Just the flax, please

Photo courtesy Flickr-AlishaV

Photo courtesy Flickr-AlishaV

In my last post, the spotlight was on flaxseed’s potent  fibre perks  but there’s much so more goodness to this little seed.  Flaxseeds appear to offer  an arsenal of weaponry in the battle  against some common cancers. Numerous studies  are showing protective effects of flaxseeds on both the prevention and spread of  cancers including  breast,  ovarian, prostate and colon cancers.

But first, the flax-breast cancer research. Much of the scientific investigation in this area has taken place right here in Canada. But it’s not surprising considering that Canada is the largest producer and exporter of flax in the world.  A group of compounds in flax known as lignans  play both an antioxidant and an anti-cancer role.

Lignans act as  phytoestrogens – phyto meaning plant.   In some cases, they counter estrogen’s effects and lower estrogen readings but in other, they act in an estrogen-like manner leading to higher estrogen levels.  It’s when they counter estrogen’s effects,   that lignans can have anticancer action.  Lignans are also found in whole  grains such as barley, millet,  oats and buckwheat along with legumes  and some vegetables.   But flaxseed outranks all other sources containing  800 times more  lignans than any  of its competition.

As a result of the question of how the lignans might work, scientists were unsure of  how eating flax might affect breast cancer in those who are undergoing treatment for a certain type of the disease.

But   University of Toronto research shows that combining flax with the treatment, a drug called tamoxifen, led to cancer suppression in a number of ways. Other research shows that flax can lower blood levels of hormones like estrogens in post-menopausal women, especially those who are overweight. And as their estrogen levels tend to be higher it’s these women who are most at risk for this type of breast cancer.

A recent review looking at the flaxseed-breast cancer connection, which included a total of 10 studies,  makes flax look very rosy indeed. The seeds were not only linked to protection against the spread  of breast cancer cells but also preventing the disease in the first place.

But there is one caveat about these seeds and breast cancer. Animal research suggests that pregnant women should not regularly consume flax   due to the phytoestrogens contained. In animal studies, regular flax consumption during pregnancy increased the risk of breast cancer in the female offspring.

While there is much less research, investigations looking at ovarian cancer-flax associations are also looking very promising.

If you’re a male, there are also benefits in terms of prostate cancer treatment. Eating flaxseeds regularly has been shown to reduce the spread of prostate cancer cells.

As for flax oil, if you come across products labelled as  high lignan or lignan
enriched flax oil, keep in mind that the lignans are naturally found
in the non-oil part of the seed, thus there are no naturally occurring
lignans in flax oil.

Lilian Thompson, Ph.D., a professor emeritus at the Department of Nutritional Sciences  of the University of Toronto and a renowned researcher in  the area of flax, states, “The manufacturer may have increased lignan   in the oil by incorporating finely ground flaxseed or by not filtering  the cold pressed oil so particulates of flaxseed are in the oil”

She adds,   “Even if ground flaxseed has been added, the amounts of lignan per   oil serving would still be quite small. More research on how the main lignan secoisolariciresinol diglucoside   (SDG)  works when consumed as an extract and not in   the presence of flax’s other components needs to be done.”

The oil is also not very stable – it must be kept refrigerated and should not be heated.  The seeds, on the other hand, come in their own protective coating, defending  the oil from harm in cooking and baking.

When it comes to choosing between flax oil and the seeds, consider what each supplies. The oil does contain the omega-3 fats but the seeds offerings far outweigh that.  Choosing the seeds – a whole food  – besides supplying fibre, also provides potential interactions between various compounds contained.

To reap the maximum health benefits of flax, the seeds must usually be ground. But one Canadian company offers a yummy  crunchy roasted version which you can eat whole. Enjoy them plain as a snack to munch on.  They’re available at select stores or online .   A tasty portable option is their 15g “to go” pack.

Whatever your choice, the important thing is that you’re asking for just the flax, please!

For more information and recipe, check out the Flax Council of Canada.

Are you a flax or flaxseed oil fan?

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Categories: Research Roundup, Superfoods, Whole Foods

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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