Flax Facts: 6 Benefits You Need To Know About Flaxseed

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by Vanessa Monteiro

You may or may not be familiar with the flax plant, but humans have been using it for thousands of years. Up until the 19th century, when cotton gained popularity, flax fibers from the stems were used by many cultural groups to create a variety of textiles. Now, on the brink of a new decade, the world is starting to discover the many health benefits of flaxseed.

Did you know?
Flaxseed or Linum usitatissimum – which literally translates to “very useful” – provides a lot of nutritional value outside of its uses in fabric making.

The blue flowering plant that is grown on the Canadian prairies provides the richest plant-based source of fatty acids (1) as flaxseed oil! In the U.S. it is labeled as a dietary supplement and can be used as a natural laxative. It helps in this way by absorbing water (up to 8x its weight!) while in your intestines and this helps stool to pass more easily. These properties and others are why flaxseed is currently of such great interest to the health community.

field of flaxseed plants

Flax is a blue flowering plant grown on the Canadian prairies and provides the richest plant-based source of fatty acids as flaxseed oil!

The top 6 benefits of flaxseeds

A great source of omega-3s

If you are trying to be proactive about your health, many health professionals suggest the diet is the best place to start. Nutritional experts recommend diets such as the ketogenic diet, where there is a focus on eating foods with higher omega-3 fatty acid levels such as alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) which is found in flaxseed. In general, dietary focus on omega-3s, as well as monosaturated fats, have been shown to have numerous health benefits such as the prevention of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and cognitive decline (2). Additionally, omega-3s can help with cartilage regeneration and support good joint health.

Benefits for your skin

Fatty-acids, such as ALA, are important components to your cellular membrane, the outer casing that provides structure to your cells. Deficiencies of fatty acids have been linked to the development of skin disorders such as senile xerosis and psoriasis (3). Luckily, taking flaxseed oil as a supplement has been shown to significantly improve previously irritated skin in terms of roughness, scaling, and smoothness (4).

Interestingly, studies have discovered that flaxseed improves skin healing when used topically (directly on the skin). Improvements with this treatment have been seen when flaxseed oil was incorporated in a gel to treat carpal tunnel (5), as well as in a preliminary study on mice when incorporated into a treatment balm for cuts on the skin (6).

woman looking into the mirror and applying product to her face

Taking flaxseed oil as a supplement was able to significantly improve previously irritated skin in terms of roughness, scaling, and smoothness.

Keeps your hormones in check

Another characteristic of flaxseed is that it contains high concentrations of a lignan precursor that is converted in your intestine by bacteria into lignans. Though the clinical applications are still under review for the use of lignans, they have known phytoestrogen effects – meaning they can help reduce the side effects of too much estrogen or help with symptoms if you have an estrogen deficiency.

Reducing the risk of some cancers

Some cancers that exist, such as breast or prostate cancer, can be hormone-sensitive. This means they rely on the presence of certain hormones to grow and multiply. Retrospective studies assessing patients with these types of cancer have shown phytoestrogens, like those from flaxseed, may provide a protective effect against hormone-dependent cancers (7).

Contains vitamins & minerals

Flaxseed contains many vitamins and minerals that your body needs, such as calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus. It is a great source, in particular, to these micronutrients given that 4 tbsp (30g) of flaxseed contains 7 – 30 percent of the Recommended Dietary Allowance of these minerals (8). In greatest quantities of the micronutrients in flaxseed are gamma-tocopherols, a form of vitamin E. This fat-soluble, antioxidant vitamin helps your body protect against the damaging effects of free radicals, that can lead to things like cancer if left unmanaged. Tocopherols have also been shown to promote the excretion of sodium which may help with lowering blood pressure and reducing the risk of heart disease (9).

A source of plant proteins

Whether it’s for dietary reasons, or you are just looking to reduce your meat intake, flaxseed can be a great protein source to maintain a well-balanced diet. As a plant-based source, flaxseed is gluten-free (10) and contains about 20 to 30 percent of protein (11). It has a similar profile to soy with high levels of amino acids such as aspartic acid, glutamic acid, leucine, and arginine (12).

flax seeds in a bowl

As a plant-based source, flaxseed is gluten-free and is a great source of protein.

Incorporating flaxseed in your diet

Flaxseed can be purchased and taken in many different forms (whole, bruised, milled) but it is important to have enough water or fluid if you are eating it on its own to prevent any obstruction to your gastrointestinal tract (17). You can incorporate flaxseeds into your food for its nutritional benefit, and to add a satisfying crunch, by using it as a topping in salads or adding it to homemade bread.

Incorporate flaxseed in your diet & know about its nutritional facts (16).

It is more difficult to absorb nutrients from flaxseed when it is whole, due to its protective outer casing. Your body does a better job of absorbing the nutrients without the seed coating, so you benefit more from eating ground or roasted flaxseeds. If you cannot find ground flaxseed, you can grind it yourself using a coffee grinder or blender! Ground (or milled) flaxseed can easily be added to doughs, thick soups, pasta, stews, or incorporated as a filler when making burgers and meatloaves.

For maximum intake of omega-3s, flaxseed oil should be your go to. Flaxseed oil is created by cold-pressing (extraction by pressure) the fats out of the flaxseed which then gives it a higher percentage of the omega-3 ALA than in its ground form. However, as the outer casing of the seed is removed, flaxseed oil will not have the nutritional benefits of its protein, fiber or lignans. When using flaxseed oil, it should not be heated or used for cooking but 1 – 2 tbsp can be added on top of vegetables or salad dressing (13).

Did you know?
Foods fortified with omega-3s often use flaxseed oil for that extra nutritional value. When you buy omega-3 enriched eggs, these eggs are enriched because the laying hens have flaxseed added to their feed (14)!

If you have ground flaxseed or flaxseed oil, it’s important to know that in these forms spoilage is a risk at room temperature. To avoid them going rancid it’s best to keep your flaxseed stored in a tightly sealed container in the fridge (9)(15).

cut up bread with flaxseeds in it

You can incorporate flax seeds into your food for its nutritional benefit and to add a satisfying crunch, by using it as a topping in salads or on homemade breads.

Though our ancestors primarily benefited from flax for its fibrous content, studies are now showing the clear nutritional benefit of flaxseed, in all its forms, to help support a well-balanced diet. In particular, it has been recognized as a great supplement to a variety of food products to boost their fatty acid content while reducing the amount of sugar, salt and saturated fat (15). So now that you know the facts, why not give flax a try!

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  1. Gold Standard: Flaxseed. Clinical Key. Elsevier, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Available from: https://www.clinicalkey.com/#!/content/drug_monograph/6-s2.0-2626. Published August 1, 2017.
  2. Locke, A et al. Diets for Health: Goals and Guidelines. Am Fam Physician. 2018 Jun 1; 97(11): 721-728. PMID: 30215930.
  3. Proksch, E. , Holleran, W. , Menon, G. , Elias, P. and Feingold, K. (1993), Barrier function regulates epidermal lipid and DNA synthesis. British Journal of Dermatology, 128: 473-482. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2133.1993.tb00222.x
  4. De Spirt, S., Stahl, W., Tronnier, H., Sies, H., Bejot, M., Maurette, J., & Heinrich, U. (2008). Intervention with flaxseed and borage oil supplements modulates skin condition in women. British Journal of Nutrition, 101(3), 440-445. doi:10.1017/S0007114508020321
  5. Setayesh, Mohammad et al. A Topical Gel From Flax Seed Oil Compared With Hand Splint in Carpal Tunnel Syndrome: A Randomized Clinical Trial. Journal of evidence-based complementary & alternative medicine vol. 22,3 (2016): 462-467. doi:10.1177/2156587216677822
  6. de Souza Franco, Eryvelton et al. Effect of a Semisolid Formulation of Linum usitatissimum L. (Linseed) Oil on the Repair of Skin Wounds. Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine: eCAM vol. 2012 (2011): 270752. doi:10.1155/2012/270752
  7. Calado, Ana et al. The Effect of Flaxseed in Breast Cancer: A Literature Review. Frontiers in nutrition vol. 5 4. 7 Feb. 2018, doi:https://doi.org/10.3389/fnut.2018.0000
  8. Singh KK, Mridula D, Rehal J, Barnwal P. Flaxseed: a potential source of food, feed and fiber. See comment in PubMed Commons below Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2011; 51: 210-222. doi: 10.1080/10408390903537241
  9. Bernacchia R, Preti R and Vinci G. Chemical Composition and Health Benefits of Flaxseed. Austin J Nutri Food Sci. 2014;2(8): 1045. ISSN: 2381-8980
  10. Oomah BD. Flaxseed as a functional food source. J Sci Food Agric. 2001;81(9):889–894. doi: 10.1002/jsfa.898
  11. Clifford Hall, Mehmet C. Tulbek, Yingying Xu. Flaxseed. Advances in Food and Nutrition Research. Academic Press. Volume 51, 2006, Pages 1-97. doi: 10.1016/S1043-4526(06)51001-0
  12. Oomah, B. Dave & Mazza, Giuseppe. (1993). Flaxseed proteins A review. Food Chemistry. 48. 109–114. doi: 10.1016/0308-8146(93)90043-F
  13. Rakel, D. (2017, April 13). Integrative Medicine 4th Edition. Retrieved April 30, 2019, from https://www.elsevier.com/books/integrative-medicine/9780323358682
  14. Flax Council of Canada. 2003. The novel egg: Opportunities for flax in omega-3 egg production. Winnipeg: Flax Council of Canada. Available from: https://flaxcouncil.ca/resources/nutrition/general-nutrition-information/flax-in-a-vegetarian-diet/omega-3-enriched-eggs/
  15. Goyal, Ankit et al. Flax and flaxseed oil: an ancient medicine & modern functional food. Journal of food science and technology vol. 51,9 (2014): 1633-53. doi:10.1007/s13197-013-1247-9
  16. US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Seeds, flaxseed. FDC ID: 169414, NDB Number: 12220. Published: 04/01/2019. Source: https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/169414/nutrients
  17. Government of Canada, Health Canada, Health Products and Food Branch- Natural Health Products Directorate – http://webprod.hc-sc.gc.ca/nhpid-bdipsn/atReq.do?atid=flaxseed.grainedelin&lang=eng