Flaxseed contains lignans, a fiber and phytoestrogen with a chemical makeup similar to human estrogen. Lignans are also a good source of alpha-linolenic acid, that is converted by the body into omega-3 fatty acids - compounds
that help regulate several key cardiovascular functions such as heart rate, blood pressure, blood vessel dilation and blood clotting. So the Oklahoma researchers set out to study the cardiovascular effects of flaxseed on 36 postmenopausal women.
Half of the group ingested 40 grams of ground flaxseed daily for 3 months. The other half received ground wheat instead of flaxseed for the same period.
At the end of the research period, the flaxseed group showed an 8% reduction in the blood level of apolipoprotein B - a molecule that carries cholesterol and is regarded as a better marker for heart disease than cholesterol alone. Total cholesterol levels of the flaxseed group also fell,but both LDL and HDL levels fell - in effect canceling out any benefit in the cholesterol department. The group of women who received the ground wheat showed no changes in cholesterol or apolipoprotein B levels.
There is clearly something going on here, it's obviously something good for the heart, and the primary active ingredient is omega-3.
Omega 3 and Omega 6
Omega-3 and omega-6 are two groups of essential fatty acids. And while we need both in our diet, most modern diets are high in omega-6 and low in omega-3. Which is exactly the reverse of what the ratio should be.
An omega balance that favors omega-6 promotes inflammation and has a negative impact on the body's immune system. We ingest omega-6 mostly through the consumption of corn, safflower, sunflower, canola - all commonly used in food processing.
The primary source of omega-3 is fish, especially dark-meat fish like salmon, swordfish and tuna. If you want to avoid mercury, a high quality fish oil supplement is a good source as well. Interestingly, both omega-3 and omega-6 are present in beef. But if the source cattle of your beef have been fed grain, omega-6 will be the larger balance, and if the cattle have been fed grass, omega-3 will prevail. Unfortunately, most of the commercial beef (especially in grocery stores) comes from grain-fed cattle. Even grass-fed cattle are usually fattened with grain feed in the days just before slaughter.
Send in the Flax
And then there's flaxseed oil. Flaxseed and flaxseed oil both have a very high omega-3 content and an excellent balance of omega-3 to omega-6. A tablespoon of flaxseed oil contains approximately 8 grams of omega-3 fatty acids, but only 2.2 grams of omega-6. No other oil comes close to this beneficial balance. This is why flaxseed oil is sold in health food stores as a supplement - usually refrigerated in dark bottles to insure freshness and prevent oxidation. And while flaxseed oil can be used for cooking, the effectiveness of the omega-3 content is lost when the oil is heated.
Another way to get the omega-3 benefits of flaxseed is to crush the seeds and eat them raw. Like the oil, the flaxseeds have a nutty taste, but at least two sources I found indicated that eating the whole seeds is not as
beneficial as taking a spoonful of the oil. One of the things that flaxseed oil does best is to transport vitamin A (a fat soluble vitamin) to cells throughout the body, giving a boost to the immune system. Ingesting the
seeds won't have this same effect on vitamin A.
In a number of important studies that came before the modest efforts of the Oklahoma State University study, omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to improve cell function in the lining of the heart and blood vessels, lower triglyceride levels, and inhibit platelet clumping. Furthermore, they may also be helpful in the prevention of diabetes, arthritis, hypertension and even cancer. Those are amazing benefits, considering they're all available from a single source.
Obviously the key to this particular oil issue is balance. So many of the processed foods we consume contain the culprit oils that deliver omega-6 that it's probably a very good idea to add some salmon, fresh tuna, a fish oil supplement, ground flaxseed or flaxseed oil to our diets to provide the much needed protection of omega-3 in the balancing act.