Flaxseed, also known as linseed and Linum usitatissimum L., is derived from the flax plant, an annual herb believed to have originated in Egypt. The ancient Egyptians used flaxseed for nutritional and medicinal purposes. It has been used traditionally by other cultures as a laxative and for good bowel health.
The active components of flaxseed include fiber, omega-3 fatty acids (alpha-linoleic acid, ALA) and lignan. Its high fiber content adds bulk to stool and allows it to act as a laxative for constipation. ALA has been shown to be beneficial in heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease and arthritis. Only a small amount of ALA is converted to its active counterparts, so larger quantities of flaxseed or flaxseed oil needs to be taken to get the same effects from fish oils. Higher intake of ALA/omega-3 fatty acids have been found to be associated with lower cholesterol and decreased blood pressure and risk of heart attack. Lignan mimics the action of estrogen. Some studies have compared hormone replacement therapy and flaxseed in women with mild menopausal symptoms, to found them to be be equally effective. One study showed flaxseed had the potential to decrease tumor growth in newly diagnosed breast cancer, although more studies need to be done.
Flaxseed and its supplements are generally found as the whole flaxseed, flaxseed oil, powder and capsules. Flaxseed oil should be refrigerated. Use whole flaxseeds within 24 hours of grinding, otherwise the ingredients lose their activity unless they are in a special mylar package. Flaxseed supplements should be taken as directed by the manufacturer. In general children 2-12 years old can take 1 teaspoon of whole or ground flaxseeds daily. Adults can take 2-4 tablespoons (or 1-2 capsules) per day and breast-feeding mom’s can add it to their diet to increase the fat content in their breast-milk. As a supplement for fish oil, 1 gram of fish oil is equivalent to 7.2 grams of flaxseed.
Flaxseed is considered safe although it should not be taken at the same time as your medication (it can alter medications absorption), so either 1 hour before or 2 hours after taking your medication. You should discuss all supplement use with your physician and especially for flaxseed if you are taking blood thinners (it can increase bleeding), diabetic medications (it can alter your blood sugar), and hormones (it mimics estrogen).
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