Flaxseed as a dietary supplement: A review from the Wake Forest Center for Botanical Lipids

We recently took a look at The Wake Forest University Center for Botanical Lipids website. This Center is one of five such dietary supplement research centers funded through the federal government’s National Institutes of Health–so this website represents our tax dollars at work!

The main goal of this new research center is to “determine the role of fatty acid based dietary supplements in the prevention and treatment of chronic human diseases associated with inflammation.” The center’s website also makes the point that “nearly 20% of Americans use dietary supplements, many of them botanicals, but scientific evidence for their safe and effective use in the prevention or treatment of human diseases has lagged behind the use of the products.”

Actually, we think the 20% estimate may be on the low side, especially if you include use of basic multivitamins; and certainly among groups with chronic conditions (such as osteoarthritis) the rate of supplement use is often higher than 20%. But we certainly agree that we need more scientific evidence about the effectiveness and safety of supplements, and we’re glad to know that the NIH has continued to fund such research, especially through its National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and its Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS).

OK, enough of the federal governmental acronyms, and back to the Wake Forest website. We’re pleased to see that it includes a user-friendly section with some publications easily understood by the general public (“Articles for Everyday People”). Here’s a sample from the piece entitled “The Use of Dietary Flaxseed for the Prevention of Human Disease”:

Flaxseed (also called linseed) has been a part of the human and animal diet for thousands of years. It is the richest known plant source of omega-3 fatty acids – 58% of the total fat in flax is composed of alpha-linolenic acid (LNA); however, this fatty acid is a short chain omega-3 as opposed to the long chain omega 3s found in fish oil. A number of studies have shown that flaxseed does not replace fish oil in the diet because the conversion of LNA to the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil is very inefficient.

Flaxseed is also a minor source of the omega-6 fatty acid linoleic acid (LA), which makes up about 14% of the total fat content. LNA and LA are essential fatty acids, meaning they cannot be made in the body and instead must be present in the diet. LNA is thought to be necessary for the proper function of cell membranes and nerve cells. In addition to LNA, flaxseed also contains soluble and insoluble fiber and lignans, which are antioxidants and estrogen precursors called phytoestrogens.

Flaxseed provides a healthy balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which is thought to have beneficial effects on many diseases, especially those with a strong inflammatory component, such as inflammatory bowel disease, arthritis, asthma, gout, and lupus. Flaxseed oil has been used to treat burns, acne, eczema, rosacea, and other skin disorders, and it promotes healthy hair and nails. Flaxseed has been suggested to minimize nerve damage in degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and may guard against the effects of aging.

The lignans in flaxseed may also play a role in cancer treatment and prevention, especially in women with breast cancer. The phytoestrogens found in flaxseed are thought to act as “designer estrogens” and are a good supplement to regular therapy (1). In a study of women with breast cancer, those who consumed 25 grams of flaxseed oil per day saw a reduction in tumor growth compared to placebo controls (2). The LNA in flaxseed may decrease the risk of sudden cardiac death by stabilizing the electrical system of the heart and preventing potentially fatal irregularities in heart rhythm. In a study of more than 75,000 women, those who consumed more than 1.5 grams of flaxseed per day had a 46% lower risk of cardiac death than women who consumed less than 0.5 grams per day (3).

While most studies show a benefit of flaxseed oil, there have been studies which have not been positive. In 5 out of 6 epidemiological studies on prostate cancer, flaxseed was shown to increase cancer risk, and LNA is a strong growth stimulus in isolated prostate cancer cells (4). Neither of these effects has been seen with fish oil. In addition, recent studies suggest that flaxseed may increase the risk of macular degeneration or speed up the progression of the disease.

In a nutshell: flaxseed looks to be very interesting for breast cancer and cardiovascular disease, but not recommended when prostate cancer or prostate cancer risk is present.


One thought on “Flaxseed as a dietary supplement: A review from the Wake Forest Center for Botanical Lipids

  1. Why eat omega-3 fatty acids from flax seed?
    Dietary deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids can cause long term damage to human health. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recognized the importance of omega-3 to public health and their importance to coronary health.
    Here is a problem:
    The omega-3 in American diet has decreased gradually over time with the increased consumption of processed foods. On the other hand dietary levels of Omega-6 fatty acids have increased due to consumption of oils that are rich in omega-6 fatty acids. This dietary imbalance of omega fatty acids has created unfavorable ratio of omega 3:omega 6 in our body.
    It is not just the amount of omega-3 consumed but the amount of omega-3 in relation to the amount of omega-6 oils consumed that is important to keep the ratio to a favorable level of 1:4 (omega 3:omega 6).
    Flaxseed provides one of the only non-animal sources of omega-3 that contains significantly more omega-3 than omega-6. About 57% of total oil in flaxseed is in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an Omega-3 fatty acid that is essential for human health. To improve omega-3 levels and ratio between omega 3 and Omega 6, it is important to consume foods that contain significantly higher levels of omega-3 than omega-6. There are very few foods that do that – Flaxseed is one of them.
    The ALA is converted by the body into eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) omega-3s that are found in fish oils. The EPA and DHA are also essential omega-3 fatty acids for human health. The conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA is not a very efficient process in body but remember a diet rich in flax seed, will provide all three omega-3 fatty acids that are essential to healthy human health.
    How flax seeds help your health?
    Flax seed promote cardiovascular health: Omega-3 fatty acids present in flax seed will lower LDL (bad) cholesterol levels.
    Flax seed promote colon health: Fiber in the flax seed works excellent for people suffering from constipation.
    Flax seed can boost immunity: Eating flax seeds will improve your resistance to diseases and promotes good health.
    Flax seed provides oil for brain development:
    Flax seed have anti-inflammatory benefits: Omega-3 fats in flax seed can help reduce the inflammation that is a significant factor in conditions such as asthma, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, migraine headaches, and osteoporosis.
    Flax seed help fight breast cancer: Flaxseed plays a role in the prevention and treatment of breast cancer and that the lignans may in part be responsible for its effect. The nature of the effect depends on the stage of the cancer process at which flax seed are introduced in the diet.
    Flax seed works as a natural weight loss product: Flax seed are rich in oil, a high energy nutrient. Eating flaxseed give you “satisfied” feeling. The feeling that you get when you have completed a meal. Nutritionists term this as satiety – the feeling of fullness. Foods with minimal nutritive value leave you still craving food. Eating flax seed will reduce your overall daily food intake and assist you with weight management.
    How flax seed is promoted for use?
    Herbalists promote the use of flaxseed for constipation, abdominal problems, breathing problems, sore throat, eczema, menstrual problems, arthritis, to lower cholesterol levels, boost the immune system, and prevent cancer.
    Sources of flax seed:
    Flax seed can be purchased at most supermarkets, bulk-food stores, and natural health food stores or directly through many manufacturers.
    Common sources of flax seed are:
    Whole flax seed
    Ground flax seed/milled flax seed
    FlaxPro Ready to eat whole flax seed
    Flax seed meal capsules
    Other forms of flax seed: cereals, breads, crackers, energy bars, muffin, waffle mix and snacks (chips, trail mixes and muesli).
    Omega-3 enriched eggs (hens are fed the flax seed meal)
    Safe Use of Flax seeds
    Flaxseed is generally believed to be safe. However, there are some potential risks to consider. As with many substances, there have been reports of life-threatening allergic reactions to flaxseed. Because of its potential effects on estrogen, pregnant or breast-feeding women should probably avoid flaxseed. Flaxseed may not be safe for women with a history of estrogen-sensitive cancer, such as breast cancer or uterine cancer. Do not apply flaxseed to open wounds or broken skin.
    People with known allergy to flaxseed or any other members of the Linaceae plant family or Linum genus should avoid flaxseed products. Based on animal studies, overdose of flaxseed may cause shortness of breath, rapid breathing, weakness, or difficulty walking, and may cause seizures or paralysis. Large amounts of flaxseed by mouth may cause the intestines to stop moving (ileus). People with narrowing of the esophagus or intestine, ileus, or bowel obstruction should avoid flaxseed. Talk with your doctor before consuming large amounts of flaxseed. Consult a healthcare provider immediately if you experience side effects.
    Click here for more information on safe use of flax seed


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