This small, nutritious seed is full of good fats and fibre. But do you know what flaxseed is good for in terms of your health?
What is flaxseed?
Flaxseed, also known as linseed, is the seed of the common flax plant. The same plant that provides the material for the production of linen. Importantly, the seed is a rich source of the omega-3 essential fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid.
Essential fatty acids are “essential” because they can not be made in the body. But they are crucial for our health. Other important sources of alpha-linolenic acid include chia seeds and walnuts.
We now know that the type of fat that we eat is more important than the amount of fat that we eat. Alpha-linolenic acid is an example of a polyunsaturated fatty acid. This type of fat is a “good fat” and we should be including more sources of it in our diet.
Flax oil or seed?
We can buy flaxseed in various forms. For instance, most of the larger supermarkets sell either the whole seeds or ground seeds, also known as milled. It is also possible to buy pure flaxseed oil.
The standard serving size of whole flaxseed is one tablespoon and this amount provides 2.4g of alpha-linolenic acid. Whereas a one-tablespoon serving of the oil provides 7.3g of alpha-linolenic acid.
At first glance, it might seem like the flaxseed oil is the best choice. But, whole or ground flaxseeds also contain other beneficial nutrients such as lignans and fibre that are not found in the oil.
There are also plenty of baked products such as muffins, cakes and bread that contain flaxseeds. You might also find plenty of recipes for making these yourself at home. But, often these might contain ingredients that are not so good for your health, such as sugar.
I have now found a great alternative. One that includes all the fat and fibre goodness, as well as tasting delicious, flax milk.
It’s easy to make our own delicious and healthy flax milk. This is an excellent alternative to dairy milk that can easily be made at home. Simply blend two tablespoons of whole seeds in 200ml of filtered water in a high-speed blender. You can also add a few drops of vanilla extract or a sprinkle of cinnamon powder to make it extra tasty. Store your flax milk in the fridge or drink immediately. Though you might want to build up to this amount per day for the reasons I mention later.
Flax milk is gluten-free and contains no cholesterol or lactose. It contains all the good fats and fibre of the whole seed. What’s more, it has more health benefits than almond milk.
The health benefits of flaxseed
The health benefits of flaxseed are many and varied. But, most of the research has been focussed on cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Though there are some studies on people, at the moment much of the research is on animals. Nevertheless, researchers say that dietary flaxseed displays powerful protection against cardiovascular disease in humans. For instance, lowering blood pressure on average by (10 mmHg). According to researchers, this was enough of a reduction to halve the risk of a heart attack or stroke.
Flaxseed and Cancer
In both animal and human studies, flaxseed showed significant protection against breast cancer. Furthermore, on reviewing ten human trials researchers found flaxseed reduced tumour growth in women with breast cancer.
Further evidence supports the use of flaxseed to prevent the occurrence of breast cancer. And also to reduce the risk of death in women living with breast cancer.
The whole seed rather than the oil may be important here. Researchers say the lignan component of the seed is metabolised by intestinal bacteria into enterolactone. And, studies of postmenopausal women show that higher blood concentrations of enterolactone reduce the risk of breast cancer. Not only that, but higher enterolactone levels promote better survival times.
But, researchers say that the evidence also supports a protective effect of flaxseed or enterolactone on other cancers, including:
Protection against menopausal symptoms
The lignans may also provide protection against menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes. This is because they have a similar structure to oestrogen. This similarity means these plant oestrogens (or phytoestrogens) can have oestrogen-like effects. Though of course not anywhere near as powerful as our own oestrogen.
Yet, postmenopausal women have much lower levels of oestrogen. Therefore, adding in these weak plant oestrogens may provide some benefit. This has been confirmed in studies, with a reduction in the frequency and severity of hot flushes in postmenopausal women.
It has to be said that not all the studies showed a clear benefit with flaxseed. But, given that there are plenty of other health benefits to eating this seed why not give it a try?
Flaxseeds are a source of prebiotics. Prebiotics are the fibre-rich foods that probiotics feed on. As such, they help to promote the growth of beneficial gut bacteria. Scientists say this might help to prevent colon cancer. Whilst also beneficially increasing insulin sensitivity, an important factor in type 2 diabetes.
In another trial, flaxseed was superior to psyllium seed as a remedy for constipation. No doubt due to its high fibre content.
Type 2 diabetes and prediabetes
Further to the finding of improving insulin sensitivity, research shows benefits for people with diabetes. In studies, flaxseed lowered blood glucose in people with type 2 diabetes and also those with prediabetes. Again the lignan component is thought to be important for this effect.
Can you eat too much flaxseed?
So, there are plenty of good reasons to include flaxseed in your daily diet. But, can you have too much of a good thing?
Whilst no toxicity has ever been reported for flaxseed, it might be important to incorporate it into your diet gradually. This is mainly because of the potential for changes in bowel habits from an increase of prebiotic fibre. I recommend building up to between 1-2 tbsp flaxseed per day.
Furthermore, it is a good idea to drink plenty of fluids if you are consuming flaxseed. Of course, if you are going to have your flax in the form of flax milk then you are going to get plenty of fluid right there.