Flaxseed Oil
   

Flaxseed Oil
Also Known As:  Linseed Oil
 
Overview
Uses
Dietary Sources
Available Forms
How to Take It
Precautions
Possible Interactions
Supporting Research

Overview

Flaxseed oil is derived from the seeds of the flax plant. Flaxseed oil and flaxseed contain substances that promote good health. Flaxseed oil is 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 conditions. Flaxseed, in addition to ALA, contains a group of chemicals called lignans that may play a role in the prevention of cancer. Please see the flaxseed monograph for further information on this herbal agent.

ALA, as well as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), belongs to a group of substances called omega-3 fatty acids. EPA and DHA are found primarily in fish while ALA is mostly found in flaxseed oil and other vegetable oils. Although similar in structure, the benefits of ALA, EPA, and DHA are not necessarily the same.

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. These essential fats are both examples of polyunsaturated fatty acids, or PUFAs. 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 25 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.

Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to reduce inflammation and help prevent certain chronic diseases such as heart disease and arthritis. These essential fatty acids appear to be particularly important for cognitive and behavioral function as well as normal growth and development.


Uses

Studies suggest that flaxseed oil and other omega-3 fatty acids may be helpful in treating a variety of conditions. The evidence is strongest for heart disease and problems that contribute to heart disease, but the range of possible uses for flaxseed oil include:

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, along with discouragement of ingestion of red meat and total avoidance of butter and cream.

High Blood Pressure
Several studies suggest that diets and/or supplements rich in omega-3 fatty acids (including ALA) lower blood pressure significantly in people with hypertension. Fish high in mercury (such as tuna) 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 oil). 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. Fish oil supplements containing omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to reduce symptoms of CD and ulcerative colitis (another inflammatory bowel disease), particularly if used in addition to medication. Preliminary animal studies have found that ALA (such as from flaxseed oil) may actually be more effective than EPA and DHA found in fish oil supplements, but further studies in humans are needed to confirm these findings.

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

Breast Cancer
Women who regularly consume foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids over many years may be less likely to develop breast cancer and to die from the disease than women who do not follow such a diet. Laboratory and animal studies indicate that omega-3 fatty acids can inhibit the growth of human breast cancer cells and may even prevent the spread of cancer to other parts of the body. Several experts speculate that omega-3 fatty acids in combination with other nutrients (namely, vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, selenium, and coenzyme Q10) may prove to be of particular value for preventing and treating breast cancer.

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. The omega-3 fatty acids are important components of nerve cell membranes. They help nerve cells communicate with each other, which is an essential step in maintaining good mental health.

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 acid supplements 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.

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, preterm labor, emphysema, psoriasis, glaucoma, Lyme disease, lupus, and panic attacks.


Dietary Sources

Flaxseed oil is obtained from the seed of the flax plant. It contains 50% to 60% omega-3 fatty acids. This amount is roughly double that contained in fish oil.


Available Forms

Flaxseed oil is available in liquid and softgel capsule forms. Like any oil, flaxseed oil may turn rancid if it is not refrigerated. Flaxseed oil requires special packaging because it is easily destroyed by heat, light, and oxygen. The highest quality flaxseed products are manufactured using fresh pressed seeds, bottled in dark or opaque containers, and processed at low temperatures in the absence of light, extreme heat, or oxygen.

Be sure to buy flaxseed oil supplements made by established companies who certify that their products are free of heavy metals such as mercury.


How to Take It

The dosage to prevent and treat disease will vary depending on the amount of fatty acids in the diet and the type of disorder being treated.

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.

Adult

One Tbsp liquid flaxseed oil per day, or 3,000 mg (capsules) twice daily is generally recommended as an appropriate initial dose.


Precautions

Because of the potential for side effects and interactions with medications, dietary supplements should be taken only under the supervision of a knowledgeable healthcare provider.

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 as medications and other supplements.

People with either diabetes or schizophrenia may lack the ability to convert ALA to EPA and DHA, the forms more readily used in the body. Therefore, those with either condition should obtain their omega-3 fatty acids from dietary sources rich in EPA and DHA.

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. More research is needed in this area. Until this information becomes available, it is best for people with macular degeneration to obtain omega-3 fatty acids from sources of EPA and DHA, rather than ALA.

Similar to macular degeneration, fish and fish oil may protect against prostate cancer, but ALA may be associated with increased risk of prostate cancer in men. More research in this area is needed.


Possible Interactions

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

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

Cholesterol-lowering Medications
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.


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Review Date: April 2002
Reviewed By: Participants in the review process include: Ruth DeBusk, RD, PhD, Editor, Nutrition in Complementary Care, Tallahassee, FL; 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 (Pediatric Dosing section February 2001), Veteran's Administrative Hospital, Londonderry, NH. 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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