Benefits of flaxseed

by Nathan Wei, MD, FACP, FACR

Nathan Wei is a nationally known board-certified rheumatologist and author of the Second Opinion Arthritis Treatment Kit. It's available exclusively at this website... not available in stores.

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Many of my patients use flaxseed in their diets. Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, WebMD Expert, has written a wonderful column on the benefits of flaxseed and the following are excerpts...

"Today flax is experiencing a rebirth among nutritionists and the health conscious public alike," says Kaye Effertz, executive director of AmeriFlax, a trade promotion group representing U.S. flaxseed producers.

The reason for the increasing interest in flaxseed is its apparent benefits for a number of medical conditions, says Roberta Lee, MD, medical director of the Center for Health and Healing at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in New York.

"Flaxseed is high in omega-3 essential fatty acids," Lee explains. It's the omega 3s -- that researchers are looking at in terms of their possible effects on lowering cholesterol, stabilizing blood sugar, lowering the risk of breast, prostate, and colon cancers, and reducing the inflammation of arthritis, as well as the inflammation that accompanies certain illnesses such as Parkinson's disease and asthma.

(From the NIH) For systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), flaxseed is thought to improve kidney function by decreasing the thickness of blood, reducing cholesterol levels, and reducing swelling.

Emerging scientific evidence has shown health benefits of omega-3 fats, particularly omega-3s from fish and flaxseed. Scientific claims have been made regarding the relationship between diets high in omega-3s and decreased incidence of diseases and disease symptoms. Heart disease, asthma, arthritis, and lupus are just a few of the conditions that have been reported as benefiting from omega-3 intake.

In addition to the omega-3s, the remaining two components of flaxseed -- lignans and fiber -- are being studied for their health benefits as well, says Diane Morris, PhD, RD, spokesperson for the Flax Council of Canada. Lignans, for example, act as both phytoestrogens and antioxidants, while the fiber contained in the flaxseed is of both the soluble and insoluble type. "Flax is an interesting mixture of nutrients and other components," says Morris.

At the John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, Calif., investigators are looking into the effect of essential fatty acids on breast cancer, says Rachel Beller, MS, RD, director of the Brander Nutritional Oncology Counseling and Research Program. But here, too, says Beller, it's too soon to have any conclusive findings.

In addition to research on breast cancer, Morris says, other studies are looking at heart disease, blood pressure, diabetes, menopause, osteoporosis, and inflammatory bowel disease, to name just a few.

Dry eye syndrome is another condition that flaxseed has been used for with a modicum of success.

Flaxseed is available in supermarkets and health food stores and comes in whole seeds, ground seeds, or oil. Most nutrition experts recommend the ground seeds, which have "all the goodies," says Morris -- the fiber, the lignans, and the essential fatty acids. Whole seeds will pass through your system undigested, she says, while the oil lacks the fiber, which, if nothing else, will help alleviate any problems of constipation. (Some patients with diverticulosis, however, find the ground flaxseed too irritating; for those people, says Lee, the flaxseed oil is a better choice.)

Rachel Beller recommends buying ground flaxseed in vacuum-packed bags. Most people refrigerate their flaxseed, but Morris says that's not a necessity (even though she does it herself). Whole seeds will last from 10-12 months, she says, while ground flax has a shelf life of about four months, even out of the refrigerator.

The recommended daily amount of flaxseed is approximately 1-2 tablespoons of ground flaxseed, or 1 teaspoon of flax oil (which is best used cold, perhaps mixed in a vinaigrette salad dressing). Morris' favorite way to get her flaxseed is to mix a tablespoon of the ground seeds with 2 tablespoons of honey, and then spread the mixture on toast. "It has a nutty flavor," she says, "and is a great alternative to buttering your toast."

Texas nutritionist Natalie Elliott offers these additional suggestions for adding flax to your diet:

Sprinkle ground flax on cereal, yogurt, or salads.
Mix flax into meatloaf or meatballs.
Add ground flax to pancake, muffin, or cookie batter, or other baked goods such as pie crust.
Coat fish or homemade chicken nuggets in ground flaxseed and oven fry.
Toss salads with flax oil and vinegar.

Or try one of her favorites, "Nat's Flax Snacks":

1 cup Karo corn syrup
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup smooth peanut butter
1 cup ground flax
1 teaspoon vanilla
6 cups of Rice Krispies

Mix together the first five ingredients in a saucepot over low heat until melted and smooth. Add Rice Krispies to the pot and stir. Pour contents into a buttered 9"x13" pan. Press down to flatten. Stir, cool, and cut into 8 bars.

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