Flax plants, used for food and to make textiles (linen) have been used for thousands of years. Flax fibers spun into clothing have been found in a cave in the Republic of Georgia and dated as made 30,000 years ago. Modern science has found that flax seeds contain a plant form of omega-3 fatty acid (alpha linolenic acid) as well as lignans - substances that act as plant estrogens. Lignans are also found in lower amounts in rye, wheat, oats, barley, soybeans, sesame seeds, cruciferous vegetables and in certain fruits such as strawberries and apricots. Flax seeds, but not flax seed oil by itself, has been found to be associated with a lower risk for breast cancer. A study from Duke University showed an association of flax seed with slower growth of prostate cancer.
A recent study from St. Boniface Hospital Research Center in Manitoba showed that people with high blood pressure and resultant leg pain from constricted blood vessels were helped by supplementing their diets with ground flax seeds. They took 30 grams a day, which is about 4 tablespoons, put into muffins and bars or eaten as plain ground flax. The flax seed provided abundant fiber, and the subjects did not gain weight during the 6 month trial. Subjects in the comparison group, also with high blood pressure, were given food enhanced with almonds and other ground nuts. Their blood pressures did not change during the 6 month study. The blood pressure reductions seen in the flaxseed group were impressive - systolic blood pressure was 10 mm Hg lower and diastolic 7 mm Hg lower after 6 months. In subjects with initial systolic blood pressure readings of 140 mmHg or higher, there was a reduction of 15 mm Hg systolic and 7 mm Hg diastolic. These figures compare favorably with the reductions seen with many blood pressure medications. It should be noted that subjects in this study continued their prescribed medications for blood pressure reduction. The authors cautioned that people trying flaxseed meal should remain under their doctor’s care and not change their meds unless advised to do so.
A study from the University of Saskatchewan in 2009 showed that men, but not women, had reduced scores of factors in the ‘metabolic syndrome’ when they took flax seed components and engaged in a walking program. The metabolic syndrome is a cluster of conditions: increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist and abnormal cholesterol levels. These factors can lead to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
This article has given the reader several good reasons to try adding flax seeds to your diet. It’s easy to do so, and the taste is nutty and pleasant. You can grind your own (with a spice or coffee grinder) from organic flax seed from many stores, or buy it already ground. Be sure to refrigerate the ground flax. Put it on oatmeal, salad, stir fries or in shakes. Incorporate it into baked goods. There are lots of recipes for this on line. Ground flax adds fiber to your diet and can relieve constipation. Be sure to drink more fluids if you start using flax.
Post-menopausal women may enjoy the slight increase in safe plant estrogens from the flaxseed lignans, However, flax has not been shown to relieve hot flashes.
Sadja Greenwood, MD back issues on this blog