What’s New and Beneficial About Flaxseeds
The seeds of most plants are rich in nutrients and can provide us with health benefits. Yet flaxseeds are also nutritionally unique and offer us health benefits not found across the board within the seeds food group. The nutritional uniqueness of flaxseeds features three nutrient aspects, and all three play a key role in the outstanding health benefits of this food.
Some call it one of the most powerful plant foods on the planet. There’s some evidence it may help reduce your risk of heart disease, cancer, stroke, and diabetes. That’s quite a tall order for a tiny seed that’s been around for centuries.
Flaxseed was cultivated in Babylon as early as 3000 BC. In the 8th century, King Charlemagne believed so strongly in the health benefits of flaxseed that he passed laws requiring his subjects to consume it. Now, thirteen centuries later, some experts say we have preliminary research to back up what Charlemagne suspected.
Antioxidant and Anti-Inflammatory Benefits
It is important to realize that the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits of flaxseed do not apply only to the cardiovascular system. Oxidative stress (which is often related to deficient intake of antioxidant nutrients) and excessive inflammation (which can also be related to deficient intake of anti-inflammatory nutrients) are common risk factors for a wide variety of health problems. These problems include development of insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, asthma, obesity, and metabolic syndrome. There is preliminary evidence that flaxseed intake can decrease risk of all the problems above by increasing our anti-inflammatory and antioxidant protection.
The first unique feature of flax is its high omega-3 fatty acid content. Among all 127 World’s Healthiest Foods, flaxseeds comes out number one as a source of omega-3s! The primary omega-3 fatty acid found in flaxseeds is alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA. The ALA in flaxseed has found to be stable for at least 3 hours of cooking at oven temperatures (approximately 300F/150C), which makes it available after ground flaxseeds have been added to baked goods like muffins or breads.
The second unique feature of flaxseed is its lignans. Lignans are fiber-like compounds, but in addition to their fiber-like benefits, they also provide antioxidant protection due to their structure as polyphenols. The unique structure of lignans gives them a further health-supportive role to play, however, in the form of phytoestrogens. Along with isoflavones, lignans are one of the few naturally occurring compounds in food that function as weak or moderate estrogens when consumed by humans. Among all foods commonly eaten by humans, researchers rank flaxseeds as the number one source of lignans. Sesame seeds come in second, but contain only one-seventh of the total lignans as flaxseeds. To give a few further examples, sunflower seeds contain about 1/350th as many lignans, and cashews nuts contain about 1/475th as many lignans as flaxseeds.
A third unique feature of flaxseeds is their mucilage (gum) content. “Mucilage” refers to water-soluble, gel-forming fiber that can provide special support to the intestinal tract. For example, gums can help prevent the too rapid emptying of the stomach contents into the small intestine, thereby improving absorption of certain nutrients in the small intestine. Arabinoxylans and galactoxylans are included within the mucilage gums found in flaxseeds.
This combination of features—omega-3 fatty acids, high-lignan content, and mucilage gums—is a key factor in the unique health benefits of flaxseeds. The specific areas of health benefit described below all draw in some way from this unique combination of nutrients not found in other commonly eaten nuts or seeds
The antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits of flaxseeds also make them a logical candidate for cancer prevention. That’s because chronic inflammation (even low level inflammation) and chronic oxidative stress are risk factors for cancer development. In the case of flaxseeds, evidence of risk reduction is strongest for breast cancer, prostate cancer, and colon cancer. Breast cancer and prostate cancer are included in the list of cancers know as “hormone-related” cancers. Their risk reduction may be more closely related to flaxseed than risk reduction for other cancers due to the high lignan content of flaxseed.
Three of the lignans found in flaxseeds—secoisolariciresinol, matairecinol, and pinoresinol—can be converted by intestinal bacteria into enterolactone (ENL) and enterodiol (END). ENL and END have direct affects on our hormonal balance and in this way may play an especially important role in hormone-related cancer. In addition to decreased risk of breast and prostate cancer following flaxseed intake, there is also some preliminary evidence that ENL and END may be able to alter the course of hormone-dependent tumors once they are formed. The relationship between flaxseed intake and cancer prevention is complicated, however, due to the important role of gut bacteria in converting secoisolariciresinol and other lignans in flax into enterolactone and enterodiol. This conversion process involves many different enzyme-related steps provided by a complicated mix of gut bacteria including Bacteriodes, Bifidobacterium, Butyribacterium, Eubacterium and others.
The lignans provided by flaxseed have also been shown to spark increased activity by certain Phase II detoxification enzymes that are responsible for deactivating toxins in the body. This support of the detox process may help prevent accumulation of toxins that might otherwise act as carcinogens and increase cancer risk.