A rich source of healing oil, flaxseed has been cultivated for more than 7000 years. Among the oil's most important uses are the prevention and treatment of cancer, heart disease, and a variety of inflammatory disorders and hormone-related problems.
What it is?
It began as a fibre for weaving – and it remains the basis of natural linen fabric. However, the medicinal properties of flaxseed quickly became legendary. A slender annual that grows up to a metre high and bears blue flowers from late winter to early spring, the flax plant was first grown in Europe, then taken to North America. Flaxseeds (also known as linseeds) are now grown commercially in Australia and New Zealand. Both the oil and the seeds themselves are used for therapeutic purposes.
What it does?
Flaxseeds are a potent source of essential fatty acids (EFAs) – fats and oils critical to health, which the body cannot make on its own. One EFA, alpha-linolenic acid, is known as an omega-3 fatty acid. Found in fish and flaxseeds, omega-3s have been acclaimed in recent years for protecting against heart disease and for treating many other ailments. Flaxseeds also contain omega-6 fatty acids (in the form of linolenic acid) – the same healthy fats present in many vegetable oils. In addition, flaxseeds provide substances called lignans, which appear to have beneficial effects on various hormones and may help to fight cancer, bacteria, viruses and fungi. Gram for gram, flaxseeds boast up to 800 times the lignans in most other foods.
EFAs work throughout the body to protect cell membranes – the outer coverings that are gatekeepers for all cells, admitting healthy nutrients and barring damaging substances. That function explains why flaxseed oil has such far-reaching effects.
Flaxseed oil works to lower cholesterol, thereby protecting against heart disease. It may be beneficial in treating angina and high blood pressure as well. A recent five-year study at Simmons College in Boston indicated that it may be useful in preventing a second heart attack. As an anti-inflammatory, it is an aid in the treatment of such conditions as lupus and gout. As a digestive aid, it can help to prevent or even dissolve gallstones. Flaxseed oil also boosts the health of hair and nails and speeds up the healing of skin lesions, so it is effective for everything from acne to sunburn. In addition, it may facilitate the transmission of nerve impulses, making it potentially useful for numbness and tingling, as well as for chronic brain and nerve ailments, such as Parkinson's or Alzheimer's disease, or nerve damage from diabetes. It may even help to fight fatigue.
Crushed flaxseeds are an excellent natural source of fibre. They add bulk to stools, and their oil also lubricates the stools, making flaxseeds useful for the relief of constipation and diverticular complaints.
Flaxseed oil seems to have cancer-fighting properties, though further studies are needed. It may reduce the risk of breast, colon, prostate and possibly skin cancers, and studies at the University of Toronto found it may help treat women with both early and advanced breast cancer.
Because flaxseeds contain plant-based oestrogens (phyto-oestrogens) that mimic the female sex hormone oestrogen, the oil can have beneficial effects on the menstrual cycle, balancing the ratio of oestrogen to progesterone. It helps to improve uterine function, and can therefore treat fertility problems. As an anti-inflammatory, flaxseed oil can reduce menstrual cramps or the pain of cyclic breast disorder.
Flaxseed oil can promote well-being in men as well. It has shown some promise in treating male infertility and prostate problems. In some studies, flaxseeds were also found to possess antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral properties, which may partly explain why flaxseed oil is effective against ailments such as cold sores and shingles.
- Helps to protect against cancer, heart disease, cataracts and gallstones.
- Reduces inflammation associated with gout and lupus.
- Promotes healthy skin, hair and nails; relieves acne, eczema, psoriasis, rosacea and sunburn.
- May be useful for infertility, impotence, menstrual cramps and endometriosis.
- Helps to treat nerve disorders.
- Relieves constipation, gallstones and diverticular disorders.
- Soft gel.
- Some people are allergic to flaxseed. If you experience difficulty in breathing after taking the supplement, seek immediate medical attention.
- Always take ground flaxseed with plenty of water (a large glass per tablespoon) to prevent it from swelling up and blocking your throat or digestive tract.
- Reminder: If you have a medical condition, talk to your doctor before taking supplements.
How to take it?
Liquid flaxseed oil is the easiest way to get a therapeutic amount, which ranges from 1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon once or twice a day. To get just 1 teaspoon of the oil in capsule form, you'll need to swallow about 5 capsules, each containing 1000 mg of oil. For flaxseed fibre, mix 1 or 2 tablespoons of ground flaxseeds with a glass of water and drink it up to three times a day; the treatment may take a day or so to act.
Guidelines for use:
Take flaxseed oil with food, which enhances absorption by the body. you can also mix it with juice, yoghurt, cottage cheese, or other foods and drinks.
Possible side effects
Flaxseed oil appears to be very safe. Those using the ground seeds may experience some flatulence initially, but this should soon disappear.
Facts and Tips
- Flaxseed oil has a nutty, buttery taste that many people enjoy. You can add it to salad dressings or sprinkle it over foods; a teaspoon contains 140 kilo joules. But don't cook with it, because heat breaks down its nutrients; rather, add it to foods after they're cooked.
- Capsules are a costly way to take the oil: about five are needed to equal 1 teaspoon of oil. But capsules may sometimes be more convenient.
- Flaxseed oil spoils quickly, so always check the expiry date on the label. To ensure freshness, keep it refrigerated. Don't use oil that has a strong or pungent odour.
- Buy oil that is packaged in a brown glass bottle. Even though it's more expensive, 'cold-pressed' oil is preferable; when oils are heated during processing, their nutrients are damaged by oxidation.
- Flaxseed oil is also called linseed oil – but never ingest the industrial varieties sold at hardware shops. They are not intended for consumption and may contain toxic additives.
Did you know?
A teaspoon of flaxseed oil contains about 2.5 g of omega-3 fatty acids – more than twice the amount found in the average Australian or New Zealand diet.