Flaxseeds: Benefits, uses, nutrition, risks, types, side effects

Flaxseeds, often hailed as a nutritional powerhouse, have garnered significant attention in recent years. Originating from the ancient lands of Mesopotamia, these tiny seeds boast a rich history that intertwines with human civilization. 

Packed with an array of nutrients, flaxseeds offer not just dietary advantages but also have been revered in traditional medicine for their myriad health benefits. From promoting heart health to enhancing our skin’s glow, the versatility of flaxseeds extends far beyond the kitchen. 

This guide dives deep into the world of flaxseeds, exploring their benefits, uses, nutritional value, and even potential side effects.

What are flaxseeds?

Flaxseeds, scientifically known as Linum usitatissimum [1], are tiny, flat, and oval-shaped seeds derived from the flax plant—a fiber crop that has been cultivated for thousands of years. 

Their colors can range from deep amber to a rich brown, and their texture is smooth and glossy. Often recognized as one of the oldest crops known to humanity, flaxseeds have been a part of human diets since ancient times, with records indicating their consumption as far back as 5,000 BC [2].

Beyond their culinary appeal, flaxseeds have historically held significance in various cultures for their medicinal and textile uses; the flax plant’s fibers are, for instance, the raw material for linen fabric. 

Nutritionally dense, flaxseeds have emerged in the modern era as a “superfood,” prized for their rich content of omega-3 fatty acids, dietary fiber, and lignans, making them a valuable asset in the pursuit of holistic health.

Flaxseeds nutrition facts

The nutritional profile of flaxseeds is diverse and robust, making them an indispensable addition to a health-conscious diet. The following are approximate values for 1 tablespoon (10 grams) of ground flaxseeds:

Macronutrients

  • Healthy fats:
    • Omega-3 fatty acids (specifically alpha-linolenic acid, ALA): ~2.35 grams
  • Proteins: ~1.3 grams
  • Carbohydrates: ~2 grams (of which dietary fiber is ~1.9 grams)

Micronutrients

  • Minerals:
    • Magnesium: ~27 mg
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    • Manganese: ~0.3 mg (which is around 15% of the daily value for adults)
    • Phosphorus: ~45 mg
  • Vitamins:
    • B1 (thiamine): ~0.15 mg (which is around 13% of the recommended daily intake for adults)
  • Lignans: Flaxseeds are one of the richest sources of lignans, containing up to 800 times more lignans than other plant foods. Exact lignan content can vary, but they often contain several milligrams per serving.

Dietary fiber:

  • Total Fiber: ~1.9 grams
    • Of which soluble fiber forms a significant part, aiding digestion and cholesterol regulation.
Flaxseed health benefits
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Flaxseed health benefits

Flaxseeds are not just a culinary ingredient; they’re a potent source of numerous health benefits that have been recognized and utilized for centuries. Today, where natural remedies are gaining prominence, flaxseeds are often touted as a “superfood.” Here’s why:

1. Cardiovascular health

  • Regulates cholesterol: One of the standout features of flaxseeds is their ability to help regulate cholesterol levels. The alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and the dietary fiber in flaxseeds have been linked to a reduction in LDL (bad) cholesterol, thereby promoting a healthier heart [3].
  • Controls blood pressure: Regular consumption of flaxseeds might also play a role in controlling blood pressure. Studies have found that the nutrients in flaxseeds, especially the ALA, can help reduce high blood pressure levels, which is a critical factor in preventing cardiovascular diseases.

2. Digestive health

  • Rich in dietary fiber: Flaxseeds are an excellent source of soluble and insoluble dietary fiber. Soluble fiber can increase the consistency of the gut’s contents and slow digestion, helping regulate sugar absorption and cholesterol synthesis [4]. 

On the other hand, insoluble fiber promotes material movement through the digestive system and increases stool bulk, which can be beneficial for individuals with constipation or irregular stools.

  • Gut health: Emerging research suggests that the lignans in flaxseeds may also play a role in maintaining a healthy gut. They can act as prebiotics, fostering the growth of beneficial gut bacteria.

3. Anti-inflammatory properties

  • Omega-3 fatty acids: ALA, the omega-3 fatty acid found in flaxseeds, is known for its anti-inflammatory properties. Chronic inflammation is linked to numerous health issues, from heart diseases to arthritis. Consuming flaxseeds regularly can help counteract this inflammation, promoting overall health.

4. Hormonal balance and women’s health

  • Menopausal symptom relief: Flaxseeds, due to their phytoestrogen properties, can sometimes act as a natural alternative to hormone replacement therapy for some women [5]. 

The lignans in flaxseeds have been shown to have estrogenic properties, which can help in reducing hot flashes and other menopausal symptoms.

  • Breast health: Some studies suggest that the consumption of flaxseeds might be linked to a reduced risk of breast cancer, likely due to the presence of ALA and lignans, though more research is needed in this area.

5. Cancer prevention potential

  • Rich in lignans: Flaxseeds are a rich source of lignans, which possess antioxidant properties. These lignans are believed to disrupt the growth of tumor cells and have been associated with reduced risks of certain types of cancer, including breast, prostate, and colon cancer.
  • Omega-3s and cell growth: The ALA in flaxseeds might also play a role in preventing the growth of cancer cells, especially in breast and colon cancers.

6. Cognitive benefits

  • Brain health: Omega-3 fatty acids, like the ALA found in flaxseeds, are crucial for brain health. They are integral to the structure of neural cells. Regular consumption of flaxseeds might aid in preserving cognitive functions, particularly as one ages.
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  • Mood regulation: There’s emerging evidence that suggests ALA can play a role in regulating mood. It might be beneficial in managing symptoms of depression and anxiety, although more comprehensive research is needed.

7. Skin and hair health

  • Natural moisturizer: The healthy fats in flaxseeds can keep the skin hydrated, reducing dryness and flakiness. Furthermore, the anti-inflammatory properties of ALA can help in reducing redness and irritation in skin conditions like acne and rosacea.
  • Strengthens hair: The vitamins and nutrients in flaxseeds can support hair health, making it stronger, shinier, and more resilient to damage.

Different types of flaxseeds

Flaxseeds have been a staple in diets for millennia, but as they have grown in popularity in recent decades, it’s become evident that not all flaxseeds are created equal. 

While they all derive from the flax plant (Linum usitatissimum), there are notable distinctions in types, each offering unique qualities and benefits. Here’s a deeper look:

1. Brown flaxseeds vs. golden flaxseeds

  • Brown flaxseeds: These are the most common variety. They have a deep, nutty flavor and are rich in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), lignans, and fiber. Their nutritional content is comparable to their golden counterparts, making them a versatile choice for many culinary applications.
  • Golden flaxseeds: Often lighter in flavor than brown flaxseeds, golden flaxseeds can sometimes be preferred in lighter dishes due to their milder taste. Nutritionally, they are very similar to brown flaxseeds, with slight variations in ALA content depending on the source.

2. Ground flaxseeds vs. whole flaxseeds

  • Ground flaxseeds (flaxseed meal): Grinding flaxseeds enhances their digestibility. Our bodies can more readily absorb the nutrients from ground seeds than whole ones. 

Flaxseed meal is often used in baking, smoothies, or sprinkled over dishes. However, ground flaxseeds can oxidize and become rancid faster, so it’s essential to store them in a cool, dark place, preferably refrigerated.

  • Whole flaxseeds: While they have a longer shelf life than ground flaxseeds, whole seeds can pass undigested through the gastrointestinal tract, meaning you might not reap all their nutritional benefits. 

They are, however, excellent for adding texture to dishes and can also be used to make flaxseed gel, a popular egg substitute in vegan cooking.

3. Flaxseed oil

  • Flaxseed oil: Extracted from flaxseeds, this oil is a concentrated source of ALA. It doesn’t contain the fiber or lignans found in whole or ground flaxseeds but can be a quick way to add omega-3s to your diet.

    This oil is delicate and can oxidize quickly, so it should be stored in the refrigerator and never used for high-heat cooking.

Whether you opt for brown or golden, ground or whole, or even the oil, flaxseeds offer a wealth of nutritional benefits. Choosing between them often depends on personal preference, culinary needs, and storage facilities.

How to use flaxseeds in daily life

Flaxseeds, with their nutty flavor and impressive nutrient profile, have seamlessly woven their way into our daily culinary and health routines.

Their versatility ensures that they can be integrated into a variety of dishes and practices. Here’s a glimpse of how flaxseeds can be incorporated into everyday life:

1. Smoothie booster

A sprinkle of ground flaxseeds can enhance the nutritional profile of your morning smoothie, adding fiber, omega-3s, and a rich, nutty taste.

2. Baking ingredient

From bread to muffins and cookies, ground flaxseeds or flaxseed meal can be added to baked goods for an added health boost and a pleasant texture.

3. Cereal and yogurt topping

Boost your breakfast bowl by adding a generous handful of whole or ground flaxseeds, providing crunch, flavor, and nutrients.

4. Thickening agent

Ground flaxseeds act as a great binding agent in recipes, making them a popular egg substitute in vegan baking. Just mix one tablespoon of flaxseed meal with three tablespoons of water to create a ‘flax egg’.

5. Dietary supplement

For those focusing on heart health or seeking a vegetarian source of omega-3s, a spoonful of flaxseed oil can be incorporated into daily supplements.

6. Skincare

The anti-inflammatory properties of flaxseeds can be harnessed in homemade face packs or scrubs, benefiting those with sensitive or acne-prone skin.

7. Hair masks

Flaxseed gel, derived from whole flaxseeds, can be used as a nourishing hair mask, promoting shine and health.

Flaxseed side effects and risks

Flaxseeds, while celebrated for their myriad health benefits, are not without potential drawbacks. Like many dietary supplements and foods, they can have adverse effects in certain circumstances or when consumed in excessive amounts.

It’s essential to approach flaxseed consumption with knowledge of these potential risks to ensure safe and beneficial use.

1. Digestive discomfort

The high fiber content in flaxseeds can result in a laxative effect if consumed in large amounts. This can lead to diarrhea, abdominal pain, and discomfort.

Some individuals may experience gas, bloating, or cramps when they start consuming flaxseeds, especially if introduced suddenly and in large quantities to the diet.

2. Blood thinning and clotting

Flaxseeds and flaxseed oil are rich in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid that can act as a blood thinner. People taking anticoagulant or antiplatelet medications should be cautious, as flaxseeds might enhance the blood-thinning effect, increasing the risk of bleeding.

3. Hormonal implications

Flaxseeds are rich in lignans, which are phytoestrogens or plant compounds that can mimic estrogen in the body.

While this property can be beneficial for some (like post-menopausal women), it may interfere with hormone-related conditions. 

For instance, women with hormone-sensitive breast cancer or those on hormone replacement therapy should consult their healthcare provider before consuming flaxseeds.

Hormonal implications
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4. Allergic reactions

While rare, some individuals might be allergic to flaxseeds. Symptoms can include itching, hives, breathing difficulties, or anaphylaxis, a severe and potentially life-threatening reaction.

5. May interact with medications

Flaxseeds might affect blood sugar levels. If you are taking diabetes medication, it is important to only consume flaxseeds under the guidance of a healthcare professional [6]. 

Due to the fiber content in flaxseeds, they might interfere with the absorption of oral medications. It’s advisable to take medicines a few hours before or after consuming flaxseeds.

6. Nutrient imbalance

While flaxseeds are a rich source of ALA, excessive consumption can lead to an imbalance in the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids, which might negate some health benefits.

How to store and select flaxseeds

Flaxseeds, being a powerhouse of nutrients, require careful selection and storage to maintain their quality and nutritional value. Here’s a comprehensive guide to ensuring you get the best out of your flaxseeds.

1. Selecting flaxseeds

  • Type and color: Choose between golden or brown flaxseeds based on personal preference, as both types are nutritionally comparable. Ensure the seeds have a vibrant color, indicating freshness.
  • Packaging: Opt for flaxseeds packaged in airtight, opaque bags or containers. This helps protect them from the light, which can degrade their quality.
  • Bulk bins: When purchasing from bulk bins, ensure the store has a high product turnover, which means the seeds are likely fresher. Check for any off-odors or signs of moisture, which could indicate spoilage.
  • Expiration date: Always check the expiration date when buying packaged flaxseeds. While they have a relatively long shelf life, it’s always best to consume them while they’re freshest.

2. Storing whole flaxseeds

  • Cool, dry place: Store whole flaxseeds in an airtight container in a cool, dry place. A pantry or kitchen cabinet away from direct sunlight and heat is ideal.
  • Refrigeration: For extended shelf life, especially in warmer climates, consider storing the seeds in the refrigerator.
  • Freezing: Flaxseeds can be stored in the freezer for longer durations without compromising their quality.

3. Storing ground flaxseeds (flaxseed meal)

  • Refrigeration is essential: Once flaxseeds are ground, their natural oils are exposed to air, making them more susceptible to oxidation and turning rancid. Store flaxseed meal in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
  • Freezing for longevity: For prolonged storage, consider transferring the flaxseed meal to the freezer. This will significantly extend its shelf life.
  • Regular checks: Ground flaxseeds can turn rancid, so periodically check for off-odors or changes in taste. If there’s any doubt about their quality, it’s best to discard them.

4. Storing flaxseed oil

  • Cold storage: Flaxseed oil is highly perishable. It should always be stored in the refrigerator in an opaque bottle to protect it from light and heat.
  • Avoid cooking: Due to its low smoke point and susceptibility to degradation with heat, flaxseed oil should not be used for cooking. Instead, use it as a finishing oil or in cold preparations.

5. General tips

  • Limit exposure: Each time you use flaxseeds or flaxseed oil, limit their exposure to air by sealing containers tightly.
  • Buy in reasonable quantities: To ensure freshness, only purchase quantities you can consume within a few months.

Closing thoughts

Flaxseeds, often touted as a ‘superfood,’ have woven their way into modern diets with impressive health benefits, diverse applications, and undeniable nutritional prowess. 

From their rich omega-3 content to their essential role in various recipes and health regimes, these tiny seeds pack a punch.

However, as with any dietary component, it’s essential to consume them with awareness of potential side effects and store them properly to maintain their quality. 

As we embrace flaxseeds for their myriad advantages, it’s a reminder that nature, in its simplicity, often offers some of the most profound health solutions.

FAQs

Is it safe to eat flaxseed everyday?

Yes, it’s safe to eat flaxseed daily when consumed in moderate amounts, typically 1-2 tablespoons. However, it’s important to be mindful of individual tolerance and potential interactions with medications or health conditions.

How flax seeds should be eaten?

Flax seeds should ideally be ground before consumption to maximize nutrient absorption, as whole seeds can pass undigested through the gastrointestinal tract. They can be sprinkled on dishes, blended in smoothies, or added to baked goods.

Who should not eat flax seeds?

Individuals with a history of flaxseed allergies, those on anticoagulant or antiplatelet medications, and those with certain hormone-sensitive conditions should consult a healthcare professional before consuming flax seeds. Additionally, pregnant or breastfeeding women should seek advice from their healthcare provider due to the phytoestrogen content in flax seeds.

Can I eat flax seeds raw?

Yes, you can eat flax seeds raw, but it’s recommended to grind them to enhance nutrient absorption, as whole seeds may pass undigested through the gastrointestinal tract. Ensure they are fresh and free from contaminants for safe consumption.

[1] https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/agricultural-and-biological-sciences/linum-usitatissimum 
[2] https://www.herbalgram.org/resources/herbalgram/issues/45/table-of-contents/article766/ 
[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4152533/ 
[4] https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/other-nutrients/fiber 
[5] https://www.mountsinai.org/health-library/herb/flaxseed 
[6] https://www.stlukes-stl.com/health-content/medicine/33/000899.htm

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