Initial studies show that flaxseed help fight off different diseases, including diabetes, eye diseases and breast cancer. In what way and to what extent should we consume this grain, which has been attributed with special health benefits for thousands of years?

DR. DINA RALT, PUBLISHED 14.07.03, 13:29

Are flaxseeds the new wonder food? Initial studies indicate that these seeds can help combat different diseases and condition, from diabetes to breast cancer. Flaxseeds might already be part of your menu, but this new plant-derived hit has been around for over 4,000 years, and was already known in the time of Hippocrates as a grain with health benefits. “These seeds have been part of our diet, as well as that of animals, for thousands of years in Asia, Europe and Africa, and somewhat less time in North America and Australia”, says Kay Afratz, CEO of AmeriFlax, the trade organization that represents U.S flax producers.

When flax became popular for industrial purposes, it lost its importance as a food, even though it never lost its nutritional value. Today flax is experiencing a revival among nutritionists, health-minded consumers and chefs. “The reasons for people’s increased interest in flaxseeds are its obvious benefits in treating several health issues and diseases”, says Dr. Roberta Li, director of the Beth Israel Medical Center in New York.

Flaxseeds are rich with omega-3 fatty acids. These “good” fatty acids are a focus of interest among researches searching for products to reduce cholesterol levels, stabilize blood sugar levels, reduce the chances of developing breast cancer, prostate cancer and colon cancer, as well as inflammatory infections cause by diseases, such as asthma.

According to Dr. Dian Morris, spokesperson for the Flax Council of Canada, in addition to omega-3 fatty acids, flaxseeds contain two other ingredients – lignans and fibers – that are being studied for their health benefits. Lignan, for example, functions as a phytoestrogen and as an antioxidant, whereas the fibers found in flaxseeds are partially soluble and partially insoluble. The flax is indeed an interesting combination of nutritional substances and additional components.

The cancerous growth shrunk

The research conducted thus far has not been extensive, but the findings are promising. In a Canadian study of 39 postmenopausal women, who developed breast cancer, scientists from Toronto University found that flaxseeds might help strengthen the efficiency of conventional treatment of the disease.

Over the course of five weeks, the women who participated in the study received either a regular muffin or a muffin with 25 grams of flaxseeds each day. Dr. Morris says these findings are promising but she also states that “this is a single study”. That being said, the positive results of the research may lead to additional studies. “At the Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, California, for example, scientists are studying the impact of vital fatty acids on breast cancer”, says Rachel Beler, head of the oncology consultancy and research program on behalf of the Brender Foundation. However, it appears these studies have yet to yield decisive conclusions.

According to Dr. Morris, additional studies are examining heart diseases, blood pressure, diabetes, menopause, osteoporosis and crohn’s disease (an inflammatory bowel disease).

Another Harvard study found that omega-3 fatty acids – including those found in flaxseeds – can reduce the risk of macular degeneration, an eye disease the leads to blindness as a result of the destruction of nerve cells in the eye. Research results show that macular patients who consume large quantities of omega-6 fatty acids (found in plant-based fats) tend to suffer from deterioration, where as those who consume less omega-6 and more omega-3 are less at risk.

“Flaxseeds are the best source for omega-3 fatty acids”, says Dr. Lyles Mogak, Director of the Henry Ford Department of Ophthalmology and OptimEyes optometry in Detroit and Chairperson of the American Academy of Ophthalmology. According to Dr. Mogak, good flaxseeds also combat dry eye syndrome, a highly common condition, most probably due to a shortage in omega-3 fatty acids. “Dry eyes are usually the result of insufficient fat secreted to the external layer of the tear film that protects the eyes’ moisture, leaving nothing to protect and prevent the moisture from evaporating”, she says. “Omega-3 fatty acids help the fat glands produce fat with the necessary degree of viscosity, so that it coats the surface of the eye.

Dr. Mogak recommends her patients swallow one tablespoon of flaxseed oil a day. “I think all adults should do it”, she says, “certainly those at high risk of developing macular degeneration”. These include adults ages 65-74, relatives – spouses and children – of patients.

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