Flaxseed
   

Flaxseed
Botanical Name:  Linum usitatissimum
Common Names:  Linseed
 
Overview
Plant Description
What's It Made Of?
Available Forms
How to Take It
Precautions
Possible Interactions
Supporting Research

Overview

Flaxseed is derived from the flax plant, an annual herb believed to have originated in Egypt. The ancient Egyptians used flaxseed for nutritional and medicinal purposes as well as the fiber contained in the flax plant to make clothes, fishnets, and other products. Throughout history, flaxseed has been primarily used as a mild laxative. It is high in fiber and a gummy material called mucilage. These substances expand when they come in contact with water, so they add bulk to stool and help it move more quickly through the gastrointestinal tract, thereby acting as a laxative for constipation.

The seeds and oil of the flax plant also contain substances that promote good health. Flaxseed and flaxseed oil are rich in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an essential fatty acid that appears to be beneficial for heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease, arthritis, and a variety of other health problems.

ALA belongs to a group of substances called omega-3 fatty acids. It is important to maintain an appropriate balance of omega-3 and omega-6 (another essential fatty acid) in the diet as these two substances work together to promote health. Omega-3 fatty acids help reduce inflammation and most omega-6 fatty acids tend to promote inflammation. An inappropriate balance of these essential fatty acids contributes to the development of disease while a proper balance helps maintain and even improve health. A healthy diet should consist of roughly two to four times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids. The typical American diet tends to contain 14 to 30 times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids and many researchers believe this imbalance is a significant factor in the rising rate of inflammatory disorders in the United States.

Studies suggest that flaxseed (both the ALA and the lignans in flaxseed) may play a role in the prevention and/or treatment of the health conditions that follow.

ALA/Omega-3 Fatty Acids from Flaxseed:

High cholesterol
People who follow a Mediterranean diet tend to have higher HDL ("good") cholesterol levels. The Mediterranean diet consists of a healthy balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. It emphasizes whole grains, root and green vegetables, daily intake of fruit, fish and poultry, olive and canola oils, and ALA (from flaxseed, flaxseed oil, and walnuts), along with discouragement of ingestion of red meat and total avoidance of butter and cream.

High blood pressure
Several studies suggest that diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids (including ALA) lower blood pressure significantly in people with hypertension. Fish high in mercury (such as tuna which contains two other important omega-3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA) should be avoided, however, because they may increase blood pressure.

Heart disease
One of the best ways to help prevent and treat heart disease is to eat a low-fat diet and to replace foods rich in saturated and trans-fat with those that are rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (including omega-3 fatty acids from flaxseed). Evidence suggests that people who eat an ALA-rich diet are less likely to suffer a fatal heart attack.

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
Some people with Crohn's disease (CD), one form of IBD, have low levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their bodies. Preliminary animal studies have found that ALA (such as from flaxseed) may reduce bowel inflammation, but further studies in humans are needed to confirm these findings.

Arthritis
Several studies suggest that omega-3 fatty acids reduce tenderness in joints, decrease morning stiffness, improve mobility, and allow for a reduction in the amount of medication needed for people with rheumatoid arthritis and, probably, osteoarthritis as well.

Depression
People who do not get enough omega-3 fatty acids or do not maintain a healthy balance of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids in their diet may be at an increased risk for depression.

Burns
Essential fatty acids have been used to reduce inflammation and promote wound healing in burn victims. Animal research indicates that omega-3 fatty acids help promote a healthy balance of proteins in the body -- protein balance is important for recovery after sustaining a burn. Further research is necessary to determine if this may apply to people as well.

Acne
Although there are few studies to support the use of omega-3 fatty acids for skin problems, many clinicians believe that flaxseed is helpful for treating acne.

Asthma
Preliminary research suggests that omega-3 fatty acids (including flaxseeds) may decrease inflammation and improve lung function in adults with asthma.

Menstrual Pain
In a study of nearly 200 Danish women, those with the highest dietary intake of omega-3 fatty acids had the mildest symptoms during menstruation.

Eating disorders
Studies suggest that men and women with anorexia nervosa have lower than optimal levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids (including ALA and GLA - an omega-6 fatty acid). To prevent the complications associated with essential fatty acid deficiencies, some experts recommend that treatment programs for anorexia nervosa include PUFA-rich foods or supplements.

Other
Although further research is needed, preliminary evidence suggests that omega-3 fatty acids may also prove helpful in protecting against certain infections and treating a variety of conditions including ulcers, migraine headaches, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), preterm labor, emphysema, psoriasis, glaucoma, Lyme disease, lupus, and panic attacks.

Lignans from Flaxseed
In addition to the important omega-3 fatty acid ALA as outlined, flaxseed also contains a group of chemicals called lignans that may play a role in the prevention of cancer. Lignans are plant compounds that mimic the action of the hormone estrogen. For this reason, lignans are considered phyto (plant) estrogens. Because of their estrogen-like activity, there is some debate about whether flaxseed would be harmful or helpful for breast cancer. Studies are ongoing currently to resolve this debate.

Colon Cancer
Laboratory studies show that lignans may slow the growth of colon tumor cells, although the mechanism for this action is unclear. Flaxseed has been shown to significantly reduce the number of abnormal cell growths—early markers of colon cancer—in the colons of rats. Further studies are needed to determine whether flaxseed offers such protective effects against colorectal cancer in people.

Prostate Cancer
Researchers are investigating whether lignans in flaxseed help prevent prostate cancer. In one study that compared 25 men with prostate cancer to the same number of men without the disease, researchers found that men who consumed a low-fat, flaxseed-supplemented diet for one month had slower tumor progression than those who did not consume the diet. Further studies are needed to confirm these preliminary findings, however. This is particularly important because, like breast cancer, prostate cancer is hormone-responsive. Therefore, there is some question regarding whether the phytoestrogens from the lignans in flaxseed may actually stimulate growth of prostate cancer. More research is needed.

Skin Cancer
Animal studies suggest that lignans from flaxseed may also offer some protection against skin cancer including, possibly, the prevention of metastatic spread of melanoma from the skin to the lungs. Research in people is needed.

Menopause
The lignans in flaxseed may help alleviate menopausal symptoms, including hot flashes, vaginal dryness, and memory impairment. They may even help prevent some long-term illnesses associated with menopause such as heart disease and osteoporosis.


Plant Description

Flax is an annual plant that thrives in deep moist soils rich in sand, silt, and clay. The small, oval-shaped seeds of the flax plant contain oil (sometimes called linseed oil).


What's It Made Of?

The laxative effect of flaxseed is due to its fiber and mucilage content. As described earlier, phytoestrogens known as lignans appear to play a role in the cancer protective effects of this herb. The remaining health benefits of flaxseed (such as the prevention and treatment of heart disease and arthritis) are likely due to its high concentration of the omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).


Available Forms

Flaxseed and flaxseed oil should be kept refrigerated. Whole flaxseeds must be ground within 24 hours of use, otherwise the ingredients lose their activity. Flaxseeds are also available in grounded form in a special mylar package so that the components in the flaxseeds stay active. Ripe seeds, linseed cakes, powder, capsules, and flaxseed oil are all available at health food or grocery stores.


How to Take It

Pediatric

Flaxseed oil may be added to a child's diet to help balance fatty acids. If an infant is breastfed, the mother may ingest oil or fresh ground seed to increase fat content in breast milk. See adult dosage below.

Children (2 to 12 years): 1 tsp daily of ground flaxseeds or 1 tsp of fresh flaxseed oil for constipation

Adult

1 tbsp two to three times per day or 2 to 4 tbsp one time per day. Grind before eating and take with lots of water.

Decoction (liquid prepared by boiling down the flaxseed in water): 15 g of whole seed simmered in 1 cup water for 10 to 15 minutes.

See Available Forms above for additional information on storing and using whole flaxseed and flaxseed oil.


Precautions

The use of herbs is a time-honored approach to strengthening the body and treating disease. Herbs, however, contain active substances that can trigger side effects and interact with other herbs, supplements, or medications. For these reasons, herbs should be taken with care, under the supervision of a practitioner knowledgeable in the field of botanical medicine.

Although studies have found that regular consumption of fish (which includes the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA) may reduce the risk of macular degeneration, a recent study including two large groups of men and women found that diets rich in ALA may substantially increase the risk of this disease.

Flaxseed may slow down the absorption of oral medications or other nutrients if taken at the same time; therefore, flaxseed should be ingested several hours before or after other medications Talk to your health care provider before taking flaxseed if you regularly take any prescription or over-the-counter medications.

People with either diabetes or schizophrenia may lack the ability to convert ALA to EPA and DHA, the forms of omega-3 fatty acids that are generally made from ALA and are more readily used by the body. Therefore, people with these conditions should obtain their omega-3 fatty acids directly from dietary sources rich in EPA and DHA, such as fish.


Possible Interactions

If you are currently being treated with any of the following medications, you should not use flaxseed without first talking to your healthcare provider.

Blood Thinning Medications
Omega-3 fatty acids may increase the blood-thinning effects of aspirin or warfarin. While the combination of aspirin and omega-3 fatty acids may actually be helpful under certain circumstances (such as heart disease), they should only be taken together under the guidance and supervision of your healthcare provider.

Cholesterol Lowering Medications, Statins
Following certain nutritional guidelines, including increasing the amount of omega-3 fatty acids in your diet and reducing the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio, may allow a group of cholesterol lowering medications known as "statins" (such as atorvastatin, lovastatin, and simvastatin) to work more effectively.

Cyclosporine
Taking omega-3 fatty acids during cyclosporine therapy may reduce toxic side effects (such as high blood pressure and kidney damage) associated with this medication in transplant patients.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
In an animal study, treatment with omega-3 fatty acids reduced the risk of ulcers from nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). More research is needed to evaluate whether omega-3 fatty acids would have the same effects in people.

Other
Flaxseed may slow down the absorption of oral medications or other nutrients if taken at the same time. Try to avoid taking flaxseed at the same time of day as medications and other supplements.


Supporting Research

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Review Date: April 2002
Reviewed By: Participants in the review process include: Jacqueline A. Hart, MD, Department of Internal Medicine, Newton-Wellesley Hospital, Harvard University and Senior Medical Editor Integrative Medicine, Boston, MA; Gary Kracoff, RPh (Pediatric Dosing section February 2001), Johnson Drugs, Natick, MA; Steven Ottariono, RPh, Veteran's Administrative Hospital, Londonderry, NH; R. Lynn Shumake, PD (April 1999), Director, Alternative Medicine Apothecary, Blue Mountain Apothecary & Healing Arts, University of Maryland Medical Center, Glenwood, MD; David Winston, Herbalist (April 1999), Herbalist and Alchemist, Inc., Washington, NJ; Tom Wolfe, P.AHG (April 1999), Smile Herb Shop, College Park, MD. All interaction sections have also been reviewed by a team of experts including Joseph Lamb, MD (July 2000), The Integrative Medicine Works, Alexandria, VA;Enrico Liva, ND, RPh (August 2000), Vital Nutrients, Middletown, CT; Brian T Sanderoff, PD, BS in Pharmacy (March 2000), Clinical Assistant Professor, University of Maryland School of Pharmacy; President, Your Prescription for Health, Owings Mills, MD; Ira Zunin, MD, MPH, MBA (July 2000), President and Chairman, Hawaii State Consortium for Integrative Medicine, Honolulu, HI.

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