The humble flaxseed ~ also known as linseed ~ is bursting with the essential fatty acids, fiber, and antioxidants that are associated with lower risks of cardiovascular disease, cholesterol, and inflammation, and it helps to keep our skin looking and feeling super healthy.
It’s inexpensive and easily available and can be added to all sorts of foods and drinks to give them a healthy, tasty boost. And of course ~ being a seed ~ it’s great for vegans and vegetarians too.
Intrigued? Well, read on for the what, why and how of this super seed, and some simple ways to get your fix of flax.
Flaxseed is, as the name suggests, a seed from the flax plant, which is widely grown in America, Canada and other cooler climates around the world.
Flaxseed (or linseed, as it’s also known) has long been part of diets in the Mediterranean region: there are even records of the ancient Romans and Greeks eating it for its health benefits. Legend has it that Charlemagne, the 8th~century king, was such a believer in its healthy properties that he passed laws insisting his subjects ate it.
Flax seeds come in various varieties ~ ‘brown’ and ‘yellow’, or ‘red’ and ‘golden’. While the different varieties might have slightly different tastes, they all contain similar quantities of oils and nutrients ~ so it’s just a matter of personal choice when it comes to enjoying.
You can find flaxseed in most health stores, and a number of larger grocery stores too. It typically comes as either whole seeds, pre~ground (you might see it called ‘milled flaxseed’ or ‘flaxseed meal’) or as an oil.
Whole flaxseeds are harder for the body to digest than ground, but they do keep much longer. Flaxseed meal has a relatively short shelf life and can go rancid quite quickly, making it harder to buy in bulk ( though storing it in the fridge or freezer can help longevity). An easy way to get the best of both worlds is to buy the whole seeds, and then pop them in the coffee grinder as and when you need them, guaranteeing fresh meal every time.
Flaxseed oil is a great store cupboard staple. It can even be applied directly to the skin (but more about that later). Just don’t forget that the way the seed is processed into oil means the oil doesn’t have the fiber that’s in whole or ground seeds.
Small seed, big benefits for your health … and your skin
So far, so very ‘seedy’ you might say. But a closer look at flaxseed shows why it stands out.
Flaxseed is extremely rich in essential fatty acids, particularly omega~3 alpha~linolenic acid (LNA) ~ which the body doesn't produce and must supplement through diet. There’s more LNA in flaxseed than in any other seeds or oils found in a typical North American diet, and plenty of scientific research showing that a diet rich in omega~3 fatty acids can have real benefits for health¹. Studies have linked these fatty acids to reduced risks of cardiovascular disease, heart conditions and certain types of cancer.
Flaxseeds are packed with lignans (not to be confused with linen ~ although that’s made with flax too!) : up to 800 times more than other plant sources. These lignans are what’s known as ‘phytoestrogens’, and have been found to benefit reproductive and menopausal health².
But there’s more: 28% of each flaxseed is fiber, both the soluble and insoluble kinds. Soluble fiber can help cut cholesterol levels, while insoluble fiber helps keep us regular, protecting against constipation and inflammation. It's important to drink plenty of water anyway, but when introducing beneficial fiber to your diet you must make sure you are keeping up hydration to help it 'move along', in the interest of preventing any bowel obstruction.
The same fatty acids and fiber that could cut the risk of disease are also great for our skin. Flaxseed has anti~inflammatory qualities which means it can help against skin irritation and redness, and conditions like acne and rosacea.
By boosting the skin’s natural oil production, these same fatty acids can help our skin stay smooth, moist and healthy looking.
Flaxseed oil can be applied directly to the skin, and is regularly found in skincare formulas. It is a polyunsaturated oil, which helps topical penetration, but also makes it sensitive to oxygen ~ a great thing when it comes to paints and textiles ~ and heat, so is best stored in a very dark container and kept refrigerated.
One seed, a world of uses
Quite a list, eh? So now you know why you need flaxseed in your life, the next question is how?
You may have seen ready-made bread, cereals or muffins containing flaxseed in your local food store or Starbucks. But with ready-made products, you don’t know how much flaxseed you’re getting, and you’ll likely also get the hidden nasties you find in processed food ( that's a separate post in itself!).
Luckily, it’s super-easy to add flax to regular meals. And while you can, of course, bake your own bread and cupcakes and add flax to those, you can do it just as easily without a cake tin in sight. One of the most popular ways is to add ground flaxseed to yogurts or smoothies ~ just a tablespoon contains your recommended daily requirement of omega 3, and won’t change the taste of your smoothie much.
Many people love the nutty taste of flaxseed, but its taste is light enough that it can be secretly blended into all sorts of sweet and savory items: chilis, stews, gravy, oatmeal, ketchup ~ you name it. And for the super-virtuous among us, both the oil and seeds make great toppings for salads.
You can find lots of recipes online, whether you’re vegan, going low~carb, or just a muffin addict. The Flax Council of Canada has even produced a cookbook. But why not do it your own way and experiment, and see how you too can get maximum flax~ibility.
The cardiovascular effects of flaxseed and its omega-3 fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2989356/
The promise of phytoestrogens https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3153694/