Flax can be extremely beneficial for your health but a lot of people are confused about how they should be eating it.
Is it better to eat whole seeds, ground seeds or flax oil?
Reading up on flax can get confusing, since the benefits are often attributed to flax without specifying which form is being talked about. Worse, a lot of writers get confused and attribute benefits to one form that aren’t actually attributable to that form.
My goal today is to provide some clarity so you can make the right decision for your health.
Let’s get started:
Flax for Omega–3s
Both the seeds and the oil contain a lot of omega fatty acids, especially omega–3s. Specifically, they are a great source of ALA.
Many of the benefits of flax are related to its fatty acid content. Nutrition-And-You.com report that: “Research studies have suggested that n-3 fatty acids by their virtue of anti-inflammatory action may help lower the risk of blood pressure, coronary artery disease, strokes and breast, colon and prostate cancers.”
There is no set recommendation for omega–3s but experts agree that you need as much as 7.5 grams of ALA per day if you’re not also supplementing with EPA and DHA.
This is where flax oil really shines. Just 3 teaspoons of fresh, high-quality, unrefined flax oil contains 7.6 g of omega–3s. To get that much omega–3 from ground seeds, you would need to eat 10 teaspoons.
Plus, a 2014 study done by the Journal of Food Science and Technology determined that: “The bioavailability of ALA is dependent on the type of flax ingested (ALA has greater bioavailability in oil than in milled seed, and has greater bioavailability in oil and milled seed than in whole seed).”
In other words, you absorb more of the omega–3s that you eat when you eat them in flax oil rather than ground flax seeds.
When it comes to whole seeds, you have virtually no chance of absorbing any omega–3s, since they are too small and hard for your body to effectively break down. You just wind up passing them undigested.
In addition to converting into EPA and DHA in the body, ALA has some impressive benefits of its own.
SuperfoodProfiles.com wrote that: “Alpha linolenic acid, as the parent omega-3, is classified as essential and definitely worth having in good amounts in your diet. This is particularly relevant due to the high prevalence of omega-6 linoleic acid in modern foods.
We need a balance of both omega-3 and omega-6 fats for good health and cold pressed, unrefined flaxseed oil is one of the most effective ways to positively reduce this ratio.”
If you’re interested in reading more about omega fatty acids, what they do for you, how much you need and where to find them, click here to read this recent post.
Flax seeds for cancer prevention
Flax seeds, whole or ground, contain lignans. Lignans contain phytoestrogens, which can affect estrogen production in the body. Lignans do not wind up in the oil, they are only found in whole seeds, nuts and other plant foods.
Flax seeds are the best source of lignans there is.
While other parts of the flax seed can have major benefits, lignans alone are responsible for some pretty significant protections.
“Flaxseed lignans might offer protection against breast, prostate, colon, and skin cancers while the soluble fibre they contain could help maintain steady blood sugar levels, found a review of research into the seed.”
For women, the phytoestrogens in flax seed lignans balance out estradiol, which is the most common form of estrogen in the female body. There are risks, like potential cell mutations, associated with having too much estradiol in your system. These mutations can lead to disease.
Phytoestrogens can block the effects of estradiol by beating them to the receptor cells. This is because they do not have as strong an effect on estrogen levels, so they don’t throw your body out of balance.
Men can benefit from these phytoestrogens as well. There is some concern about men consuming anything that contains or encourages estrogenic effects in the body. However, phytoestrogens can help to lower estradiol levels and prevent long-term damage.
More research and further studies are required to completely understand the connections between flax and cancer.
For those who have hormonal-receptive cancers (like breast cancer), or have a history of them, there are concerns about whether or not using flax is safe. This also applies to men who have prostate cancer. The data is, on the whole, unclear.
Studies that have been done so far have been on animals. The results indicate that flax might be beneficial for those with cancer. Whether this would be true for humans too is not yet known.
If you have or are at high risk for hormonal cancer, check with your doctor before taking flax oil or flax seeds.
Other hormonal benefits
Flax seeds are often helpful for menopausal women. The lignans are supposed to help reduce the occurrence of uncomfortable symptoms, such as hot flashes, cramps, irritability and trouble sleeping. This too has to do with the phytoestrogens blocking the estradiol from communicating with cell receptors.
There are some who believe the fatty acids in the flax oil can also help to ease symptoms of menopause, but not a lot of evidence to support this.
While there have been some studies done on how flax can help menopausal women, and the results were good, further studies are required before this could be considered as a reliable treatment.
Aid digestion with flax seeds
There are two ways of looking at flax in terms of digestion.
Let’s start with the obvious.
Flax seeds contain significant amounts of fiber, which aids digestion.
The seeds contain two different kinds of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Insoluble or indigestible fiber encourages your liver to work more effectively and helps your body to eliminate waste and toxins.
HealthOnlineCentral.com explains how soluble fiber can help: “The digestible fibers absorb water from the stomach and the intestines. They form a gel that slows down the work of the digestive system so it can absorb more nutrients from the food.”
The fiber in flax can also make you feel full for longer, which can help with weight loss.
It is also worth noting that the fatty acids, vitamins and minerals in ground flax seeds help to ensure smooth bowel movements.
Flax oil will also help in this regard, as it contains more fatty acids, which are most absorbable and also contains other helpful nutrients.
On the other hand…
The other thing to consider when it comes to flax and digestion is that fiber isn’t always good for everyone.
Both whole flax seeds and ground flax can cause diarrhea and other uncomfortable issues, as explained by WebMD: “It might also cause gastrointestinal (GI) side effects such as bloating, gas, abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhea, stomachache, and nausea. Higher doses are likely to cause more GI side effects. There is some concern that taking large amounts of flaxseed could block the intestines due to the bulk-forming laxative effects of flaxseed. Flaxseed should be taken with plenty of water to prevent this from happening.”
If you have digestive issues other than constipation, ground flax may exacerbate them. If you are using ground flax as a natural laxative, start slowly until you see how your body responds.
For those who can’t digest the seeds, the oil offers many of the same nutrients and is very bioavailable and easy to use.
You can also combine ground flax seeds with flax oil to maximize the omega–3 benefits (for digestive and other purposes), while also getting some fiber into your system.
Those with gallbladder issues might have trouble digesting the seeds period. However, there is evidence that flax seed oil, due to the fatty acid content, could be beneficial for gallbladder health.
To sum up
If you’re mainly interested in benefits of flax that are credited to its lignan or fiber content, those benefits are specific to the seeds. You should opt for ground over whole to ensure that you digest the goodness inside.
For omega–3s, go for the oil.
For maximum benefit, combine ground seeds with high-quality flax oil. You can put them both in a smoothie or use them seperately, whatever works for you.
A word on freshness
Flax seeds are fairly easy to find and it’s usually not too hard to find organic. While seeds can certainly go off or mold, you rarely, if ever, see that when you buy from quality sources.
We generally recommend that you buy your flax seeds whole and then grind them yourself immediately before use. That way, the fatty acid chains won’t have a chance to oxidize and go rancid.
Flax oil must be sourced carefully. Seed oils, if they are not pressed with extreme care, can go rancid very quickly. The more omegas in the oil, the more easily the oil can go rancid. As the seed oil with the most omega–3s, this is a bigger concern with flax oil than anywhere else.
Rancid oil will do your body a significant amount more harm than good.
Our Flax Oil is Perfectly Pressed to ensure freshness in every spoonful. It is bottled in Miron glass, to protect it from damage from the sun and oxygen. We only use organic seeds, so you know you’re getting quality nutrition.