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The Facts About Flax

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History of Flax
Flax is one of the most ancient of useful herbs. Its Latin name, Linum usitatissimum, means “most useful.” Flax’s usefulness to humankind predates earliest recorded history. Archaeologists discovered remnants of linen, the cloth derived from flax, in Stone Age Swiss Lake villages. The Book of Exodus mentions the cultivation of flax, as does the Talmud, and both forbid the blending of the precious cloth with “impure” wool. The shroud that wrapped Jesus Christ in the tomb was linen. Ancient Egyptians grew flax along the Nile and wove linen fabrics for clothing, bed sheets, diapers, sails, even wrappings for mummies. To the Egyptians, white linen was a symbol of divine light and purity associated with the great mother-goddess Isis. Recently, at an archeological site in a small village near the headwaters of the Tigris River in Turkey, a small piece of linen was found wrapped around a tool handle. This artifact was dated at about 7,000 B.C., and is believed to be the oldest piece of cloth ever discovered.

Flax was also used for culinary purposes. Flaxseed excavated from ancient Greek archeological sites has been dated back to 1900 to 1700 B.C., and the use of flaxseed is inscribed on tables at Pylos. Both the Greek historian Thucydides and the Roman Pliny mention the use of flax for food. In fact, so impressed with this gift of nature Pliny wrote, “What department is to be found in active life in which flax is not employed?” Of flax Bartholomew had this to say, “None herbe
is so needful to so many dyurrse uses to mankynde as is the flexe.” And Dioscorides extolled flaxseed’s power for “mollifying all inflammation inwardly and outwardly.”

As time progressed, flax’s role in human usage evolved further still. Hippocrates encouraged the use of flaxseed for the relief of abdominal pains, while Theophrastus recommended flax mucilage as a cough remedy. Hildegarde of Bingen used flax meal in hot compresses for the treatment of both external and internal ailments. The value of flax to these early cultures is reflected in the rich folklore that surrounds the plant. Flax was believed to be a blessed plant; one that could bring good fortune, restore health, and protect against witchcraft.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, flax cultivation waned until the eighth century until finally, French leader Charlemagne, so impressed with the herb’s culinary, medicinal, and domestic usefulness, passed laws and regulations requiring its cultivation and consumption. Flax was much loved and widely cultivated throughout Europe after that, and its cultivation and use continued to expand to other lands and cultures.

Africa cultivated the versatile herb as a food staple and important medicine. The Chinese, on the other hand, created oilcloth – a protective fabric made from flaxseed oil applied to canvas, perhaps some 2,000 years ago. Native Americans were known to gather wild flax and create fishnets and twine from the fibers. Not until the Colonists arrived, however, was the plant cultivated here in North America. In the seventeenth century, seeds of the European flax were
brought by ship to Massachusetts and Virginia along with spinning wheels. As the frontier expanded, so did the planting of flax. In fact, it was often the first crop planted as a homestead was set up.

However, its usefulness to the early Americans didn’t stop with cloth. Linseed oil became just as important, employed as a surface protection for items such as shoes, tools and furniture. Eventually oilcloth also became a household essential, being made into tablecloths, rain gear, and carrying bags. It seems, in fact, that as the years progressed flax’s usefulness to Americans as a protective oil and finish for furniture and flooring overshadowed its usefulness as a dietary staple. Thankfully, as more modern substances such as vinyl and latex-based paints have replaced linseed oil-based products, the role of the versatile plant as a dietary food source has grown back in popularity.

The Alpha and the Omega
The oil of cold-pressed flaxseed is the richest source of alpha-linolenic acid (LNA), also known as Omega-3, and linoleic acid (LA), also known as Omega-6; two essential fatty acids (EFAs) that have received worldwide attention for their extraordinary role in protecting and maintaining health. Alpha-linolenic acid is classified as a superunsaturated fatty acid, the most beneficial of all fatty acids. Linoleic acid is classified as a polyunsaturated fatty acid, the second most beneficial of the fatty acids.

Ideally, body tissues should contain a ratio of between 3:1 to 4:1 Omega-6 to Omega-3. Unfortunately, substantial evidence suggests that the level of Omega-6 in the body tissues of most Americans is 20 times the level of Omega-3. Not good. So it’s only natural we should look to flaxseed oil to address this predicament. Flax oil contains between 15 and 25 percent Omega-6 and between 50 and 60 percent Omega-3; the perfect combination to counteract the now-standard dietary imbalance of American fare.

So what defines these two fatty acids as “essential”? For one thing, the body cannot manufacture them, yet it requires them for life. Secondly, a deficiency or absence of the fatty acid results in a specific disease (for example, a deficiency of Omega-6 in infants can cause a certain type of eczema). But the primary reason LA and LNA are so essential is due to the fact that all body membranes – including each and every cell – require these EFAs for their construction and maintenance. Without them, cholesterol and protein would be unable to repair old cell membranes or to construct new ones.

Lignans – Phytoestrogen Extraordinaire
Once again flaxseed offers a nutritional substance at many times the level of other plant sources; in this case, lignans. Lignans should not be confused with lignins, a type of insoluble fiber. Although the two are structurally similar, their biological roles differ widely. Lignans are actually a type of phytoestrogen, a diverse group of plant-derived compounds that can influence hormonal metabolism. Lignans have a number of biologically active functions, including antifungal,
antibacterial, antiviral, and anticancer activity.

There are a number of different types of lignans. That which is found in flaxseed is known as secoisolariciresinol diglucoside (SDG). Flaxseed contains between 75 and 800 times more SDG than other plant food sources. Up until 1980 it was believed lignans were found only in higher plants. Then, researchers S.R. Stitch and K.D. Setchell discovered the first mammalian lignans (enteroliol and enterolactone), whose structures are closely related to the plant lignan, secoisolariciresinol. Later, researchers found that SDG is converted by intestinal friendly flora into enteroliol and enterolactone. These two mammalian lignans succumb to two fates: 1) They can be excreted directly in the feces; or 2) After being absorbed from the gut, they enter the enterohepatic circulation where they are conjugated mainly with glucoranate and then excreted in urine and bile. The concentrations of enterodiol and enterolactone in urine is related to the concentration of dietary plant lignans – large intakes of plant lignans result in large quantities of enterodiol and enterolactone excreted in the urine of both animals and humans. This may seem of little significance, but when coupled with the discovery of mammalian lignan excretions are low in women with breast cancer but high in healthy women with no breast cancer history, the connection becomes both intriguing and promising.

In order to investigate the anticancer activity of lignans, flaxseed was chosen because it is such a uniquely rich source of the phytochemical. It is interesting to note that an undisputable link exists between diet and cancer rate. A diet containing large amounts of red meat and few whole, live foods has proven time and again to lead to various forms of cancer. Whereas individuals and entire cultures whose diets consist primarily of whole foods such as vegetables, fruits, and whole grains remain generally cancer free.

Intrigued by preliminary lignan observations, researchers M. Serraino and L.U. Thompson conducted three separate laboratory studies on the phytoestrogen’s anticancer activity, and published their findings in Cancer Letters. The researchers found that SDG exerted tremendous anticancer influence. The effects were not only observed in mammary cancer, but also in colon cancer and general tumors. SDG in the form of flax flour (which made up from 5 to 10 percent of the diet) resulted in 39 to 67 percent reduction in tumor numbers and size after one to two months of supplementation.

The mode of action by lignans to inhibit cancer growth still remained unclear until recently, but a substantial increase in studies has revealed the method of activity. Lignans are capable of binding to estrogen receptors and interfering with the cancer-promoting effects of estrogen on breast tissue. In addition, lignans increase the production of a special sex hormone-binding compound. This compound, known as sex hormone-binding globulin, regulates estrogen levels by escorting excess estrogen from the body via eliminative pathways. Lignans are now believed to be one of the key protective factors against breast cancer in vegetarian women.

An excellent example of the protective effects of alpha-linolenic acid (with or without lignans) against breast cancer can be seen in a prospective study of 121 women with initially localized breast cancer. This study, conducted by researcher P. Bourgnoix and published in the British Journal of Cancer (70, 1994) examined the relationship between the levels of various fatty acids in the fatty tissue of the breast and how much the cancer had spread (metastasized). Breast tissue
analyzed at the time of surgery indicated that a low level of Omega-3 was associated with the spread of the cancer into the lymph nodes of the armpit and tumor invasiveness. After 31 months of follow-up after initial surgery, 21 patients developed metastases of their cancer into other body tissues. A low level of Omega-3 was the first determinant of metastases in these patients. In short, when all factors were considered, low levels of alpha-linolenic acid were the most
significant contributor to the spread of cancer. Since the main cause of death in breast cancer patients is the development of cancer in other tissues, these findings are of extreme importance. The results of this and other studies strongly suggest that supplementing the diet with flaxseed oil (one of the riches sources of alpha-linolenic acid) may help prevent the development and metastasis of breast cancer.

Lignan-rich flaxseed oil is an equal opportunity cancer fighter. It can not only be of great benefit to women in protecting them against breast cancer, but it seems that diets rich in lignans and Omega-3 fatty acids are associated with lower rates of all cancers. For example, both laboratory and clinical trials reveal that SDG (secoisolariciresinol diglucoside,
the particular type of lignan found in flaxseeds) not only significantly decreases the risk of developing colon cancer, but inhibits tumor growth and spread, as well. Moreover, lignans have been shown to suppress the alteration and growth of cultured human leukemic cells, possibly by interfering with DNA, RNA, and/or protein synthesis.

Population studies of diet and disease risk seem to support the anti-cancer role of lignans and other phytoestrogens. For example, populations with high intakes of phytoestrogens – such as the Japanese and Chinese, who typically consume a low-fat, high-fiber diet rich in isoflavonoids from soybeans and lignans from vegetables and grains – have lower incidence and mortality rates of breast, endometrial, and prostate cancers. Western populations tend to consume low-fiber diets and to have higher risk of these cancers. Population differences can be seen in plasma levels of isoflavonoids, which are higher among Japanese men than European men, and in urinary levels of mammalian lignans and isoflavonoids, which are higher among vegetarians and lacto-vegetarians than omnivores.

The Fatty Acid Phenomenon
Not long ago pairing “fats” and “health” in the same sentence would have been considered an oxymoron. Nowadays, thanks to a vast amount of clinical evidence, we know that health cannot be achieved and maintained without fats. The key is to consume the beneficial, polyunsaturated fats and to avoid the unhealthy, saturated ones.

Although about 41 percent of flaxseed is oil, it consists of rich, polyunsaturated lipids. In fact, over 70 percent of the fats found in flaxseed consist of the nutritional, polyunsaturated type. What makes flaxseed oil so uniquely beneficial is the high ration of Omega-3 fatty acid to Omega-6? Other plant seeds, such as corn, sunflower, and peanuts, contain only Omega-6 and no

Omega-3 fatty acids.
Studies of hunter-gatherer populations show that their diets contained roughly equal amounts of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. Interestingly enough, a recent re-examination of the caveman diet has convinced a number of dietary experts that we should really get back to basics and eat as they did if we desire to lose weight and enjoy better health. According to some health experts, a Stone-Age diet consisting only of vegetables, lean meats, fruits, and some eggs – foods that were hunted and gathered – is far more likely to keep us in good health than any modern day diets, which often consist primarily of processed foods. Foods, which, not surprisingly, have had all essential fatty acids, processed out, if they ever contained them at all.

So why are the essential fatty acids found in flaxseed so vital to good health? Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to regulate gene transcription and expression, thus altering enzyme synthesis, and to modify several risk factors for coronary heart disease, including reducing serum triglycerides and blood pressure. They also protect against thrombosis and a variety of cancers, plus they enhance immune response and inhibit inflammatory reactions. EFAs are required for maintaining the structure of cell membranes and the permeability of the skin. They are also needed as precursors for eicosanoids such as prostaglandins and thromboxanes, and in cholesterol transport and metabolism.

EFAs – Hearty Protectors
Once again population studies reveal that a diet high in Omega-3 significantly reduces the risk of developing heart disease. It is interesting to note that of all the common causes of premature death – heart attack, stroke, cancer, accidents, diabetes, and infectious diseases – the odds of dying from a hearth attack are greatest. That goes whether you are male or female. Most assume that cardiovascular disease afflicts primarily men, mainly because the symptoms show up ten years earlier in men. But following menopause, women catch up rather quickly. In fact, every year more women die from heart attacks than men. Per annum, five times more women die from a heart attack than from breast cancer. As you can see, heart attacks don’t play favorites when it comes to gender. It is an equal opportunity disease.

Until recently, heart-healthy diets and nutrients good for the heart usually have only one goal; to lower cholesterol levels, which is helpful to the heart. But research into what makes the heart tick continues, new revelations on how to achieve and maintain heart health are coming to light. True heart health is achieved through a variety of means, not just one. For instance, one might also consider lowering other blood fats besides cholesterol, lowering blood pressure, lowering homocysteine levels, increasing arterial flexibility, and decreasing blood platelet stickiness. Flaxseed oil assists in the prevention of cardiovascular heart disease (CHD) by helping to lower LDL (bad) cholesterol, raise HDL, (good) cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and lower platelet stickiness.

In clinical trials, Omega-3 rich flaxseed exerts a positive effect on blood lipids. Overall clinical finding suggest that significant reductions in total cholesterol and LDL-cholesterol levels can be achieved, without a change in HDL-cholesterol levels, by adding flaxseed or flaxseed oil to the diet. Substituting flaxseed oil for saturated fats in the diet enhances its beneficial effect. Epidemiological studies have been excellent ways in which to study the effects of Omega-3 on heart health. For instance, data from the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study, which began in 1986 with a cohort of 51,529 health professionals, aged 40 to 75 years; found a specific preventive effect of Omega-3. An age-adjusted analysis of dietary fat intake and risk of myocardial infarction among men who participated in the 1992 survey, found that Omega-3, when consumed daily, was inversely associated with risk of myocardial infarction and fatal coronary disease.

The Omega-3 content of blood phospholipids, triglycerides, and/or cholesteryl esters can be increased 2 – 8 fold by supplementing the diet with flaxseed or flaxseed oil for a period of about four weeks. Increasing the Omega-3 fatty acid content of membrane phospholipids increases membrane fluidity and modifies membrane function, changes, which tend to reduce cardiovascular disease risk by influencing calcium ion exchange across the membrane and cellular contractility.

Immune Booster
Alpha-linolenic-rich flaxseed and flaxseed oil exerts a positive influence over the immune system by affecting immune cells and mediators of the immune response such as eicosanoids and cytokines. For example, Omega-3 suppresses the proliferation of peripheral blood mononuclear lymphocytes and the delayed hypersensitivity response to certain antigens. In fact, researchers have recently found evidence that flaxseed may, by helping to regulate the immune response, play a beneficial role in the management of autoimmune diseases.

For example, systemic Lupus Erythematosus is an inflammatory disease that occurs mainly in young women. It is characterized by a variety of symptoms, including inflammation of the kidney. Studies demonstrate that patients with Lupus Erythematosus exhibit increased production of platelet-activating factor (PAF), a mediator of immune response and promoter of platelet aggregation. Flaxseed has provided significant benefits in both animals and human patients suffering from this condition. In a small study of nine patients with Lupus, PAF-induced platelet aggregation was inhibited and renal function improved when subjects consumed 15 to 45 grams of flaxseed per day for four weeks.

Flaxseed oil influences immune response by altering the fatty acid composition of membrane phospholipids, which in turn significantly affects eicosanoid production. The Omega-rich oil increases phospholipid alpha-linolenic acid (LNA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), levels in mononuclear cells, neutrophils, lipoproteins, and platelets. This change in membrane phospholipid content results in reduced biosynthesis of arachidonic acid from linoleic acid and decreased production of the pro-inflammatory eicosanoids, leukotriene B4, and, and thromboxane A2. Increasing the alpha-linolenic acid and Omega-3 fatty acid content of membrane phospholipids enhances the biosynthesis of prostaglandin I3 and other eicosanoids of the 3- and 5-series that are less inflammatory.

With the vast storehouse of evidence, it is an undisputable fact that adding flaxseed or flaxseed oil to the diet will result in improved overall health. Flax has been recommended in the treatment of over 60 disorders, and as the research continues, there is little doubt that more benefits will come to light.

Website www.flaxcouncil.com
Flexible Flax – Food, fiber, flowers, even floors, by Jill Jepson, The Herb Companion, June/July, 1995
Flax – Ancient Herb and Modern Medicine, by William J. Haggerty, Ph.D., HerbalGram, #45 Winter 1999.
Fats that Heal, Fats that Kill, by Udo Erasmus, Alive Books, 1993
Making Fats and Oils Work for You, by Lewis Harrison, Avery Publishing, 1990.
Understanding Fats & Oils, by Michael T. Murray, N.D., and Jade Beutler, R.R.T., R.C.P., Progressive Health Publishing, 1996.
Encyclopedia of Nutritional Supplements, by Michael T. Murray, Prima Publishing, 1996.
Omega-3 Oils, A Practical Guide, by Donald Rudin, M.D., and Clara Felix, Avery Publishing Group, 1996.
Flax Inhibits Cancer and Lowers Cholesterol, Better nutrition, April, 1995.
The Omega Plan, by Artemis P. Simopoulos, M.D., and Jo Robinson, Harper-Collins Publishers, 1998.
Information contained in this bulletin is for informational and educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for advise from your physician. This information should not be used for diagnosis or treatment of any health problem. You should consult with a health care professional for treatment of any health issue.