Flax is truly an amazing grain which is proving itself over and over again as a nutritional wonder-grain. The scientific community is becoming more and more excited as it continues to learn about the healthful and healing effects of flax. Almost half the weight of this small, dark brown tear-shaped seed contains oil. And to a large extent, it's this oil that's making the big splash among the nutritional experts of today. But it's not just the oil that's making waves, as flax seed also contains several other remarkable nutritional elements that has everyone talking.
Flax was already under wide cultivation in the Babylon Empire in 3,000 BC and it's early beginnings are thought to precede this date by a couple of millennia. Through the history of man, flax has also been very important for the strong fibers in it's straw which have been extracted from the stems and woven into linen. Over the centuries, flax has been developed into different strains until today there are two main varieties grown, one for flax seed oil and the other for the fibers in the stem for cloth making.
Over half the oil found in flax seed consists of the highly sensitive fatty acid, Alpha Linolenic Acid (LNA). LNA will harden from the oxygen in the air if not protected from oxidation. This characteristic in flax seed oil has been exploited in industrial applications for hundreds of years. Paint flax seed oil on wood, for example, and over the span of a couple of days the oxidizing oils will harden, forming a protective barrier for the wood. This demonstrates flax oil's great qualities as an oil based coating for both wood and concrete which is still in wide use today in the paint industry. It is also a main ingredient in linoleum and is presently used in making particle board.
It's not hard to find farmers that feed flax seed meal to their livestock as it aids their digestion and gives them a nice, shiny coat. And high levels of flax seed meal are now being fed to chickens producing eggs that demand a premium price which are rich in this omega-3 oil.
Flax was first brought to North America in 1617. By 1875 flax was being cultivated over much of the inhabited country. Flax was grown in North America mainly for it's oil used in industrial applications. During the two world wars, flax's production had a marked increase as the need for this oil grew.
Over the centuries, flax oil has been used to coat farm tools to prevent rusting. It's whole seed has been boiled and used as a poultice for boils and other skin infections. The mucilage obtained from boiling whole flax seed has been used as a hair gel. And through the ages, ground flax seed has been eaten for it's healthful properties. Flax production has soared as the demand has tripled in just the last decade for flax as a nutritional supplement. The study of how flax relates to heart disease and cancer is in it's infancy but what has been learned to date shows solid evidence of it's healthful properties. As the nutritional benefits of flax continue to come to light, it's use will only increase. Flax seed has some truly amazing nutritional characteristics. It is most noted for it's high levels of LNA, lignans and fiber which will be explored in much greater detail later. For a grain, flax seed also has a very high level of protein at 21%. The amino acid list for flax seed lines up fairly closely with wheat's essential amino acids. However, flax contains high amounts of fiber, vitamin E, folacin, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B6 and is extremely high in the minerals potassium, calcium and phosphorus. Containing many other nutrients as well, flax seed is an incredibly important nutritional source and contains all the nutrients necessary to correctly digest the oils located within the seed.
Because of the lubricative properties of the oil, flax seed is believed to help reduce the symptoms of arthritis. Current research tends to support the theory that flax seed is beneficial in lowering cholesterol and lowering the risk of heart disease, preventing cancer, correcting auto-immune disorders and the relief of constipation.
Fifty-seven percent of flax seed oil is Alfa-linolenic acid (LNA) which is the highest LNA food known in the world. LNA is one of the two essential fatty acids we must get from eating foods. Our bodies can't make this precursor nutrient our systems need to make other vital fatty acids which perform life's functions. It's estimated that less than 1% of all fatty acids eaten by the average North American contain LNA with a whopping 95% of the population not getting enough of this vital fatty acid to be really healthy. This was not always the case. Technological developments in the last 125 years have largely changed our diets. Before the Industrial Revolution, when Americans hunted and gathered their food, there was as much as ten times more LNA in the diet as there is now. In addition, the intake of saturated fatty acids, and trans-fatty acids which were unknown in those days, has dramatically increased. These two dramatic changes in our diets are now causing real problems with our present day health. This causes all sorts of problems we don't need to have: growth retardation, weakness, impairment of vision and learning ability, motor un-coordination, behavioral changes, high triglycerides (fat) in the blood, high blood pressure, tissue inflammation, skin disorders, mental deterioration, hypertension, low metabolic rate and some kinds of immune dysfunction. Early research also points to LNA as an effective stroke reducing agent. Research is also learning that LNA appears to protect the heart against arrhythmia, a decease of the electrical stability of the heart. LNA inhibits Atherosclerosis, a inflammatory condition. But it is also thought that LNA works with flax's other nutrients to help bring about this effect in reducing inflammation.
So, how much LNA does a person need? The US has no RDA for it; but the latest information suggests one to two percent of your total calories should consist of LNA. This equates to 2.7-5.5 grams of LNA per day for an adult. One teaspoon of LNA weighs about 4.75 grams. As flax seed contains about 20% LNA by weight, that would equate to 1 to 2 tablespoons of flax seed per day. To further clarify the picture on LNA and how it is affected by the other essential fatty acid, Linoleic acid (LA), see our Essential Fatty Acids pages. LA, which we already get too much of in our diets in North America, if eaten in too large amounts creates an LNA/LA imbalance and can inhibit absorption of LNA. The opposite is also true.
LNA during pregnancy and early growth is vital for correct nerve and visual development of the fetus and infant. LNA is also important in lowering blood triglyceride levels and because of this, it is believed to lower the risk of heart disease. It also reduces the chances of blood clots forming in the vessels. LNA is now under study to gain concrete evidence LNA reduces the risk of cancer.
Flax seed's other primary ingredient we are emphasizing in this report is a group of phytoestrogenic compounds known as lignans. Flax seed contains 100 times more lignans than the next closest food. Lignans get broken down by intestinal bacteria into enterodiol and enterolactone, two mammalian lignans. Lignans contain powerful anti-cancer fighting agents and are especially effective against breast, colon, uterus and prostate cancers by controlling the sex hormones in our systems. As one example, lignans seem to flush excess estrogen from the body. Research has just begun on this fascinating subject. Lignans also seem to have anti-fungal, antibacterial and anti-viral properties. Flax seed oil contains practically no lignans - you must eat the flax seed, first ground into a meal. Flax oil also is missing many of the nutrients needed to digest it. But these nutrients are located in the seed. Both from a health and economic standpoint, we suggest eating whole flax seed you grind yourself rather than the high priced flax seed oil.
Flax seed has been proven to markedly reduce cholesterol levels as effectively as oat bran and fruit pectin. This is probably due to it's unusually high levels of soluble and insoluble fiber. Flax's high quality fiber teamed with LNA and the rich lignans work together to build healthy blood lipid patterns.
Of flax's 28% fiber content, 2/3rds of it is mucilage, a soluble fiber. As an experiment, boil 1 tablespoon of whole flax seed in a cup of water. In about 5 minutes, a thick, clear liquid will appear. This soluble fiber acts as a wonderful lubricant in moving food through your intestinal system. It also carries with it cholesterol that has been expelled into the large intestine, preventing it's re-absorption. The mucilage alone is a great boon to health. Flax's other fiber - it's insoluble fiber - also keeps things flowing though your intestinal tract.
It's been shown that the fiber in 50 grams of flax seed eaten in muffins increased the number of bowel movements helping prevent constipation. The two types of fiber in flax seed maintain the fecal bulk and keep it moving through the colon.
The LNA and lignans in flax seed both support and strengthen the body's immune system. Through processes beyond the scope of this report, flax seed bolsters the immune system in several different ways strengthening it to fight off disease.
Flax seed is an important grain that will improve just about everyone's health. Even healthy people can improve their health by eating ground flax seed. When the author started eating flax seed, he was in the US Army and considered himself to be as healthy as anyone. After eating 3 tablespoons of flax seed each day for about a month, he noticed some remarkable things begin to happen. Instead of coming back almost dead from a five mile run, he noticed his vitality increase to the point that on finishing a long run like this, he felt as fresh as he did before the run. He also noticed a big difference in his vision. Colors became much bolder as if they were ‘jumping out' at him.
Evidently, he was suffering from an LNA deficiency. Had he been getting enough LNA he probably wouldn't have noticed any changes which brings up a story:
This little analogy goes a long way to show that no nutrient is going to make you feel better unless you have a deficiency in it. If your body is already getting plenty of a certain nutrient, giving it more won't make it feel better. And sometimes it will make the body feel worse if it's an oil soluble vitamin or some other nutrient that can cause a toxicity if it's eaten in over-abundance. (The author believes the real secret to good health includes eating good, wholesome foods containing all the nutrients needed for good health, coupled with exercise.) Flax certainly plays a role in this. As a full 95% of the population in North America are not eating enough LNA, it's a fairly safe bet that you will feel better after you start yourself on a diet of flax.
For flax to do any good in your system, the seed must be broken open. The outer shell on the flax seed is so hard that unbroken, it just passes right through you, retaining all it's nutrients. (So much for all those recipes that have whole flax seed as an ingredient!) Don't be tempted to buy expensive flax seed oil as it contains none of the lignans or fiber found in the seed. And Don't buy flax seed meal already ground. The outer shell of the flax seed is nature's perfect container and breaking it open exposes the delicate fatty acids to rapid oxidation. Grind only as much flax seed as you plan on using that day. There's several ways of breaking the seed open. The easiest way is to grind a small amount of dry flax seed in a blender or coffee grinder. When making bread, it can also be mixed with your other whole grains before grinding. Don't try to grind flax seed in a grain grinder by itself. It contains so much fat that the oily flax seed pulp will plug your grinder.
You can add flax seed meal to many different dishes. Mix it in yogurt, salad dressings, on prepared or cooked cereal and you can bake it into many different desserts or breads.
Much like putting too much oil in a car, it is possible to eat too much flax seed. Tipping the scales with too heavy an ingestion of LNA will prevent the proper digestion and use of it's sister essential fatty acid, LA. Three tablespoons of flax seed a day should be enough to take care of anyone's LNA needs. And after several weeks or months of usage, you can probably cut it down to 1 to 2 tablespoons of flax seed per day after you've gotten over the LNA deficiency. How can you tell if you're getting too much? Your fingernails will get thin and break easily. But it would take months of ingesting too much LNA for this to happen.
Unlike some nutrients that are destroyed with heat, the LNA and lignans in flax can safely be heated up to baking temperatures without harming them. Studies have shown the LNA and lignans in flax seed can withstand temperatures up to 350 degrees F for 2 hours. These temperatures and times are worse than most home baking conditions.
How long can you store flax seed? The author is presently eating five year old flax seed that was stored in cans sealed with oxygen absorbers. He says it's still ‘just fine.' Whole, un-ground flax seed should store in the kitchen without any special care given to it for a year. Stored in the absence of oxygen in a cool room, flax's storage life will be increased to many years. With flax's vitamin E content which is a good antioxidant, you can consider your flax seed a good storing commodity if you take good care of it.
Containing no gluten, flax seed should be perfectly safe to eat by those with wheat allergies. If you are in poor health, please consult your doctor before starting a diet of flax seed. If you are already under the care of a physician, we strongly recommend you first get your doctor's approval before eating flax seed.