Flax is also known as linseed, and it has been around for thousands of years. The flax plant is a hearty, erect-growing plant that typically grows 3-to-4 feet tall. It has beautiful light blue five-petal flowers that measure between ½ inch and one inch. The fruit of the plant is where flax seeds come from. There are small, round pods that measure about ¼ inch and each pod contain 4-to-10 flax seeds. Typically flax seed are dark brown, though there is a variety that is light yellow.
In addition to being a great food source, flax fibers have been used since antiquity in a fabric that most people are familiar with: linen. Linen has been used for centuries, for everything imaginable, from clothing to wound dressings to wrapping mummies.
Another product of flax is linseed oil or flax oil. This is an edible oil, but it is often used in wood finishes. Wood products, such as bowls and cutting boards that are going to come in contact with food are often polished with pure linseed or mineral oil to be sure they don't contaminate food.
Flax has a number of health benefits, with it purported to help prevent everything from cancer to heart disease. Flax contains a number of beneficial properties, but the three main constituents that make flax a super food.
- Fiber- Flax seeds contain soluble and insoluble fiber. Fiber has repeatedly been shown in studies to lower cholesterol, which can help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
- Lignans- Flax seeds contain between 75-800 times more lignans than any other plant based source. Lignans contain plant estrogen, similar to soy, as well as antioxidant properties.
- Omega-3 fatty acids- Flax contains loads of this beneficial fat. omega-3s have been shown in studies to help with cardiovascular health as well as helping to prevent cancer.
Flax has a number of components that make it effective at reducing the risk of cancer. According to research, flax helps protect against cancers, in particular breast, colon and prostate cancers by reducing the incidence of tumors and inhibiting tumor growth.
The lignan in the flax are particularly good for hormone dependant tumors, often associated with breast cancer, and it doesn't interfere with the drugs used in cancer treatment. Lignan works by blocking the enzymes required for hormone metabolism, effectively interfering with the growth of tumors.
Further research suggests that the earlier the exposure to lignan the better. The research shows that increasing lignan levels in the adolescent years will help reduce the risk of breast cancer later in life, as well as increasing the survival rates of cancer patients.
Cardiovascular disease is another condition that greatly benefits from flax. All of the beneficial properties listed above help improve cardiovascular health. Fiber has been shown in multiple studies to help lower cholesterol, but the cardiovascular benefits of flax don't stop there.
The omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to improve the health of the heart by lowering blood pressure, regulating heartbeat, helps prevent hardening of the arteries and helps keep white blood cells from sticking together.
The lignans in flax have been shown to reduce plaque buildup in arteries by up to 75 percent, according to the Flax Council of Canada.
There are many other conditions that flax has been shown to improve.
- Inflammatory conditions, such as asthma or kidney disease, respond well to the Omega-3 fatty acids and lignans in flax.
- Menopause symptoms are reduced by the estrogen properties in the lignans in flax. In addition, flax can also help with bone metabolism, reducing the risk of osteoporosis.
- Problems with laxation are also aided by the fiber in flax.
- Diabetics can benefit from flax because the protein and Omega-3 fatty acids help lower blood sugar.
Ways to Use Flax
There are a number of ways to use flax. It is available in whole seeds, milled (ground) seeds, and oil. The oil is said not to have quite as much of the beneficial properties as the seeds, but it is still good.
There are a number of products on the market that contain flax, everything from oatmeal to baking mix:
- Ground flax can be used in baking cakes, muffins and breads, just by replacing a small amount of the flour with the flax. Ground flax can be used in breading meats as well, and adds a nice crunch.
- Whole flax seeds can be added to oatmeal, and there are some varieties of oatmeal that do contain flax. It can also be added when making granola and added to some fruit and.
- Flax oil is most often taken as a supplement, although it can be used in salad dressings. Avoid heating flax oil as it can burn easily and the beneficial properties may not hold up well.
Too Much of a Good Thing
Believe it or not, it is actually possible to consume too much flax. The recommended dose from the Flax Council of Canada is 1-to-2 tablespoons of flax seeds per day. Too much flax can cause gastrointestinal problems, including intestinal blockage.
It is also unknown if flax is safe during pregnancy. Because flax can mimic estrogen in the body, it is possible that it can lead to problems in the pregnancy, though more studies are needed to determine this.
Flax is a great addition to any diet, but like any other food, moderation is best. Too much of a good thing is still too much.