Health benefits of flaxseed: What you absolutely need to know

Flaxseed and flax oil and plant

If you haven’t tried flaxseed, you may have heard or read about the tiny, golden brown seeds’ possible health benefits. Nopalina, for example, is a well-known brand of flaxseed among Hispanics and it’s just one of numerous companies that sell it.

A body of evidence shows flaxseeds do have some dietary benefits. In fact, saludmóvil’s integrative medicine expert, Dr. Joseph Mosquera, points out that the seeds are an immensely rich source of omega-3 essential fatty acids, dietary fiber, and lignans. All important components for our bodies natural functions.

However, Dr. Mosquera also tells us that flaxseed health benefits can be contingent upon:  what you may be suffering from, what medications you are already taking, what form of flaxseed you buy, how much of it you take, and when you take it.  Otherwise you may be doing more harm than good.  

Always consult your doctor before starting any new dietary supplement regimen, including one with flaxseed.

Top 5 flaxseed health benefits

Constipation

According to the Mayo Clinic, good evidence suggests flaxseed (not flaxseed oil) can have a laxative effect.

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The clinic reports that loose stools have been produced by people taking the seed, but they caution that further research is needed to establish efficacy and dosing. Also, flaxseed in large doses, or when taken without enough water, may cause bowel obstruction.

Naturally though, flaxseed is a good source of both soluble and insoluble fiber. Two substances that not only help keep your bowel movements regular and prevent constipation, but also prevent diseases, according to MedlinePlus, a government website focused on health.

To give you an idea, soluble fiber can also be found in foods such as oat bran, lentils, and peas, while insoluble fiber is found in vegetables and whole grains.

Heart health and hypertension

One of the best ways to help prevent and treat heart disease is to eat a diet low in saturated and trans fat. Eating foods rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats is also important, including omega-3 fatty acids from flaxseed, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center.

Some studies suggest alpha-linolenic acid, another substance found in flaxseed and flaxseed oil, may also benefit people with heart disease. But, the National Institutes of Health National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) report, more reliable data needs to be collected to determine whether either is effective for heart conditions.

One study, cited by the American Heart Association in 2012, tested flaxseed intake on 110 hypertensive patients with peripheral artery disease, which is strongly associated with high blood pressure. Researchers were trying to determine if adding 30 grams of milled flaxseed each day for six months would lower their blood pressure.

It turns out, the group taking the dietary supplement did see a drop in blood pressure and an increase in their alpha-linolenic acid levels, while the placebo group experienced no change in their blood pressure.

Cholesterol

Another one of the flaxseed health benefits seem to come from its effects on cholesterol levels. The University of Maryland Medical reports flaxseed and flaxseed oil have been found to lower cholesterol in lab and animal studies, but human studies showed mixed results.

Dr. Mosquera cautions that the dietary supplement doesn’t match the cholesterol-lowering effects of prescription medication, but if you’re looking for a drug-free, relatively inexpensive treatment, consider taking flaxseed tablets or sprinkling ground flax seeds on top of cereal or salads.

Cancer

The NCCIH reports that flaxseed might also help reduce the risk of certain cancers, however there is not enough research to support recommending it to people for this particular use.

Experts at the University of Maryland Medical Center note that flaxseed contains plant chemicals called lignans (as mentioned earlier) and because lignans may act like estrogen in the body, scientists aren’t sure whether flaxseed would be harmful or helpful to patients with breast cancer.

The University says previous studies have reported flaxseed reduced breast tumor growth and metastasis (spreading) in rats, but more research is needed.

Also, researchers in Omaha discovered flaxseed supplements were able to reduce melanoma tumors by as much as 63 percent in mice.

And a Duke University study found the seed seems to significantly thwart prostate cancer growth, presurgery.

Diabetes

Can a tablespoon of daily ground flax a day keeps type 2 diabetes at bay?  Flaxseed health benefits include the potential of reducing the incidence of type 1 diabetes, and delaying the development of type 2 diabetes, in humans.

If you are already taking medication for diabetes, including insulin, use flaxseed only under your doctor’s supervision.

Other possible health benefits of flaxseed

There are many other claims about flaxseed health benefits, including helping with weight loss and depression.

NCCIH reports that they are currently funding more studies on flaxseed. They say recent studies are looking at its potential role in preventing or treating atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), breast cancer, and ovarian cysts.

How to take flaxseed safely

It’s important to remember flaxseed, like any supplemental fiber source, should be taken with plenty of water. Without proper hydration it can worsen constipation or, in rare cases, even cause intestinal blockage.

saludmóvil’s™  Dr. Mosquera recommends that healthy people should consume one to two teaspoons of milled flaxseed, or its oil, as part of a balanced diet. Overuse of the powder, pills, or oil can cause diarrhea, studies show.

Additionally, the National Institute of Health (NIH) notes flaxseed should not be taken at the same time as any conventional oral medications or other dietary supplements. Because it’s fat-soluble, the fiber in flaxseed lowers the body’s ability to absorb fat-soluble medications that are taken by mouth. Dr. Mosquera recommends waiting two hours between flaxseed intake and fat-soluble medications or supplements.  

Use flaxseed and all dietary supplements with caution

Dietary supplements are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, but the regulations are not the same as over-the-counter or prescription drugs.

Manufacturers of dietary supplements do not have to provide the FDA with information confirming the safety of the product before it is marketed, but manufacturers are responsible for making sure their products are safe and that the label information is accurate.

The most important thing to remember is, despite the many potential flaxseed health benefits, it’s important to speak with your doctor before using it in any form or for any purpose, especially if you are taking other medications.

Contributing writer: Arlene Borenstein

Infographic on health benefits of flaxseeds
Infographic by saludmóvil™ – Feel free to share

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