The Healing Miracle of Flax
by Prevention Magazine1
A field of flax in full purple bloom? Irresistible! A bag of little flaxseeds in a health food store? Until now, a tough sell. But that's about to change. With its healing powers, flax is the next nutritional superstar. In fact, shoppers may start making flaxseed an essential additive to their diets!
Stocked inside this tiny little seed are two impressive compounds--lignans and alpa-linolenic acid--which appear to help us battle heart attacks, breast and colon cancers, arthritis, severe menstrual cramps, even depression. What's mind-boggling is that flaxseed has more of these two compounds than any other food--by far!
In fact, top flaxseed researcher Stepen Cunnane, PhD, of the University of Toronto, says, "There's nobody who won't benefit from adding flaxseed to his or her diet."
Should You Add Flaxseed to Your Diet?
"Absolutely," says Kenneth Setchell, PhD, of Children's Hospital Medical Center, in Cincinnati. In terms of safety, flaxseed has been consumed since the Stone Age--a rather venerable track record. Here's how flax can benefit your overall health.
You'll fiber up your diet. It's amazing how much fiber a little flax contains. Just 1/4 cup of ground flaxseed delivers 6 g. of fiber, as much fiber as 1-1/2 cups of cooked oatmeal! Studies prove that when flaxseed is added to the diet, levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL, the bad cholesterol) drop, while levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL, the beneficial cholesterol) stay put, probably due to all that fiber (including the soluble kind). Regularity improves, as well.
And most Americans need more fiber. We average less that 15 g a day, about half of the amount that health authorities recommend to help reduce the risk of colon cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
You'll load up on lignans. Here's where the flaxseed story starts racking up major points. Lignans are tantalizing plant-based compounds that can shrink existing breast- and colon-cancer tumors and can stop new ones from getting started--at least in test-tube and animal studies. And flaxseed has staggering lignan levels. Many plant foods have some lignans, but flaxseed has at least 75 times more than any other. To get the lignans that are in just 1/4 cup of flaxseed, you'd need to eat about 60 cups of fresh broccoli or 100 slices of whole wheat bread.
The discovery of flaxseed as a lignan storehouse came by sheer chance, says Setchell. In a study, he and his colleagues unexpectedly found lignan levels in one patient several hundred times higher than had ever been seen before. The patient, it turned out, baked his own bread and always added flaxseed. So flaxseed studies began.
Currently underway at the University of Toronto is the first study testing lignans against cancer in humans. One hundred women with breast cancer will eat a daily muffin with 25 g. of flaxseed to see if it will reduce the growth of their tumors between the time of diagnosis and surgery, according to Lilian Thompson, PhD, who leads the study. Important: Muffins are not a substitute for medical treatment. If you have breast cancer, seek or continue conventional care.
In a blind taste test among 90 college students, muffins and cookies with ground flaxseed in the recipe won out over plain muffins and cookies for flavor, tenderness, and color!
You'll add alpa-linolenic acid to your diet. Mounting evidence says that eating more omega-3 fats helps ward off fatal heart attacks, autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, severe menstrual cramps, and maybe even depression. Yet modern diets--even healthy ones--are routinely deficient in omega-3s.
Once again, flaxseed turns out to be a mega-source, this time for the plant version of omega-3, called alpha-linolenic acid. The oil in flaxseed is about 50% alpha-linolenic acid. Canola and walnut oils, the next highest sources, have about10%. But most foods have far less. It would take 25 cups of peanut butter, for example, to get the alpha-linolenic acid in just 1/4 cup of ground flaxseed. Although the animal version of omega-3 fat, found in fish oil, packs the most punch, research confirms that alpha-linolenic acid confers omega-3 benefits too. So if you're a vegetarian, or you don't eat fish regularly, says Cunnane, flaxseed is your best omega-3 bet.
To get the most omega-3s, look for flaxseed oil in natural food stores. But to get the entire flax arsenal--omega-3s plus lignans and fiber--look for products that deliver the entire flaxseed. Note: You can use flaxseed, but not flaxseed oil, for baking; under sustained heat, flaxseed oil (added as a separate ingredient) oxidizes and should not be consumed.
If you prefer to buy whole flaxseed, for maximum health benefits it should be ground in a coffee grinder or food processor--any whole seeds not crushed by your teeth in chewing will pass through your body undigested. Use freshly ground flaxseed promptly.
1Excerpt from Supplement to Prevention Magazine 2004 by Rodale, Inc.