Getting Your Omega-3s From Flax Seeds

Flax seeds (Linum usitatissimum) are members of the Linaceae family.

Spun, dyed, and knotted wild flax fibers found in a cave in Dzudzuana, in the present day Republic of Georgia, have been dated to 30,000 years ago.

Flax was probably first domesticated in the Fertile Crescent region of Mesopotamia during the Holocene epoch, which began 11,700 years ago, along with peaslentilschickpeas, emmer wheat, barley, einkorn wheat, and bitter vetch.

Flax seeds have been used for at least 10,000 years in what is now Turkey.

Ancient Egyptians developed a successful agrarian economy around the Nile River and its annual flooding. When the water subsided, the crops were planted. Growing flax came to be as important as growing grain. The Pharaoh personally owned the largest part of the flax growing area, and placed the flax harvest under the control of a high officer of his court. The art of weaving was highly developed, and Egypt was famous for its fine fabric. Linen was used to wrap the mummies of ancient Egypt dating back at least 7,000 years ago. In Egyptian homes, flax seeds were ground in a simple stone mill called a quern. At the industrial level, people were hired to pound ground flax meal. Two methods were used to obtain oil from the seeds. In the decanting method, hot water was poured over the crushed seeds and the oil was scooped out when the mixture had settled, or the seeds were placed in water, heated over a fire and the oil was skimmed off the surface. This method yielded an oil suitable for domestic, medicinal, and religious applications. Ancient Egyptians used flax seeds as anti-inflammatory agents as well as for gastro-intestinal problems. The second method involved pressing the oil out of the seeds, which resulted in a coarse, industrial oil.

The Babylonians may have been the earliest people to cultivate flax as a food source. By 2,000 BC, irrigation ditches were formed along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers of the Fertile Crescent to insure a good water supply for the fields of flax.

Flax seeds were grown in India for centuries and were consumed as a food. Indian Ayervedic practitioners used flax seed to treat heart conditions, burns, swelling, and eye problems.

The Old Testament mentions that the seventh plague of Egypt, a hail storm that would have occurred in the 14th century BC, destroyed the flax fields.

In his epic poem The Iliad (8th century BC) Homer wrote that linen was used for cord and sail-cloth, an indication that the Greeks were cultivating flax and were likely consuming the seeds as well.

Hippocrates (460 to 377 BC), a Greek physician often called the “Father of Medicine,” recognized the value of flax in relieving numerous intestinal disorders.

When the Romans conquered Gaul in 57 BC, they discovered extensive fields of flax growing there, as well as the high-quality linen woven in the region. Wherever flax was grown for its linen, it’s likely that the seeds of the plant were put to use as food or medicine.

Pliny the Elder  included thirty uses for flax seeds in Historia Naturalis, his encyclopedia of natural science, written in 77-79 AD.

Charlemagne (742-814) made detailed directives regarding the cultivation and use of flax for food and medicine. He ordered his subjects to consume flax to maintain good health and prevent disease.

The Slavic tribes were the first to begin cultivating flax in Eastern Europe, having brought it from Greece. It was used to make fishing nets, ropes, sailcloth and linseed oil. By the 10th and 11th centuries, flax was grown extensively in Russia, where people used both the fiber and seed.

In the 15th century, Hildegard von Bingen used flax meal in hot compresses for the treatment of both external and internal ailments.

By the 16th century, flax cultivation for linen production was a lucrative industry in Flanders, and flax seeds were consumed as food throughout Europe. Germans, especially, used them in a variety of whole-grain breads, a practice that continues today.

Cultivated flax made its first appearance in North America in the early 17th century. Lois Hébert, thought to be the first European farmer in Canada, brought the seed with him to “New France.” Over the years, flax production spread across the continent.

In the colonial United States, the early colonists grew small fields of flax for home use, and commercial production of fiber flax began in 1753. However, with the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, flax production began to decline in the U.S.

In the late 1800s European settlers were planting flax in western Canada. Flax thrived on this “first breaking” of the prairie.

Mahatma Ghandi (1869-1948) once said, “Whenever flaxseeds become a regular food item among the people, there will be better health.” Two world wars increased demand for flax as a source of oil and fiber, although during the 1940s, fiber flax production in the U.S. dropped to nearly zero. By the middle of the 20th century, flax products were used worldwide. Flax oil-based coatings beautified and protected wood and concrete surfaces, flax-based linoleum was a popular flooring material, linen remained a popular fabric, and flax seed continued to form part of people’s diets. In the 1950s, German biochemist Dr. Johanna Budwig discovered that flax seeds play an important role in the function of all body processes from normalizing blood pressure to boosting the immune system. Inspired by her work, Nature’s Distributors, Inc. introduced raw, unrefined, food-grade flax seed oil into the U.S. in 1986.

The popularity of flax for human consumption has continued its dramatic increase, especially among health-conscious people. As with other oil-rich seeds, flax seeds are high in calories, but when you consume them as ground seeds instead of refined oil, they are an excellent source of fiber, minerals, antioxidants, and vitamins. They are rich in monounsaturated fatty acids like oleic acid, and one of the best sources of the essential fatty acids linoleic acid, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), and arachidonic acids.

Flax seeds can:

  1. Fight free radicals and chronic inflammation. The antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits of flax seed can prevent cardiovascular disease, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, asthma, obesity, metabolic syndrome, cancer, and a wide variety of other health problems. Omega-3 fatty acids, by their virtue of their anti-inflammatory action, help to lower the risk of high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, strokes, and breast, colon and prostate cancers. Gamma-tocopherol in flax seeds exhibits anti-inflammatory effects, so it may protect your heart better than the alpha-tocopherol found in most supplements. Gamma-tocopherol is also highly attracted to the nucleus in your cells, which is the site where mutations in your genetic code can promote the development of cancer. Manganese in flax seeds is a co-factor for the antioxidant enzyme, superoxide dismutase, which disarms free radicals produced within the mitochondria (the energy production factories within your cells). Lignans in flax seeds are a class of phytoestrogens with antioxidant and cancer-preventing properties. Secoisolariciresinol in flax seeds is a potent antioxidant and phytoestrogen that protects your body’s cells from dangerous free radicals.
  2. Promote cardiovascular health. The primary omega-3 fatty acid in flax seeds is alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA. (Flax seed oil consists of approximately 55% ALA.) As the building block for messaging molecules that help prevent excessive inflammation, ALA can help protect your blood vessels from inflammatory damage. When you eat flax seeds, two other omega-3 fatty acids also increase in your bloodstream: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosapentaenoic acid (DPA), which also help provide inflammatory protection. The lignans in flax seeds also protect your blood vessels from inflammatory damage by inhibiting the formation of pro-inflammatory platelet activating factor (PAF). The ALA and lignans in flax seeds also decrease C-reactive protein (CRP) levels, which indicate inflammation in the cardiovascular system. Polyphenols in flax seeds, particlularly the lignan secoisolariciresinol, decrease lipid peroxidation and decrease the presence of reactive oxygen species (ROS) in your blood steam. Secoisolariciresinol protects you from heart disease  and may prevent atherosclerosis, and hyperlipidaemia (an abnormally high concentration of fats or lipids in the blood). It may also reduce blood levels of low density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad”) cholesterol, reduce high blood pressure, and increase cardiovascular health. Flax seeds increase the level of high-density lipoprotein (HDL or “good”) cholesterol. They also increase the level of apolipoprotein A1, which is the major protein found in HDL cholesterol. This HDL-related benefit may be partly due to the fiber content of flax seeds: 2 tablespoons of ground flax seed provide about 4 grams of dietary fiber. The omega-3 fatty acids in flax seeds help regulate blood pressure and help reduce high blood pressure. Thiamine in flax seeds supports proper heart function. Magnesium in flax seeds keeps heart rhythm steady, and promotes normal blood pressure.
  3. Prevent cancer. The antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of flax seeds also help prevent cancer, because chronic inflammation and chronic oxidative stress are risk factors for cancer development. Gamma-tocopherol in flax seeds appears to kill cancer cells by interrupting the synthesis of sphingolipid, a fatty molecule in cell membranes that acts as a signaling messenger to modulate events inside the cell. Your intestinal bacteria can convert three of the lignans in flax seeds (secoisolariciresinol, matairecinol, and pinoresinol) into enterolactone (ENL) and enterodiol (END). ENL and END directly affect your hormonal balance, and may play an especially important role in preventing hormone-related cancers, including breast cancer and prostate cancer, and in altering the course of hormone-dependent tumors. The lignans in flax seeds reduce risk of colon cancer. They also help deactivate toxins in your body that might otherwise act as carcinogens.
  4. Give you energy and strength.  Manganese activates enzymes for using several key nutrients, and facilitates protein and carbohydrate metabolism and formation of bone. Thiamine in flax seeds maintains your energy supplies, and coordinates the activity of nerves and muscle. Magnesium in flax seeds helps maintain normal muscle and nerve function, keeps bones strong, and is involved in energy metabolism and protein synthesis. Secoisolariciresinol in flax seeds protects you from osteoporosis.
  5. Promote digestive health. The high fiber content of flax seeds, including their mucilaginous fiber, helps to delay gastric emptying and can improve intestinal absorption of nutrients. Flax seed fiber also help to steady the passage of food through your intestines.
  6. Regulate hormone production. ENL from flax seed lignans can promote estrogen production through increased formation of transcription factors like ER-alpha and ER-beta. It can also reduce estrogen production by inhibiting enzymes like estrogen synthetase. ENL lowers the activity of 5-alpha-reductase (an enzyme that converts testosterone into dihydrotestosterone) and 17-beta hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase (an enzyme that converts estrone into estradiol). This hormone regulation may reduce unwanted menopause symptoms such as hot flashes.
  7. Maintain healthy blood sugar. The fiber, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory content of flax seeds help decrease insulin resistance. Magnesium in flax seeds helps regulate blood sugar levels. Secoisolariciresinol in flax seeds protects you from diabetes. Matairesinol in flax seeds improves glucose control and insulin resistance.
  8. Promote a healthy brain and nervous systemOmega-3 fatty acids are required for normal infant development nervous system maturation. Thiamine in flax seeds is critical for brain cell and cognitive function.

Nutrients in 2 Tablespoons Ground Flax Seeds

Nutrient

Amount

Daily Value

omega-3 fatty acids

3.19 g

132.92%

gamma-tocopherol

2.79 mg

18.55%

manganese

0.35 mg

17.5%

thiamine

0.23 mg

15.33%

fiber

3.82 g

15.28%

magnesium

54.88 mg

13.72%

fat

5.9 g

9.08%

phosphorus

89.88 mg

8.99%

copper

0.17 mg

8.5%

protein

2.56 g

5.12%

selenium

3.56 mg

5.09%

iron

0.8 mg

4.44%

Calories

74.76

4.15%

zinc

0.61 mg

4.07%

calcium

35.7 mg

3.57%

vitamin B6

0.07 mg

3.5%

potassium

113.82 mg

3.25%

folate

12.18 µg

3.04%

choline

11.02 mg

2.59%

niacin

0.43 mg

2.15%

pantothenic acid

0.14 mg

1.4%

carbohydrates

4.04

1.35%

riboflavin

0.02 mg

1.18%

vitamin K

0.6 µg

0.75%

sodium

4.2 mg

0.17%

vitamin C

0.08 mg

0.13%

cholesterol

0 mg

0%

You can purchase whole flax seeds either packaged or in the bulk section of your grocery store. Make sure that there is no evidence of moisture. If you buy in the bulk section, make sure that the bins containing the flax seeds are covered and that the store has a good product turnover so as to ensure maximum freshness.

Store whole flax seeds, in an airtight, opaque container either in a dry and cool place, where they will last 6-12 months, or in the refrigerator, where they may last for 1-2 years.

Because whole flax seeds tend to pass through your digestive tract intact, they need to be ground into a meal to give you the maximum benefits from their omega-3 fatty acidsfiber, and other nutrients. You can use an inexpensive spice or coffee grinder and dedicate its use to grinding flax seeds, or you can use a high-speed food processor or blender. Store ground flax seeds in the refrigerator, and consume them quickly, because the oil in the seeds oxidizes rapidly. While you can purchase flax seeds already ground for convenience, they tend to have a very short shelf life after you open them, which is why it’s best to buy them whole and grind small quantities as you need them.

Try to consume 2 tablespoons of ground flax seed daily, and make sure you drink plenty of water. Flax seeds are 35–40% oil, so you can omit a similar amount of oil from any recipe requiring oil that also includes ground flax seeds.

Here are some other ideas for using flax seeds:

  • Sprinkle ground flax seeds onto your hot or cold cereal
  • Combine lemon juice with ground flax seeds and freshly crushed garlic and pepper to make a light and refreshing salad dressing
  • Add ground flax seeds on top of dishes including salads, stir-fry, soup, or stew
  • Whisk 1 tablespoon of ground flax seeds with 3 tablespoons of warm water, let sit for 2-3 minutes, and use in place of one egg in recipes that call for egg as a binder, such as baked goods, loaves, or patties
  • Add flax seeds to your homemade muffin, cookie, or bread recipes
  • Add ground flax seeds to your shakes and smoothies
  • Sprinkle some ground flax seeds on top of cooked vegetables to give them a nutty flavor

This blog uses the latest nutritional data available from the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), and the FDA (United States Food and Drug Administration), as well as nutritional data provided by food growers and manufacturers about their products. We believe the information on this website to be accurate. However, we are not responsible for typographical or other errors. Nutrition information for recipes is calculated by Living Cookbook based on the ingredients in each recipe based on statistical averages. Nutrition may vary based on methods of preparation, origin and freshness of ingredients, and other factors.

This blog is not a substitute for the services of a trained health professional. Although we provide nutritional information, the information on this blog is for informational purposes only. No information offered by or through this blog shall be construed as or understood to be medical advice or care. None of the information on this blog should be used to diagnose or treat any health problem or disease. Consult with a health care provider before taking any product or using any information on this blog. Please discuss any concerns with your health care provider.

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