA).

This depends upon the activity of an enzyme called delta-6-desaturase, which in some individuals is less available or less active than others.

The function of delta-6-desaturase is also inhibited by the consumption of saturated fats and alcohol as well as in people with nutrient deficiencies or diabetes.

It was once thought that plant sourced omega-3s were poorly converted in the body compared to fish oils, which provide EPA and DHA without the need for conversion.

However recent research has found that although more flax seed oil is needed (3.6g of flax seed oil vs 0.6 of fish oil), flax oil is still able to significantly raise EPA in the cells at a level of consumption achievable in a normal diet. 

Furthermore a 2010 dietary study concluded that non-fish eaters may have compensatory mechanisms in the body that boost their conversion of ALA from plant foods into EPA and DHA.

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The importance of the omega-3/omega-6 ratio in the diet


Evidence suggests that humans evolved on a diet with an equal balance of omega-6 to omega-3.

However over the centuries, human consumption of vegetable oils from sunflower seeds, corn, soybeans, safflower seeds and cotton seeds has increased and the western diet now typically has a ratio of 20:1, or even higher, of omega-6 to omega-3.

This suggests that nowadays we are likely to be deficient in omega-3 fatty acids in comparison to our ancestors.

Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids have different metabolic functions and at times have important opposing physiological effects in the body, so maintaining the correct balance in the diet is extremely important. 

Excessive levels of omega-6 and a very high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 as is found in today’s modern diet is thought to be a contributing factor towards the progression of many diseases, including cardiovascular disease and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.

Many government and public health authorities recommend increasing omega-3 fatty acids in the diet.

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The impressive nutrient profile of flax seeds


Protein

Although flaxseed is not considered a ‘complete protein’, it is an excellent source of protein, containing between 20 to 30%, and has an amino acid profile comparable to that of soybean.

It is a rich source of glutamic acid, glutamine, leucine, valine, tyrosine, phylalanine and arginine and is free from gluten.

Lignans

The plant lignans found in flaxseeds are phenolic compounds that act as both antioxidants and phytoestrogens.

Phyto (plant) oestrogens are structurally and functionally similar to the female hormone oestrogens and under certain circumstances show some of the same activities, although they exert a much weaker effect on the human body.

Flax is an exceptionally rich source of lignans, containing up to 800 times more than other plant foods.

The phenolic compounds found in flax are converted by bacteria in the gut into lignans.

Minerals

The mineral content of flax includes magnesium, potassium, iron, copper, zinc, sodium, phosphorous, manganese and copper.

It has a particularly high content of potassium comparative to, for example, a banana.

A high potassium intake has been associated with a reduced risk of stroke and blood clotting.

Fibre

Throughout history, flax seed has been popularly used as a laxative.

It is high in both soluble and insoluble dietary fibre and a gummy material called mucilage.

These substances expand when they come into contact with water, so they add bulk to the stool enabling it to move more rapidly through the gastrointestinal tract, thereby acting as an effective laxative in cases of constipation.

Research has shown that 6-24g of flax seeds taken daily for 3 months is more effective than psyllium in managing constipation, bloating and pain in individuals with IBS.

Oil/lipid content

Apart from being a rich source of omega-3s as noted above, flax is also low in saturated fatty acids (9%), has a moderate amount of monounsaturated fats (18%) and more than 70% is of the healthful polyunsaturated type.

In fact, a unique feature of flax is the high ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids.

PUFAs are considered essential as they cannot be made by humans and must be consumed in the diet.

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Health Benefits


The growing popularity of flaxseeds is thanks to recognition of its many health benefits.

These are attributed to its high content of omega-3, its rich source of soluble and insoluble fibre and its high lignin content, offering antioxidant and phytoestrogen support.

Additionally, scientific research has found it exhibits anti-inflammatory activities.

Results from available research also promote the use of flaxseeds for alleviating menopausal symptoms and reducing cardiovascular disease, as well its laxative effects and bone supportive properties.

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Cardiovascular Health

Evidence from research shows that flax seeds may help to support heart health by lowering total cholesterol levels by 5-9% and LDL ('bad') cholesterol by 8-18%.

Flax seeds may also help to reduce levels of apolipoprotein A-1 and apolipoprotein B, which are indicators for coronary heart disease, by 6% and & 5% respectively.

Additionally flax seeds have been found to decrease the inflammation markers - C-reactive protein, serum amyloid A and interleukin-6.

Flaxseeds may also help to lower blood pressure and the production of unfavourable thromoboanes and fibrinogen.

These compounds help to control the tendency of blood platelets to stick together forming clots. Individuals at high risk of coronary heart disease and stroke have been found to produce excessive amounts of thromboxane and fibrinogen.

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Blood Pressure Benefits

Evidence from Canadian research suggests that flaxseed proteins may help to reduce blood pressure.

The flaxseed proteins have been shown to inhibit ‘angiotensin converting enzymes’, which cause blood vessels to constrict.

The implications from the Canadian study are that flax seeds could prevent vasoconstriction and therefore help maintain normal blood pressure.

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Symptoms of Menopause

As we have seen, flax seeds contain a class of phytoestrogens known as lignans.

These are transformed by bacteria in the gut into enterodiol and enterolactone, both of which are structurally similar to oestrogen and produce weak oestrogenic and anti-oestrogenic effects.

Clinical research has identified that taking 40g flaxseeds daily significantly reduces symptoms of hot flushes by about 35% and night sweats by about 44%.

During the menopause many women can experience low mood and depression, often due to hormonal changes.

Several studies have identified that omega-3 fatty acids can help to reduce symptoms of depression.

Omega-3 fatty acids influence the fluidity of cell membranes, which may have a positive effect on the balance of hormones and neurotransmitters that are commonly dysfunctional in people suffering from depression.

Flaxseeds provide an excellent source of hormone balancing omega-3s for vegetarians or those that don’t eat oily fish.

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Pre-Menstrual-Syndrome (PMS)

The presence of ALA makes flaxseed useful in alleviating symptoms of PMS.

Phytoestrogens present in flaxseed help to regulate heavy periods by balancing eostrogen levels in the body.

Flaxseeds may also reduce the breast pain associated with menstruation.

However, flaxseed oil is not effective because lignans are only present in the hull of flaxseed.

Mood swings are frequent problems associated with PMS which may also be diminished by eating flaxseeds regularly.

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Bone Health

The risk of developing osteoporosis is four times greater in women than men, partly due to the drop in bone protective hormones post menopause.

Diabetes can also increase the likelihood of developing osteoporosis because it interferes with osteoblast activity - these are the cells that help to maintain bone strength.

Results from animal studies suggest that the addition of flaxseed oil to the diet may help to reduce the risk of osteoporosis in post-menopausal women and women suffering with diabetes.

Some research suggests that the omega-3 fatty acids in flaxseed oil may somehow help to protect formation and mineralisation of the bone matrix, which appear to be compromised by diabetes and the menopause.

 

Easy ways to enjoy flax in your diet


Flaxseeds have a warm and earthy flavour with a subtle nutty edge meaning they lend themselves well to many recipes.

It’s perfectly safe to use whole flax seeds or ground flax seeds for cooking, however, grinding the seeds enhances their digestibility and therefore nutritional value.

Whole or ground flaxseeds are stable at temperatures used for baking.

You can also add ground or whole flaxseeds to meals such as casseroles, curries and soups, but bear in mind that adding them to cooked foods will thicken any liquid because of the fibre content.

The seeds can also be sprinkled on salads or vegetables to add a nuttier flavour or mixed into yogurt and smoothies.

Try using flaxseed oil instead of other oils in dressings, as dipping oil for bread, or to drizzle over steamed vegetables.

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Storing flax seeds


It is best to purchase flaxseeds in packaged form - preferably refrigerated, making sure there is no evidence of moisture.

Whole flax/linseeds should be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dark dry cupboard. 

This way they stay fresh for several months. If you buy ground flax/linseeds, look for seeds that are in a vacuum-packed container or that have been refrigerated.

Once ground the seeds are far more prone to oxidation and can deteriorate.

Keep ground flax/linseeds in a tightly sealed package in the refrigerator or freezer to prevent rancidity.

If stored in the fridge they will maintain freshness for 6 months - in the freezer they will stay fresh for a year.

Always choose cold-pressed flaxseed oil in an opaque bottle that has been refrigerated.

Flaxseed oil should have a sweet nutty flavour. It is not suitable for use as oil in cooking but can be added as a dressing to previously cooked foods.

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Toxicity


Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. 

Taking flaxseed by mouth during pregnancy is possibly unsafe because of its ability to acts like the hormone oestrogen - some medical experts worry this might harm the pregnancy or baby via the breast milk. There is no reliable clinical evidence, however it is best avoided when pregnant or breastfeeding.

Medications.

There is evidence that flaxseeds may interfere with some prescription drugs. Always check with your GP first.

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Savoury Flax Crackers (Recipe!) 


Love crackers but trying to cut back on grains?

Try this recipe that is grain free and dairy free.

Makes: 5 trays of 36 crackers per tray

 

INGREDIENTS 


  • 700 mls carrot pulp, or chopped red bell pepper or courgette, or a mix (see note)
  • 180 grams cups sun-dried tomato powder
  • 240 mls purified water, plus additional water to thin as needed
  • 1 small chopped onion
  • 4 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 2 ½teaspoons solar-dried sea salt
  • 2 teaspoons lemon juice
  • 2 teaspoons dried Italian seasoning
  • 2 handfuls of minced fresh herbs (basil, parsley, dill, and/or oregano)
  • 200 grams flaxseeds, ground
  • 200 grams flaxseeds, soaked 8 to 12 hours in 4 cups purified water (do not rinse or drain)

 

METHOD


  1. Combine the vegetables, sun-dried tomato powder, water, onion, garlic, salt, lemon juice, and dried
    Italian seasoning in a food processor outfitted with the “S” blade , and process until smooth. If the
    mixture is too dry, add a little of the flax seed soak water, and blend until well mixed.
  2. Add the fresh herbs and pulse to mix. The batter should be smooth with a little texture from the
    flecks of herbs.
  3. Transfer the vegetable mixture to a large mixing bowl, add the flaxseeds and flax meal, and stir well
    to combine.
  4. Spread the batter evenly on a dehydrator tray approximately 2-3mls thick on to a non-stick sheet.
  5. Score the crackers into 36 squares per sheet (6×6). Dehydrate at 105 degrees for 12 hours, until
    they are dry enough to turn over.
  6. Flip the crackers onto mesh dehydrator screens, and continue to dehydrate for 24 hours, or until
    they are completely dry and crisp.
  7. Allow the crackers to cool completely, then store them in sealed glass jars for up to three months
    at room temperature. The crackers may also be stored in the fridge or freezer for up to six months.
  8. Note: To create an attractive, multicoloured appearance, use equal portions of brown flax seeds and
    golden flax seeds.

Did you find this article useful? Have you tried flax seeds?

We'd love to hear your thoughts, please share in the comments.

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References

  1. Amin T & Thakur M. (2014). Linum usitatissimum (Flaxseed)–A Multifarious Functional Food. Online International Interdisciplinary Research Journal; 4, (I): 220-238.

  2. Ankit Goyal, Vivek Sharma, Neelam Upadhyay, Sandeep Gill, and Manvesh Sihag Flax and flaxseed oil: an ancient medicine & modern functional food. J Food Sci Technol. 2014; 51(9): 1633–1653.

  3. Azrad, M., Vollmer, R. T., Madden, J., Dewhirst, M., Polascik, T. J., Snyder, D. C., Demark-Wahnefried, W. (2013). Flaxseed-Derived Enterolactone Is Inversely Associated with Tumor Cell Proliferation in Men with Localized Prostate Cancer. Journal of Medicinal Food, 16(4), 357–360.

  4. Barceló-Coblijn G et al. Flaxseed oil and fish-oil capsule consumption alters human red blood cell n-3 fattyacid composition:a multiple-dosing trial comparing 2 sources of n-3 fatty acid. Am J Clin Nutr. 2008; 88(3):801-9.

  5. Denmark-Wahnefried W, et al. Flaxseed supplementation (not dietary fat restriction) reduces prostate cancer proliferation rates in men presurgery. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2008;17(12):3577-3587.

  6. Dodin S, Lemay A, Jacques H etal. The effects of flaxseed dietary supplement on lipid profile, bone mineral density, and symptoms in menopausal women:a randomized, double-blind, wheat germ placebo-controlled clinical trial. JClinEndocrinolMetab.2005;90:1390-7.

  7. Eden J, Mackey R (1998). Phytoestrogens and the menopause. 1, (4):302-8.

  8. Ferretti A et al. Antithromboxane activity of dietary alpha-linolenicacid:a pilotstudy. Prostaglandins Leuk ot Essent FattyAcids.1996:54(6):451-5. 9.

  9. Flax council of America. A Focus on Fatty Acids. [Accessed 24.7.16.]

  10. Grosso, G., Pajak, A., Marventano, S., Castellano, S., Galvano, F., Bucolo, C., Caraci, F. (2014). Role of Omega-3 Fatty Acids in the Treatment of Depressive Disorders: A Comprehensive Meta-Analysis of Randomized Clinical Trials. PLoS ONE, 9(5), e96905.

  11. Harvi et al. Impact of feeding flaxseed oil on delaying the development of osteoporosis in ovariectomized diabetic rats.  J. Food Safety, Nutrition and Public Health, 2009, 2, 189-201.

  12. Rallidis, LS et al. Dietary alphalinolenic acid decreases Creactiveprotein, serum amyloid A and interleukin–6in dyslipidaemic patients. Atherosclerosis.2003:167(2):237-242. 8.

  13. Rodriguez-Leyva D, Weighell W, Edel AL, Lavallee R, Dibrov E, Pinneker R, Maddaford TG, Ramjiawan B, Aliani M, Guzman R, Pierce GN. Potent antihypertensive action of dietary flaxseed in hypertensive patients. Hypertension. 2013;62(6):1081-9.

  14. Simopoulos AP. (2016) An Increase in the Omega-6/Omega-3 Fatty Acid Ratio Increases the Risk for Obesity Nutrients; 8(3): 128.

  15. Simopoulos A P. (2002) The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids. Biomed Pharmacother;56(8):365-79.

  16. Tarpila S et al. Efficacy of ground flaxseed on constipation in patients with irritable bowel syndrome. Curr Top Nutraceutical Res. 2004; 2(2):119-125.

  17. Welch AA, et al. Dietary intake and status of n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in a population of fish-eating and non-fish-eating meat-eaters, vegetarians, and vegans and the precursor-product ratio of á-linolenic acid to long chain n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids:results from the EPIC-Norfolk cohort. AmJClinNutr. 2010; 92:1040-51.

  18. Williams D et al. Flaxseed oil and flaxseed meal reduce the formation of aberrant crypt foci (ACF) in azoxymethane-induced colon cancer in Fisher 344 male rats. Food Chem Toxicol. 2007Jan; 45(1):153-9.

  19. Welch AA, et al. Dietary intake and status of n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in a population of fish-eating and non-fish-eating meat-eaters, vegetarians, and vegans and the precursor-product ratio of á-linolenic acid to long chain n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids:results from the EPIC-Norfolk cohort. AmJClinNutr. 2010; 92:1040-51.

  20. Williams D et al. Flaxseed oil and flaxseed meal reduce the formation of aberrant crypt foci (ACF) in azoxymethane-induced colon cancer in Fisher 344 male rats. Food Chem Toxicol. 2007Jan; 45(1):153-9.

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