What are flax seeds?
Flax (Linum usitatissimum) is an exemplary multipurpose crop—it provides humans with exceptionally nutritious seeds rich in anti-inflammatory essential fatty acids and minerals, medicine, textile fibres, and oils for use in making ink and varnishes. It is truly a laudable plant to be appreciated!
Flax seeds was first cultivated in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, although its native range extended as far north as the Mediterranean regions of Europe and as far southeast as India. It was an important crop in northern Africa—particularly Egypt—and is still used today as a traditional medicine in many parts of Europe. The Canadian Prairie provinces are presently the world's top producers of flax.
Flax Seeds as Anti-Inflammatory Nutrition
Like chia seeds, flax seeds are relatively small but they rank among the world's top plant sources of the anti-inflammatory essential omega-3 fat known as alpha-linolenic acid (abbreviated as ALA or LNA). Flax seeds are abundant, easy to grow and affordable to buy at almost any grocery store or health food market. When you consider the extraordinary nutrition they provide, they're probably the cheapest and healthiest food you can buy!
Omega-3 ALA supports health in many ways. It directly reduces inflammation by affecting how the immune system responds to offending stimuli and it indirectly quells inflammatory reactions by supporting the health of every organ. Healthy organs are less vulnerable to aberrant inflammatory reactions than organs that are physiologically stressed or otherwise compromised.
Omega-3 ALA is an essential fat, which means that it is not only necessary for health, it also must be obtained from the diet—your body can't synthesize it from other nutrients (however, your body does have the impressive ability to produce many other types of fat from precursors such as carbohydrates, amino acids or other lipids!). Few people eating a modern North American diet get enough omega-3 ALA to meet daily requirements, so adding flax seed to your diet is an excellent way to boost your intake of this healing nutrient. You'll also be getting a good serving of protein plus vitamins A, B1, B6, B9 (folic acid), E, and K!
Flax Seeds for Reducing the Risk of Diseases
Flax seeds help reduce the risk of many diseases because they're incredibly rich in mucilaginous protein-polysaccharide water soluble fibre (now that's a mouthful—in more ways than one!). The total fibre of the seed makes up about 8% of the dry seed weight. However, it's highly absorbent and can swell 4 to 9 times its original weight when it's exposed to water or other liquids. Once hydrated, the mucilage acts as an extremely viscous and strong, heat-resistant gel.
The mucilage of flax seed is a specific for reducing inflammation and promoting tissue healing of mucous membranes such as those that make up the inner lining of the gastrointestinal tract and other organs. Therefore, flax seeds are an ideal preventative and remedy for various digestive ailments, especially inflammatory disorders.
As a preventative, flax seeds promote regularity of bowel movements and support good intestinal muscle tone. The mucilage binds bile acids, toxins, and other wastes, helping to remove them from the body quickly. Keeping your intestines moving effortlessly, regularly, and smoothly helps to reduce the risk of intestinal infection, inflammation, polyps, tumors, and cancer. Knowing all that, I gladly eat flax seeds every day!
Flax Seeds as Chemopreventative and Hormone Balancing
Flax seeds are exceptionally high in a class of phytonutrients called lignans. The seeds contain primary lignans called secoisolariciresinol and matairesinol. Once ingested, these primary lignans are metabolized by certain strains of beneficial bacteria that colonize the large intestine. The primary ligans are converted into two active lignans called enterodiol and enterolactone, both of which have a chemical structure and biochemical activity that is very similar to human estradiol (also spelled oestradiol). Enterodiol and enterolactone are therefore phytoestrogens and they have many interesting properties that are beneficial for human health.
Phytoestrogens are molecules synthesized by plants and they exert similar effects on the body as do endogenous human estrogens. The phytoestrogens bind to estrogen receptors present on the surface of cell membranes and they essentially "pretend" to be estrogen. With the phytoestrogen bound to the cell surface receptor, the cell then behaves as though a molecule of estrogen, which is a chemical hormone messenger, has delivered an instruction to perform a specific function.
Flax seed phytoestrogens can therefore be particularly beneficial for people who are suffering from a relative imbalance of estrogen in the body—whether there is too much or too little endogenous estrogen circulating through the blood, flax seeds can help to mitigate hormone imbalances and can be very useful for long-term use.
If relative estrogen concentrations are low in the blood, flax seed phytoestrogens can offer supplemental estrogen-like support and instigate the body to perform the essential activities that estrogen normally regulates. If relative estrogen concentrations are high in the blood, phytoestrogens can compete with native estrogens for receptor activation. This is useful because phytoestrogens tend to elicit a relatively weaker cell receptor response than native estrogen.
Flax seed phytoestrogens also work in another way. They support the liver in metabolizing and eliminating estrogen—a process that is essential in keeping estrogen levels in balance. While flax seed lignans promote the break down of estrogen in the liver, flax seed mucilage then binds these breakdown products and helps the intestines eliminate the waste through the stool.
If this elimination of estrogen doesn't happen daily in a balanced way, estrogen levels can either rise too high (that is, the liver isn't breaking down estrogen quickly or efficiently enough) or the levels can fall too low (that is, the liver is breaking down estrogen too quickly or the body isn't synthesizing enough of this hormone). Having high levels of circulating estrogen has been associated with high risk of estrogen-sensitive cancers, especially breast, prostate, and colon cancer.
While keeping estrogen levels in check is important for women (especially peri-menopausal and post-menopausal women), it's important for men, too!
In part 2 of this blog, I'll explain other ways that flax seeds have therapeutic and preventative effects and I'll explain how you can add flax to your daily fare!
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