Flax Seed (Linum usitatissimum)

Flax Flower.jpgThe flax plant (Linum usitatissimum) has been put to a variety of interesting uses in many cultures over the past 5,000 years. As anyone who has seen a field of flax in bloom, it is a beautiful plant, with thin, tall stalks and a delicate, blue to violet flower.  But, it's also a very useful plant, yielding nutritious seeds, high quality oil and fiber.

The fibers were used to make clothing, fish nets and ships’ sails by the Greeks and Romans. The fiber made from flax is called linen.  The Egyptians used linen to wrap their rulers in before entombing them. Linen is also mentioned in the Bible as a source of fine clothing for the High Priests and as the material for the robe Joseph of Arimathea used to wrap the body of Jesus.

Flax seeds yield a high quality oil, which has many uses.  The Egyptians burned it in lamps.  It has also been used in making paints and varnishes and for polishing wood, where it is known as linseed oil.  It was even used to make linoleum. 

Flax seeds have an equally long and illustrious history in food and medicine. Hippocrates, considered the father of modern western medicine, recommended their use for inflammation of the mucous membranes. And in the 20th century Mahatma Gandhi was quoted as saying,  ”Wherever flax seeds become a regular food item among the people, there will be better health.”

Today the seeds  are commonly used as a remedy for constipation, as they swell in the intestines and produce a gentle laxative action. My favorite bulk laxative is a blend of psyllium hulls mixed half and half with freshly ground flax seeds.  Flax seeds are very lubricating and helpful for those who have a tendency to dry stools.

An infusion of the seeds—flavored with honey and lemon juice—was used by the Cherokees and continues to be used today as a cure for coughs and sore throat. Crushed, they can be used in a poultice, to be applied to boils, abscesses, ulcers, burns, eczema and arthritis.

Flax Oil and Essential Fatty Acids

The property for which flax seeds are currently most famous is their high content of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. These two fatty acids are called “essential”  (“EFAs”) because they cannot be produced by the body from other fats.

That means we have to get them in sufficient quantity in our food, which—you guessed it!—most Americans don’t do. Omega-6 is the easier of the two—it’s present in most vegetable oils, like corn oil, sunflower and safflower oil. Omega-3 is more elusive.

You can get omega-3 from the cod liver oil, something your grandparents may have taken that is still available as a nutritional supplement today.  You can also get it from other fish oils and from krill oil.  Deep ocean fish and wild game are also good sources of omega-3.  

The high omega-3 eggs you now see in grocery stores are probably the result of adding flax seed to the diet of chickens.  Unfortunately, you won't find a lot of omega-3 in farm-raised fish because there diet doesn't contain a lot of omega 3.

The great thing about flax seed oil is that it contains Omega-6 and Omega-3 in the proper balance, making it one of the best oils with which to supplement the diet to ensure adequate intake of EFAs. It can be taken in capsules or used in place of other oils on salads or in soups. It is better not to use it for frying, though, as heat destroys its healthful benefits.

Omega-3 fatty acids inhibit the inflammatory response, reducing effects of rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory conditions.  They increase oxidation of tissues, enhance metabolic rate and improve energy levels by augmenting the prostaglandins which govern cell activities. Omega-3 also balances the hormones that aid in weight loss by improving glandular function.

My favorite way to use flax seed oil is to make flax seed oil butter.  This is a soft-spread butter that is high in fat soluble vitamins, essential fatty acids and other good fats.  You start with organic, grass-fed butter, which you put into a glass container and allow to soften to room temperature. 

You then add about one-half to three quarters the amount of flax seed oil as butter. (One pound of butter is 2 cups, so you would add 1 to 1-1/2 cups of flax oil to one pound of butter.  The more oil you add, the softer the spread.)  Blend the oil and butter together with a hand mixer until it is smooth and refrigerate. 

Flax Lignans

In addition to its Omega-3 and Omega-6 benefits, flax seed oil contains substances called lignans in concentrations about 100 times higher than most whole grains. Lignins are very weak phytoestrogens, which block estrogen receptor sites from being stimulated by xenoestrogens.  Researchers have found that populations that consume high levels of lignans have lower rates of breast cancer and colon cancer.

In Canada, Nature's Sunshine carries a product called Flax Hull Lignans.  This is a fantastic product and can be very helpful for preventing estrogen-related cancers.  It can even be used as part of a natural therapy for estrogen-dependent cancers like breast and prostate cancer.

Besides being available as a bulk liquid oil and as an oil in gel capsules, flax also lends its healing properties to the following NSP formulas: Breast Assured, Focus Attention, Irritable Bowel Fiber, Loclo, and GreenZone powder.

Selected References:

A Modern Herbal by Mrs. M. Grieve

The Wild Rose Scientific Herbal by Terry Willard, Ph.D.

The Green Pharmacy by James A. Duke, Ph.D.

The Complete Medicinal Herbal by Penelope Ody