What Is It?
A source of fiber for linen fabric since ancient times, the slender flax plant (Linum usitatissimum) also boasts a long history as a healing herb. First cultivated in Europe, the plant’s brown seeds were regularly used to prepare balms for inflamed skin and healing slurries for constipation. Today, flaxseeds–also called linseeds–are best known for the therapeutic oil that is derived by pressing them. Rich in essential fatty acids, or EFAs, flaxseed oil has earned a solid reputation for treating a range of ailments, from heart disease to lupus.
The essential fatty acids in flaxseed oil are its key healing components. EFAs are particularly valuable because the body needs them to function properly, but can’t manufacture them on its own. Essential fatty acids work throughout the body to protect cell membranes, keeping them efficient at admitting healthy substances while barring damaging ones.
One of the EFAs in flaxseed oil–alpha-linolenic acid–is known as an omega-3 fatty acid. Like the omega-3s found in fish, it appears to reduce the risk of heart disease and numerous other ailments. Flaxseed oil is an excellent source of omega-3s: Just 1 teaspoon contains about 2.5 grams, equivalent to more than twice the amount most Americans get through their diets. Flaxseeds also contain omega-6 fatty acids in the form of linoleic acid; omega-6s are the same healthy fats found in vegetable oils.
In addition, flaxseeds are a rich source of lignans, substances that appear to positively affect hormone-related problems. Lignans may also be useful in preventing certain cancers and combating specific bacteria, fungi, and viruses, including those that cause cold sores and shingles. When taken in ground form, flaxseeds provide an extra fiber boost, easing the passage of stools and benefiting the digestive tract in multiple ways.
Specifically, flaxseed oil (and flaxseeds) may help to:
Lower cholesterol, protect against heart disease and control high blood pressure. Several studies indicate that flaxseed oil, as well as ground flaxseeds, can lower cholesterol, thereby significantly reducing the risk of heart disease. Taking flaxseed oil may also protect against angina (chest pain) and high blood pressure. In addition, a five-year study done recently at Boston’s Simmons College found that flaxseed oil may be useful in preventing a second heart attack. It may also help prevent elevated blood pressure by inhibiting inflammatory reactions that cause artery-hardening plaque and poor circulation.
Counter inflammation associated with gout, lupus and fibrocystic breasts. Omega-3 fatty acids appear to limit the inflammatory reaction associated with these conditions. In cases of lupus, flaxseed oil not only reduces inflammation in the joints, skin and kidneys, but also lowers cholesterol levels that may be elevated by the disease. Taking flaxseed oil for gout may lessen the often sudden and severe joint pain or swelling that is a symptom of this condition. In addition, the ability of omega-3 fatty acids to boost the absorption of iodine–a mineral often found in low levels in women suffering from fibrocystic breasts–makes flaxseed oil potentially valuable for treating this often painful condition.
Control constipation, hemorrhoids, diverticular disorders and gallstones. Because they are high in dietary fiber, ground flaxseeds can help ease the passage of stools and thus relieve constipation, hemorrhoids and diverticular disease. In those with diverticular disease, flaxseeds may also keep intestinal pouches free of waste and thus keep potential infection at bay. Taken for inflammatory bowel disease, flaxseed oil can help to calm inflammation and repair any intestinal tract damage. In addition, the oil may prevent painful gallstones from developing and even dissolve existing stones.
Treat acne, eczema, psoriasis, sunburn and rosacea. The essential fatty acids in flaxseed oil are largely responsible for its skin-healing powers. Red, itchy patches of eczema, psoriasis and rosacea often respond to the EFA’s anti-inflammatory actions and overall skin-soothing properties. Sunburned skin may heal faster when treated with the oil as well. In cases of acne, the EFAs encourage thinning of the oily sebum that clogs pores.
Promote healthy hair and nails. The abundant omega-3 fatty acids in flaxseed oil have been shown to contribute to healthy hair growth (in fact, low levels of these acids may cause dry and lackluster locks). Hair problems exacerbated by psoriasis or eczema of the scalp may respond to the skin-revitalizing and anti-inflammatory actions of flaxseed oil as well. Similarly, the oil’s EFAs work to nourish dry or brittle nails, stopping them from cracking or splitting.
Minimize nerve damage that causes numbness and tingling as well as other disorders. The EFAs in flaxseed oil assist in the transmission of nerve impulses, making the oil potentially valuable in treating conditions of numbness and tingling. The oil’s nerve-nourishing actions may also help in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative disorder of the nervous system, and protect against the nerve damage associated with diabetes and multiple sclerosis.
Reduce cancer risk and guard against the effects of aging. The lignans in flaxseed appear to play a role in protecting against breast, colon, prostate, and perhaps skin cancer. Although further studies are needed, research undertaken at the University of Toronto indicates that women with breast cancer, regardless of the degree of cancer invasiveness, may benefit from treatment with flaxseed. Interestingly, the lignans may protect against various effects of aging as well.
Treat menstrual cramps, female infertility and endometriosis. Because the hormone-balancing lignans and plant estrogens (phytoestrogens) in flaxseed oil help stabilize a woman’s estrogen-progesterone ratio, they can have beneficial effects on the menstrual cycle. Flaxseed oil may also improve uterine function and thus treat fertility problems. In addition, the essential fatty acids in flaxseed oil have been shown to block production of prostaglandins, hormonelike substances that, when released in excess amounts during menstruation, can cause the heavy bleeding associated with endometriosis.
Fight prostate problems, male infertility and impotence. The EFAs in flaxseed oil may help to prevent swelling and inflammation of the prostate, the small gland located below the bladder in males that tends to enlarge with age. Symptoms of such enlargement, such as urgency to urinate, may lessen as a result. The EFAs also play a role in keeping sperm healthy, which may be of value in treating male infertility, and they can improve blood flow to the penis, a boon for those suffering from impotence.
Note: Flaxseed oil has also been found to be useful for a number of other disorders. For information on these additional ailments, see our Dosage Recommendations Chart for Flaxseed Oil.
–Liquid flaxseed oil is the easiest form to use, although it must be kept refrigerated.
–Capsules containing flaxseed oil are convenient for traveling, but can be quite expensive in comparison to the liquid form. Also, a large number of capsules–approximately 14 containing 1,000 mg of oil each–are needed to get the equivalent of 1 tablespoon of oil.
–If using ground flaxseeds, just add 1 or 2 tablespoons of to an 8-ounce glass of water and mix.
For heart disease prevention, gout, lupus, acne, eczema, cancer prevention, hair or nail problems, endometriosis, male infertility, prostate problems and impotence: Take l tablespoon of flaxseed oil in the morning.
For high blood pressure: Take l tablespoon of flaxseed oil a day, along with 1,000 mg of fish oils three times a day.
For hemorrhoids: Add l tablespoon of ground flaxseeds to an 8-ounce glass of water and drink the mixture once a day. Make sure to drink extra glasses of water throughout the day as well. The treatment make take a few days to have an effect.
For gallstones: Take l tablespoon of flaxseed oil in the morning.
For psoriasis: Take l tablespoon of flaxseed oil each morning, along with 1,000 mg fish oils three times a day.
For sunburn, numbness and tingling: Take l tablespoon of flaxseed oil twice a day.
For diverticular disorders: Add 2 tablespoons of ground flaxseed to an 8-ounce glass of water. Drink this mixture twice a day. Make sure to drink extra glasses of water throughout the day as well. The treatment make take a few days to have an effect.
For menstrual disorders, female infertility and rosacea: Take 1 tablespoon of flaxseed oil a day, along with 1,000 mg of evening primrose oil or borage oil three times a day.
Be sure to check out our Dosage Recommendations Chart for Flaxseed Oil, which has therapeutic dosages for specific ailments at a glance.
Guidelines for Use
For best absorption, take flaxseed oil with food. It is easily mixed into juices and other drinks, and its nutty, buttery flavor complements cottage cheese, yogurt and many other foods. You can also use it instead of olive oil in a salad dressing. Don’t cook with it, however; this will deplete the oil’s nutrient content.
Buy flaxseed oil in an opaque plastic bottle; this will prevent light from spoiling it.
Check the expiration date on the label, as the oil spoils quickly. Keep it refrigerated for freshness. Should the oil develop a powerful odor, discard it.
Avoid buying flaxseed oil marked as “cold-pressed.” This type of processing offers no additional benefits, and processed oils are usually more expensive.
There appear to be few if any drug or nutrient interactions with flaxseeds (or their oil). Because flaxseed may interfere with the absorption of certain medicines, however, it’s a good idea to consult your doctor if you are already on medication and want to take it in any form.
Possible Side Effects
Ground flaxseeds may produce some initial flatulence, but this won’t last long.
To prevent ground flaxseed from swelling up and obstructing your throat or digestive tract, drink plenty of water (one 8-ounce glass of water per tablespoon of ground flaxseed) along with it.
Don’t take flaxseed oil or ground flaxseed if you have a bowel obstruction of any kind.
Allergic reactions to flaxseed have occurred. If you suddenly have difficulty breathing after taking the supplement, it is imperative that you get medical attention promptly.
Flaxseed oil is also called linseed oil. The industrial types of linseed oil found in hardware stores are not for internal consumption, however. They may have poisonous additives.
Acne 1 tbsp. (14 grams) a day
Aging 1 tbsp. (14 grams) a day
Angina 1 tbsp. (14 grams) a day
Back Pain 1 tbsp. (14 grams) a day.
Cancer Prevention 1 tbsp. (14 grams) a day, or 4 capsules 3 times a day
Cataracts 1 tbsp. (14 grams) a day
Cold Sores 1 tbsp. (14 grams) a day
Constipation 1-3 tbsp. ground flaxseeds in large glass of water a day
Crohn’s Disease 1 tbsp. (14 grams) a day
Eczema 1 tbsp. (14 grams) a day
Endometriosis 1 tbsp. (14 grams) a day
Fatigue 1 tbsp. (14 grams) a day
Hair Problems 1 tbsp. (14 grams) a day
Heart Disease Prevention 1 tbsp. (14 grams) a day
Hemorrhoids 1 tbsp. ground flaxseeds a day, mixed into large glass of water
High Blood Pressure 1 tbsp. (14 grams) a day
Impotence 1 tbsp. (14 grams) a day
Infertility, Female 1 tbsp. (14 grams) a day
Infertility, Male 1 tbsp. (14 grams) a day
Kidney Stones 1 tbsp. (14 grams) a day
Lupus 1 tbsp. (14 grams) a day
Menopause 1 tbsp. (14 grams) a day
Multiple Sclerosis 1 tbsp. (14 grams) a day
Perimenopause 1 tbsp. (14 grams) a day
Prostate Problems 1 tbsp. (14 grams) a day
Psoriasis 1 tbsp. (14 grams) a day.
Rosacea 1 tbsp. (14 grams) a day
Shingles 1 tbsp. (14 grams) a day for flare-ups.
Stroke 1 tbsp. (14 grams) a day
Sunburn 1 tbsp. (14 grams) once a day, mixed with food or juice. Can also be dabbed directly on sunburned skin.
David Edelberg, M.D.
Put flaxseed oil on your daily menu and you’re guaranteed a healthy dose of essential fatty acids, compounds that your body needs to function properly but, sadly, can’t manufacture on its own. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more concentrated source of the heart-healthy essential fatty acids known as omega-3s. Just 1 teaspoon of flaxseed oil contains about 2.5 grams, equivalent to more than twice the amount most Americans get through their diets. Flaxseed oil also contains omega-6 fatty acids, the same healthy fats found in vegetable oils. And as if that weren’t enough, flaxseed oil is packed with lignans, substances that benefit hormone-related problems and might even help in fighting infections and preventing certain hormone-sensitive cancers.
HOW IT HELPS HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE
Like fish oil, the effect of flaxseed oil on blood pressure is likely due to its manipulation of prostaglandins. These are hormonelike substances involved in a variety of reactions in the body, including inflammation, the functioning of the heart and digestive system, and blood pressure.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Flaxseed oil is available in capsules or softgels, and as a liquid, which is often stored in a refrigerated case. Try drizzling the liquid form into salad dressings, over rice or potatoes, or in that healthy fruit smoothie you’ve been meaning to have for breakfast every morning instead of the chocolate doughnut.
Flaxseed capsules and the oil are equally effective. I’m not a big fan of flaxseed oil capsules, however, simply because you need so many of them (16!) to equal the 14 grams found in a tablespoonful of the oil. Not only is it inconvenient to swallow so many pills, it’s also more expensive. Sometimes, however, capsules may be the best answer–if you’re traveling, or without refrigeration, or if for some reason you have trouble spooning out the oil. When you’re buying a bottle of flaxseed oil, you want a product that is: Organic Dated, including an expiration date Packaged in an opaque container Labeled with a “Refrigerate after opening” notice Labeled “High lignan” Shopping tip: Buying oil labeled “cold-pressed” is probably a waste of money. It’s neither more pure nor more healthful than oils processed another way. It is, however, more costly.
If you decide to try flaxseed oil, here are a few pointers to help you use it more effectively: Take flaxseed oil with food, which enhances its absorption. Don’t cook with flaxseed oil, because heat destroys the essential nutrients. You can safely add the oil once the food is cooked, however.
David Edelberg, MD