If you’re keeping up with the latest list of superfoods, you’re probably already familiar with flaxseed. This nutritional powerhouse is considered one of the most powerful and nutritious foods on the planet, but it's not exactly new to the food scene. Flaxseed has been cultivated since approximately 3000 B.C. in ancient Babylon, and about 1300 years ago, King Charlemagne was so passionate about flaxseed benefits that he passed laws that required his entire kingdom to consume it for their health. Today, you can find flaxseed in pretty much any product that contains grains, including crackers, breads, waffles, and more. In addition to a heavy demand for human consumption, flaxseed has also grown in popularity for agricultural use, as the nutritional benefits can also be passed on to chickens and other animals that consume it. Whether you’re just now learning about flaxseed for the first time or you’ve been tuned in to the growing buzz about this superfood, you might be surprised to learn about the wide variety of health benefits that this tiny seed has to offer.
The health benefits of flaxseed are primarily the result of three types of nutrients that it contains in large quantities: omega-3 essential fatty acids, lignans, and fiber. Omega-3 essential fatty acids are a healthy type of fat that have been shown to offer heart and brain health benefits. Many people receive omega-3 fatty acids from animal sources, so flaxseed offers an important vegan source of omega-3 fatty acids for those with dietary restrictions. Lignans are a type of plant compound that possesses antioxidant and estrogen properties and can help lower the risk of cancer (1). It is believed that lignans help prevent or slow the growth of cancerous tumors by blocking certain enzymes that are required for hormone metabolism and by stopping the growth and spread of cancerous cells. The third important nutrient in flaxseed is fiber. Flaxseed contains both soluble and insoluble types of fiber, which can help promote regular bowel movements, regulate blood sugar, and lower cholesterol (2).
There are many different benefits of flaxseed, and scientists continue to study this superfood and learn more each year. Flaxseed is believed to reduce the risk of cancer, improve cholesterol and heart health, reduce inflammation, regulate blood sugar levels, and regulate digestion. There are many other benefits that flaxseed may also potentially offer, but more research is needed to determine the link between flaxseed and other health impacts.
Reduced cancer risk
One of the most exciting and well known benefits of flaxseed is the role that it plays in reducing cancer risk (1). Flaxseed helps to lower the risk of cancer and improve overall health as a result of the large number of lignans it contains. Although lignans can be found in other types of plants, flaxseed contains up to 800 times more lignans than other plant sources. Studies have shown that women who eat flaxseed have a lower risk of breast cancer than those who do not, particularly women who have already experienced menopause (3). The cancer fighting benefits of flaxseed aren’t limited to women; men who eat flaxseed while eating a low-fat diet were found to be at a reduced risk of prostate cancer (4). Other studies suggest that flaxseed may also be helpful in preventing colon and skin cancers, but no human studies have been performed to date that support this hypothesis.
Lower cholesterol and heart health
Flaxseed has also been shown to help lower total cholesterol levels, including lowering levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and increasing high-density lipoprotein (HDL). It’s believed that flaxseed helps lower cholesterol because of its high fiber content, which binds to bile salts and is excreted from the body. Your body then pulls cholesterol from the blood into the liver to replace bile salts, ultimately lowering the total amount of cholesterol in your blood (2). One study found that ingesting 10 grams of flaxseed per day for one month increased levels of HDL, or “good” cholesterol, by 12 percent, while another study found that consuming 30 grams of flaxseed powder per day for one month lowered LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, by nearly 20 percent (5) (6). The effects are more pronounced in people who already have high cholesterol, but everyone can benefit from having lower cholesterol levels. Lower cholesterol helps to reduce the risk of heart disease and heart attack, as high levels of cholesterol cause plaque to build up on the walls of the blood vessels, which increases blood pressure
Flaxseed contains two components, ALA and lignans, that can help reduce the chronic inflammation associated with certain medical conditions, such as arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, and asthma. It is believed that flaxseed helps to reduce inflammation by blocking the release of certain inflammatory agents. ALA, or alpha-linolenic acid, is an omega-3 fatty acid that must be obtained from food, as the body does not produce it. ALA has been found to help reduce inflammation in the arteries, lower the risk of heart disease, and lower the risk of stroke (7) (8). The Arthritis Foundation recommends flaxseed as a natural supplement that can be used to help reduce joint pain and stiffness associated with rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and Raynaud’s phenomenon (9).
Regulate blood sugar levels
People with diabetes or individuals who have difficulty regulating their blood sugar can benefit from consuming flaxseed. It’s believed that the lignans and other phytoestrogens contained in flaxseed can lower glucose and insulin levels and improve insulin sensitivity, as one study showed that consuming 13 grams of flaxseed per day had this effect on participants who were prediabetic (10). Flaxseed has also been shown to reduce the incidence of type 1 diabetes in rats and delay the onset of type 2 diabetes, but it is unknown as to whether these results will translate to humans (11). More research is needed to determine if flaxseed offers a significant benefit to individuals with diabetes or prediabetes, but early results are promising.
Flaxseed contains both soluble and insoluble fiber, both of which help regulate your digestion. Soluble fiber slows the rate of digestion and improves the consistency of the contents of the intestines, which in turn helps to stabilize the blood sugar and reduce cholesterol levels (2). Insoluble fiber is useful for preventing constipation and regulating bowel movements in individuals with irritable bowel syndrome or diverticular disease (10). This type of fiber increases the bulk of stools by allowing more water to bind to them, which improves their softness. As a result, stools are easier to pass and constipation is less likely to occur. Both types of fiber serve to regulate digestion and help improve gastrointestinal function.
How to Eat Flaxseed
Flaxseed is a common ingredient that can be found in many different types of foods, but in order to reap all of its nutritional benefits, you’ll want to make sure that you are getting plenty of this superfood (12). Flaxseed can be purchased ground, whole, or as part of a whole food nutritional supplement. However, regardless of whether you purchase flaxseed ground or whole, you’ll want to consume it ground, as it appears that the body can have a more difficult time absorbing the nutrients from whole flaxseed. If you’d prefer to add flaxseed directly to your diet, you can do so by adding a tablespoon of ground flaxseed to your cereal in the morning, mixing it in with your condiments while making a sandwich, or mixing a tablespoon into your morning yogurt. Flaxseed can also be baked directly into baked goods like bread or desserts. If you prefer to take the guesswork out of getting your flaxseed in each day, taking a whole food nutritional supplement that contains it is probably your best bet. You’ll get all of the same benefits without having to worry about remembering to add flaxseed to your meals.
By the Numbers:
- 300: Approximate number of new flax-based products that were launched in North America in 2010 (13).
- 95: Percentage of the carbs in flaxseed that are made up of fiber (14).
- 40: Percentage of worldwide flax grown in Canada (15).
Did You Know: