Flax seed is also known as common flax or linseed. Its scientific name Linum usitatissimun means “most useful” and is appropriate based on the wide range of uses for this plant.
Flax seeds grow on the flax plant and thrive in cold climates. The plant was first introduced to Canada in the 17th century and this country is now one of the largest producers of flax.
Flax seeds are slightly larger than sesame seeds, with a hard shell that is both smooth and shiny. Flax seeds range in color from deep amber to golden yellow, depending on the variety. They are crunchy and have a subtle nutty taste.
Traditionally, the brown flax seed has been used more as an ingredient in paints, fiber and cattle feed. Linseed oil, which is extracted from the seeds, is one of the oldest commercial oils used as a drying agent in paints and varnishes.
From a nutritional standpoint, flax seeds are available as whole or ground (flax seed meal) and as flax seed oil. Care must be taken when extracting the oil as light, heat and oxygen can damage the delicate Omega-3 rich oil. The oil is available as liquid or in softgel capsules and is typically found in opaque containers or dark capsules to protect the oil from light.
Flaxseed oil and flax seeds have different nutritional profiles. As a result, the use of one or the other (or both) depends on your health objective.
Although ground flax seeds contain some Omega-3s, they are not as concentrated a source as flax seed oil. The primary reason for taking flax seed is for its high fiber content. Just one tablespoon of ground flax seed provides 2 grams of fiber or 8% of daily values.
Not surprisingly, the primary reason for taking flax seed oil is for its Omega-3 benefits. Flaxseed oil is the richest source of the Omega-3 essential fatty acid (EFA) alpha-linolenic acid or ALA. Our body reserves this special fat to perform many important functions. Two one gram flax seed oil capsules contain over a gram (1,140 mg) of this essential fatty acid.
Unlike most vitamins and minerals, a recommended dietary allowance has not yet been established for Omega-3s. However, an adequate intake level has been established as 1.6 grams/day for men and 1.1 grams/day for women. Given that Omega-3s are not widely available in the food supply, augmenting your diet with a flax seed oil supplement is prudent.
The health benefits associated with flax seed relate to the high fiber, lignin and Omega-3 content of the plant.
Given that most Americans do not meet the daily requirement for fiber (38g for men and 25g for women), the primary reason for taking ground flax seed is to increase fiber intake. Flax seed contains both insoluble and soluble fiber and is a better tasting and less-processed alternative to psyllium products like Metamucil.
Soluble fiber plays a role in intestinal health and may be helpful for relieving diarrhea, constipation and abdominal discomfort. Soluble fiber is also noted for its benefit in lowering total cholesterol and LDL or “bad” cholesterol, providing cardiovascular benefit. Soluble fiber moderates blood glucose levels, which is beneficial for people with diabetes.
Insoluble fiber, which does not dissolve in water, passes through our intestines largely intact. Insoluble fiber moves bulk through the intestines and is responsible for keeping us “regular”. Insoluble fiber is associated with intestinal health including a reduction in the risk and occurrence of colorectal cancer, hemorrhoids and constipation.
Flax seeds are one of the best plant sources of phytonutrients called lignans. These phytoestrogens or plant estrogens have weaker estrogenic activity than human estrogen. Lab studies have shown that lignans may block the proliferative effect of estrogen in breast cancer development. Other lab studies have shown that these plant chemicals may have a protective effect against prostate cancer by stunting tumor growth.
Supplementation with flax seed oil can bring into balance the consumption of Omega-6 to Omega-3 fats. Due to the wide availability of seed oils in the food supply (e.g., soy, corn), most Americans consume far too much Omega-6 fats. At the same time, most of us consume far too little Omega-3s.
The overconsumption of Omega-6 fats has implications for our health. Omega-6 fats promote silent inflammation whereas Omega-3 fats decrease inflammation. Silent inflammation is implicated in a number of chronic health conditions like cardiovascular disease, rheumatoid arthritis and cancer.
By increasing your consumption of Omega-3 containing foods like walnuts and deep, cold water fish such as salmon and augmenting your diet with a Flax Seed Oil supplement, you can help to correct this imbalance. Taking a flax seed oil supplement can also improve the appearance of your skin by making it appear softer and smoother.
Selection & Storage
Flax seed comes in two different forms: whole or ground flax seed and flaxseed oil.
Flax seed can be bought at most grocery stores in the grain aisle or in the whole-grain cereal section. You can grind the whole seeds using a coffee grinder or you can purchase the seed already ground. Either option is fine however grinding the seeds yourself is the most economical.
Whether purchasing the whole or ground seed, proper storage is important. Keep whole flax seed in a dark, cool place until you’re ready to grind it. Whole flax seed has a longer shelf-life so only grind what you wish to use in the short-term. Ground flax seed is best stored in the freezer in an airtight container. This prevents the oil from oxidizing and going rancid.
Like the ground seed, flaxseed oil is extremely perishable. Look for brands like VitaMedica that use cold, expeller-pressed methods to extract the oil. Liquid flax seed oil should be packaged in an opaque container and refrigerated. Carob coated flax seed oil capsules, like what VitaMedica uses, helps to protect the delicate oil from light.
Like other super polyunsaturated fats (fish oil, walnut oil), flax seed oil is considered a “nutriment” and should never be used with heat. If using in a meal, it is best to add on top of food after preparing.
Ground flax seeds can be sprinkled onto yogurt, cereal or oatmeal and added to granola. Flax seed oil can boost the nutritional content of a smoothie or used to make salad dressing.
When purchasing whole grain products, look for those with flax seeds listed in the ingredients. You can also incorporate flax seeds into your favorite muffin or pancake recipe.
One tablespoon of flax seed oil has almost five times the Omega-3 content as one tablespoon of ground flax seed (7.2 grams vs. 1.6 grams, respectively).
David H. Rahm, M.D. is the founder and medical director of The Wellness Center, a medical clinic located in Long Beach, CA. Dr. Rahm is also president and medical director of VitaMedica. Dr. Rahm is one of a select group of conventional medical doctors who have education and expertise in functional medicine and nutritional science. Over the past 20 years, Dr. Rahm has published articles in the plastic surgery literature and educated physicians about the importance of good peri-operative nutrition.