Flaxseed - One of the World's Top Superfoods
Updated: Dec 9, 2020
Flaxseeds have been consumed for at least 6,000 years, making them one of the world’s first cultivated superfoods. What does flaxseed do for you that makes it one of the most popular “superfoods”? Flaxseeds contain anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids (although not the same type that fish, such as salmon, do) along with antioxidant substances called lignans that help promote hormonal balance in addition to several other benefits of flaxseed.
Benefits of flaxseed include helping improve digestion, skin, cardiovascular health, cholesterol and hormone balance while fighting cancer and even sugar cravings — and that’s just the beginning!
What Is Flaxseed?
Flaxseeds, sometimes called linseeds, are small, brown, tan or golden-colored seeds. In fact, linseed or “flax seed” are different names for the same seed. Flaxseeds are a great source of dietary fiber; minerals like manganese, thiamine and magnesium; and plant-based protein.
Flax is one of the richest sources of plant-based omega-3 fatty acids, called alpha-linolenic acid (or ALA), in the world. Another unique fact about flaxseeds is that they are the No. 1 source of lignans in the human diets; flaxseed contain about seven times as many lignans as the closest runner-up, sesame seeds.
I highly recommend ground flaxseeds instead of whole flaxseeds. Flaxseeds are even more beneficial when sprouted and ground into flaxseed meal. Grinding flax helps you absorb both types of fiber it contains, along you to take advantage of even more of the benefits of flaxseed. Whole flaxseeds will pass right through your body without being digested, which means you will not receive many of the inherent benefits!
Additionally, flaxseeds are used to make flaxseed oil, which is easily digested and a concentrated source of healthy fats. Below you’ll find more about how to sprout and grind your own flaxseed, plus ideas for using all types of flax in recipes.
Another product of the flax plant (Linum usitatissimum) is linseed oil, which is boiled oil that’s used in oil-based paints, glazing putties (for windows) and as a wood grain protector/enhancer. Boiled linseed oil should never be taken internally.
Top 12 Flaxseed Benefits
1. High in Fiber But Low in Carbs
One of the most extraordinary benefits of flaxseed is that flax contains high levels of mucilage gum content, a gel-forming fiber that is water-soluble and therefore moves through the gastrointestinal tract undigested. Once eaten, mucilage from flaxseeds can keep food in the stomach from emptying too quickly into the small intestine, which can increase nutrient absorption and make you feel fuller. Because the fiber found in flaxseed is not able to be broken down in the digestive tract, some of the calories that flax contains won’t even be absorbed.
Flax is low in carbohydrates but extremely high in both soluble and insoluble fiber, which means it also supports colon detoxification, may help with fat loss and can reduce sugar cravings. Most adults should aim to consume between 25–40 grams of fiber from high-fiber foods daily. Eating just two tablespoons of flaxseeds per day will provide about 20 percent to 25 percent of your fiber needs.
2. High in Omega-3 Fatty Acids
We hear a lot about the health benefits of fish oil and omega-3 fats lately, which is one reason why flaxseeds, walnuts and chia seeds have become known for their anti-inflammatory effects. Fish oil contains EPA and DHA, two omega-3 fats obtained only from animal foods that are critical for optimal health. Although flaxseeds do not contain EPA or DHA, they do contain the type of omega-3 called ALA, which acts somewhat differently in the body compared to EPA/DHA.
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is an n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid that has been found in studies to help reduce the risk of coronary heart disease and hypertension, improve platelet function, reduce inflammation, promote healthy endothelial cell function, protect arterial function and reduce heart arrhythmias.
A study published in Nutrition Reviews has shown that approximately 20 percent of ALA can be converted into EPA, but only 0.5 percent of ALA is converted into DHA. Also, surprisingly gender may play a big role in how well ALA is converted; in the same study young women had a 2.5-fold greater conversion rate than men. Regardless of conversion, ALA is still considered a healthy fat and should be included in a balanced diet.
3. Helps Make Skin and Hair Healthy
Why is flaxseed good for your hair? Flaxseeds benefits for hair include making it shinier, stronger and more resistant to damage. The ALA fats in flaxseeds benefits the skin and hair by providing essential fatty acids as well as B vitamins, which can help reduce dryness and flakiness. It can also improve symptoms of acne, rosacea and eczema. The same benefits also apply to eye health, as flax can help reduce dry eye syndrome due to its lubricating effects.
Flaxseed oil is another great option for your skin, nails, eyes and hair since it has an even higher concentration of healthy fats. If you want healthier skin, hair and nails, consider adding two tablespoons of flaxseeds to your smoothie or one tablespoon of flaxseed oil to your daily routine. You can take up to one to two tablespoons of flaxseed oil by mouth per day to hydrate your skin and hair. It can also be mixed with essential oils and used topically as a natural skin moisturizer, since it seeps into your skin and reduces dryness.
4. Helps Lower Cholesterol and Treat Hyperlipidemia
A study published in the journal Nutrition and Metabolism found that adding flaxseeds into your diet can naturally reduce cholesterol levels by increasing the amount of fat excreted through bowel movements. The soluble fiber content of flaxseed traps fat and cholesterol in the digestive system so it’s unable to be absorbed. Soluble flax fiber also traps bile, which is made from cholesterol in the gallbladder. The bile is then excreted through the digestive system, forcing the body to make more, using up excess cholesterol in the blood and therefore lowering cholesterol.
Hyperlipidemia is having an abnormally high concentration of fats or lipids in the blood, and it’s one of the most important risk factors of ischemic heart disease. Studies show that flaxseeds (not flaxseed oil) can significantly lower these lipids.
One 2015 study split 70 hyperlipidemia patients into two groups; the intervention group received 30 grams of raw flaxseed powder every day for 40 days. At the end of the study, their serum lipids were measured again. The group taking the flaxseed powder saw their serum lipids reduced. The authors concluded that “flaxseed may be regarded as a useful therapeutic food for reducing hyperlipidemia.”
Using flax is a great way to naturally replace gluten-containing grains in recipes. Grains, especially those containing gluten, can be hard to digest for many people, but flax is usually easily metabolized and also anti-inflammatory.
Because flax can absorb a lot of liquid and help bind ingredients you’re using in cooking/baking recipes, but it does not contain any gluten, flaxseeds are a good choice for those who have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity. As a gluten-free method of baking, I often use flaxseed along with coconut flour in recipes to add moisture, form a desirable texture and get some healthy fats. They are also a good alternative to getting omega-3 fats from fish for people with a seafood allergy (although if you don’t have an allergy to fish/seafood it’s still best to get DHA/EPA this way).
6. May Help Manage Diabetes
Flaxseed is well-known for its effects against blood sugar spikes, making it a potentially useful tool for diabetics. When diabetic subjects took one tablespoon of ground flax seeds daily for a month, they experienced a significant drop in fasting blood sugars, triglycerides, cholesterol and A1C level.
Flaxseeds may also improve insulin sensitivity in glucose intolerant people. After 12 weeks of flax, one study found a small but significant drop in insulin resistance.
7. High in Antioxidants (Lignans)
One of the greatest benefits of flaxseed is that it’s packed with antioxidants, specifically the type called lignans that are unique fiber-related polyphenols. Lignans provide us with antioxidants that help reduce free radical damage, therefore flax has anti-aging, hormonal-balancing and cellular-regenerating effects. They are found in unprocessed plant foods, including seeds, whole-grains, beans, berries and nuts. Unhealthy lifestyle habits, such as poor gut health, smoking, antibiotics and obesity, all affect circulating lignan levels in the body, which is why a nutrient-dense diet is important for restoring levels.
Lignans are considered natural “phytoestrogens,” or plant nutrients that work somewhat similarly to the hormone estrogen. Phytoestrogens in flaxseed can alter estrogen metabolism, causing either an increase or decrease in estrogen activity depending on someone’s hormonal status (in other words, flax has both estrogenic and antiestrogenic properties). For example, in postmenopausal women, lignans can cause the body to produce less active forms of estrogen, which is tied to increased protection against tumor growth.
Lignans are also known for their antiviral and antibacterial properties, therefore consuming flax regularly may help reduce the number or severity of colds and flus. Studies have also found that polyphenols also support the growth of probiotics in the gut and may also help eliminate yeast and candida in the body.
8. May Help Regulate Blood Pressure
A 2013 study in Canada stated that “flaxseed induced one of the most potent antihypertensive effects achieved by a dietary intervention.” A report published in Clinical Nutrition in 2016 found flaxseed may lead to a significant decrease in systolic and diastolic blood pressure. If you’re starting your flaxseed intake to help manage blood pressure, the same study found consuming flaxseed for more than 12 weeks had a greater effect than consumption for fewer than 12 weeks. While flaxseed oil may have the desired effect on diastolic blood pressure, it did not on systolic blood pressure. Lignan extracts didn’t appear to affect either. So, if you’re targeting your overall blood pressure, ground flaxseed may be your best option.
9. Supports Digestive Health
One of the most well-researched benefits of flaxseed is its ability to promote digestive health. The ALA in flax can help reduce inflammation and protect the lining of the GI tract. Flaxseed has been shown to be beneficial for people suffering from Crohn’s disease and other digestive ailments. Plus, it promotes beneficial gut flora even in people with “normal” digestive systems. The fiber found in flaxseeds provides food for friendly bacteria in your colon that can help cleanse waste from your system.
Flax is very high in soluble and insoluble fiber, which means it’s very helpful for maintaining normal bowel movements. Because it can help bulk up stool and flush waste from the GI tract due to its gel-like quality, flaxseed is considered one of the best natural remedies for constipation. You can eat ground flaxseeds to help keep you “regular” or take one to three tablespoons of flaxseed oil with eight ounces of carrot juice. You’ll also benefit from getting lots of magnesium from flax, another nutrient that promotes digestive health by hydrating stool and relaxing the muscles in the GI tract.
10. May Help Lower Cancer Risk
As part of a healthy diet, flaxseeds may be able to help prevent certain types of cancer, including breast, prostate, ovarian and colon cancer. For this reason, flax is included in the Budwig diet protocol, a natural approach to helping prevent and treat cancer. The Budwig diet protocol involves eating at least one daily serving of a recipe made with cottage cheese or yogurt, flaxseeds and flaxseed oil. For this reason, the Budwig diet is sometimes called the flax oil and cottage cheese diet or just the flaxseed oil diet.
A study published in the Journal of Clinical Cancer Research discovered that consuming flaxseeds may decrease the risk of breast cancer by decreasing tumor growth. Certain studies show that women experience a reduced risk for developing breast cancer when they consume larger amounts of dietary fiber, lignans, carotenoid antioxidants, stigmasterol, vegetables and poultry. This has led some experts to recommend mostly plant-based diets for reducing risks of hormone-related cancers.
The lignans found in flaxseeds can be converted by intestinal bacteria into enterolactone and enterodiol (types of estrogens), which is believed to be how flax naturally helps balance hormones. Balanced hormones (meaning not too little or too much estrogen and progesterone) can help reduce the risk of breast cancer and other problems in women. For similar reasons, another study published in the Journal of Nutrition found that the lignans in flaxseeds may also reduce the risk of endometrial and ovarian cancer.
11. May Help with Weight Loss
What’s the connection between flaxseeds and weight loss, according to the studies? A study published in the Journal of Nutrition found that flaxseeds and walnuts may improve obesity and support weight loss.
Since flax is full of healthy fats and fiber, it helps you feel satisfied for longer. This means you may wound up eating fewer calories overall, which may lead to weight loss. ALA fats may also help reduce inflammation and help with hormonal balance, which might be standing in the way of you losing weight. An inflamed body tends to hold on to excess weight, plus it’s common to struggle with digestive issues like constipation and bloating if you’ve been eating an unhealthy diet. Add a couple of teaspoons of ground flaxseed to soups, salads or smoothies daily as part of your weight loss plan.
12. Helps Decrease Menopausal and Hormonal Imbalance Symptoms
Lignans found in the flaxseed have been shown to have many benefits for menopausal women. In fact, flaxseed can be used as an alternative to hormone replacement therapy in some cases or as a complementary approach to balancing hormones due to the estrogenic properties that lignans have.
Due to flax’s ability to balance estrogen, flaxseeds may also help reduce the risk of osteoporosis. It can even help menstruating women by helping to maintain cycle regularity, such as encouraging a normal length luteal phase (the period between ovulation and menstruation). To take advantage of these hormonal benefits of flaxseed, try to include one to two tablespoons of flaxmeal in your breakfast smoothie, along with one tablespoon of flaxseed oil at some point during the day.
Flaxseed Nutrition Facts
When you look at the nutritional benefits of flaxseed, there are many things that will catch your attention. In fact, flaxseed’s nutrition profile makes it one of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet.
According to the USDA’s National Nutrient Database, supplementation with two tablespoons of whole/unground flaxseed (considered about one serving) contains about:
6 grams carbohydrates
4 grams protein
8.5 grams fat
6 grams fiber
0.6 milligram manganese (26 percent DV)
0.4 milligram thiamine/vitamin B1 (22 percent)
80 milligrams magnesium (20 percent DV)
132 milligrams phosphorus (14 percent DV)
0.2 milligram copper (12 percent DV)
5 milligrams selenium (8 percent DV)
Flaxseeds also contain a good amount of vitamin B6, folate (or vitamin B9), iron, potassium and zinc. As you can see, it’s no secret as to where the benefits of flaxseed come from with this nutrition profile.
Flaxseed vs. Chia Seeds
Both flaxseeds and chia seeds contain lots of fiber and the type of omega-3 fatty acids called alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA. Flax is a better source of ALA than chia seeds, although chia seeds also have many health-promoting effects. One ounce of flaxseeds contains about 6,000 milligrams of ALA compared to about 4,900 in the same amount of chia seeds.
Chia seeds are small, round, either white or black seeds that originated thousands of years ago in Mexico and South America. Like flax, chia can absorb lots of water, contribute to the feeling of fullness, prevent constipation and help with digestive health.
Flaxseeds contain less fiber than chia seeds. Flax has about eight grams of fiber in one ounce compared to about 11 grams in one ounce of chia seeds. Both form a gel during digestion when combined with liquid, which blocks the fiber from releasing sugars and being fully broken down. This helps with blood sugar control, forming bowel movements and lowering cholesterol.
Only flaxseeds contain high levels of lignans, while chia seeds do not. However, chia seeds have other antioxidants, especially black chia seeds, which are very nutrient-dense.
Chia seeds contain more calcium than flax seeds do, making them a good addition to a vegan/plant-based diet. They also provide other vitamins and minerals, like zinc, copper, phosphorus, manganese, magnesium and potassium (similar to flaxseeds).
Flaxseed protein levels are impressive, with slightly more than chia seeds, although both are good sources.
Chia seeds can be consumed in any form, while flax should ideally be sprouted and ground. Flax are more susceptible to going rancid over time, so they should be kept in the refrigerator to prolong their freshness. Both are very useful in gluten-free or vegan baking and cooking.
Where to Find and How to Use Flaxseed
Look for flaxseed in major grocery stores, health food stores and online. These days they are widely available in supermarkets and might also be found in “bulk bin” sections of some health food stores where they are sold by the pound.
Flaxseeds vs. Flaxseed Meal vs. Sprouted Flaxseeds:
The very best way to experience the benefits of flaxseed is to consume flaxseeds in their sprouted form. Soaking them and then sprouting them eliminates phytic acid and may greatly increase mineral absorption. The Flax Council of Canada recommends soaking flaxseeds for minimum 10 minutes in warm water or for two hours in colder water. Some also soak the seeds overnight and then add the entire gel-like mixture (seeds plus water) to recipes.
Flaxseeds are best consumed ground, as our bodies cannot access the nutrients found inside the seeds if they are eaten whole. Whole seeds will mostly pass through our GI system undigested, so it’s always best to grind them or to use ground flaxseed meal to get the most benefits of flaxseed.
You can grind whole flaxseeds in a coffee grinder, which is best done immediately before eating them so they do not spend much time exposed to air.
You can also buy flaxseeds pre-ground as flaxseed meal (or golden flaxseed meal).
Like other sources of fiber, including chia seeds and hemp seeds, make sure to take them with plenty of water or other fluids.
There are many great ways to add these super seeds into your diet, including adding them to homemade muffins, breads and cookies. How much flaxseed should you eat a day? Aim for about two to three tablespoons daily for proper dietary flaxseed supplementation. You might want to use more or less depending on your goals and how you react to consuming flaxseeds, so it’s best to monitor how you feel to find the right amount.
What about storage of flaxseeds? While many sources recommend that you store your flaxseeds (ground or whole) in an opaque container in the fridge or freezer, the Flax Council of Canada differs: “Studies conducted by the Flax Council of Canada show that coarsely ground flax seeds can be stored at room temperature for up to 10 months, without spoilage or loss of the omega-3 fatty acid, ALA.”
Baking and Cooking with Flaxseeds:
One of the most common questions regarding the use of flaxseeds in recipes is whether baking has any effect on flax’s omega-3 fatty acids. According to many studies, you can bake flaxseeds at 300 degrees Fahrenheit for about three hours and the omega-3s (ALA) in flaxseeds will remain stable.
Here are tips for including flaxseeds in recipes:
Add 1–3 tablespoons of ground flaxseed to a morning smoothie. Add plenty of water or almond/coconut milk, due to how the flaxseeds absorb liquid.
Mix a tablespoon in with yogurt with some raw honey.
Bake ground flaxseeds into muffins, cookies and breads.
Add to homemade sprouted granola.
Mix with water and use as an egg substitute in vegetarian/vegan recipes.
Flaxseed Recipe Ideas
Flaxseed is one of the oldest cultivated crops known to man, having been grown and consumed for thousands of years. According to info in the Journal of Food Science and Technology, the Latin name of the flaxseed is Linum usitatissimum, which means “very useful.” Flaxseeds were eaten 5,000 years ago in ancient Babylon, consumed by Aztec warriors and also a favorite food of King Charlemagne in the eighth century.
In the U.S., flaxseed was first introduced by early colonists and used primarily for making fabric, paper and clothes due to its high fiber content, which adds strength and durability. Flaxseeds have also been historically fed to livestock to increase their health.
Around the 1990s, flaxseeds began gaining popularity in the health food industry as they became the focus of diets used to fight heart disease and other illnesses. Today they are considered one of the best foods for reducing inflammation and promoting gut health, whether someone is a vegetarian, vegan, following the Paleo diet, or on a low-carb or even ketogenic diet.
Potential Flaxseed Side Effects and Precautions
What are the potential side effects of eating flaxseeds and dietary flaxseed supplementation? When you first introduce flax, and therefore a lot of fiber, to your diet you might temporarily experience some of these side effects:
Bloating and gas
Potentially hormonal changes if you consume large amounts
The fiber in flaxseed may impair absorption of some medications. Also, be aware that flaxseed acts as a blood thinner, so if you’re taking any blood thinners such aspirin or other NSAIDs, you should avoid flaxseed consumption.
Additionally, avoid flaxseeds if you have hormone-sensitive breast or uterine cancer, and use with caution if you have high cholesterol and are taking cholesterol-lowering drugs.
Flaxseeds, sometimes called linseeds, are small, brown, tan or golden-colored seeds. They contain the omega-3 fatty acid called ALA, protein, fiber, minerals like magnesium and phosphorus, and antioxidants called lignans.
Benefits of flaxseed include helping improve digestion, giving you clearer skin, lowering cholesterol, reducing sugar cravings, balancing hormones, helping with weight loss, treating constipation and helping fight cancer.
Use ground, sprouted flaxseeds for the most benefits. Consume about two to three tablespoons of whole or ground flaxseeds (also called flaxseed meal) daily, or have about one to two teaspoons of flaxseed oil.