Flaxseed Oil Health Benefits

Flaxseed Oil Facts

Flaxseed oil is the primary medicinal constituent of the flax plant, L. usitatissimum, which has been cultivated since at least 5,000 BC. Its medicinal properties were known to the Greek: Hipocrates recommended it for inflammation of the mucous membranes. In 18th-century France, Charlemagne passed laws requiring seeds to be consumed to keep his subjects healthy. Mahatma Gandhi said, “Wherever flaxseeds become a regular food item among the people, there will be better health.”*

Flaxseed Oil
Flaxseed Oil

Flaxseed oil is the most concentrated source of essential fatty acid alpha linolenic acid. Essential fatty acids are fats which the body needs but is unable to make, so they must be obtained from the diet. We only need a small amount of this particular fat; about 2% of our body fat is made of alpha linolenic acid, but is absolutely essential. Without it, the membranes which surround and protect all the cells in all our body tissues will not function properly. Signs of deficiencies are apparent in skin and hair condition and brain function.*

Alpha linolenic acid is converted by the body into two other critical fatty acids, the omega-3’s: eicosapentaenoic (EPA) and docosahexaenoic (DHA) acids. These are found in abundance only in certain cold-water fish, such as salmon, thus linolenic acids are the only source of omega-3 fatty acids in vegetarian deits. DHA both inhibit the production in our body of damaging prostaglandins, powerful body regulators (xenohormones or xenobiotics). Prostaglandins are a group of naturally occurring, chemically related, long-chain hydroxyl fatty acids stimulating contractility of the uterine and other smooth muscles and have the ability to lower blood pressure, regulate acid secretion of the stomach, regulate body temperature and platelet aggregation, and control inflammation and vascular permeability; they also affect the action of certain hormones. First found in semen, prostaglandins have since been found in menstrual fluid and various tissues of many species and have been synthesized chemically. There are six types: A, B, C, D, E and F, the degree of saturation of the side chain of each being designated by subscripts 1, 2 and 3. The types of prostaglandin are abbreviated PGE, PGF2, and so on.* (14, 15)

In the rush to follow a low-fat diet, many people forget the critcal importance of getting enough essential fatty acids.*

Flaxseed Oil Reduces Heart Attacks

The alpha linolenic acid in flaxseed oil is the subject of intense investigation because of recent studies indicating it may dramatically reduce heart attacks and strokes. One impressive study recently conduct at Harvard University in 1996 showed that men aged 40 to 70 who consume more linolenic acids are less apt to die from heart disease or a heart attack than men who get less of the fatty acid in their diet. In fact, linolenic acid was the only protective factor identified in the study. The authors concluded, “The data‚Ķalso supports a specific preventive effect of linolenic acid intake.” The study looked at the amount of linolenic acid already present in the diets of these men, showing a correlation between the fatty acid and heart health.* (1)

An astounding new study conducted on men who had survived a heart attack shows the direct benefits of supplementing with flaxseed oil. One half (the control group) were put on the standard American Health Association diet while the other half was supplemented with alpha linolenic acid. After two years, the men who did not supplement with additional flaxseed oil had five times the number of fatal heart attacks, three times the non-fatal heart attacks, and two and a half times the deaths from all causes as the men fortunate enough to receive supplementation. The results from this small study are so impressive that large-scale intervention trials on alpha linolenic supplementation are expected.* (2)

Reduces Strokes

Alpha linolenic acid may also reduce the risk of stroke. The Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial (MRFIT) found that men with blood level of alpha linolenic acid one standard deviation above normal had a 37% decrease in their risk of stroke. The authors concluded, “Our findings suggest that higher serum levels of the essential fatty acid alpha linolenic aid are independently associated with a lower risk of stroke in middle-age men at high risk for cardiovascular disease.” While not a supplementation study, this finding add to the evidence that alpha linolenic acid has a protective effect on atherosclerotic related conditions, especially since dietary intake of flaxseed oil raises blood levels. (3)

Reduces Blood Clotting

How does flaxseed oil help maintain normal artery and heart functioning? A key factor of both the development of atherosclerosis and the actual event of a heart attack or stroke is blood clotting. Flaxseed oil reduces the likelihood of blood clotting in several ways. First, it reduces a specific clotting system factor called plasma factor VII. The authors of a recent study hypothesized “high dietary polyunsaturated fatty acid intake (especially alpha linolenic acid) may reduce the risk for CHD (coronary heart disease) by an improvement of a number of risk factors, including lowering the plasma factor VII (both activity and antigen).* (4)

Alpha linolenic acid also reduces the clumping together, or agglutination, of the body’s clotting cells, called platelets. When young men were given flaxseed oil, their platelets were less apt to clump together, an effect not found with supplementation with other oil. The researchers concluded, “This study provides further evidence that consumption of alpha linolenic acid-rich oils may offer protective effects against cardiovascular disease over linolenic acid-rich oils via their ability to decrease the tendency of platelets to aggregate.* (5, 6)

Effect on Blood Lipids

The effect of flaxseed oil on blood lipids such as cholesterol and triglycerides is less clear, as there have been conflicting studies. Some studies show flaxseed (and other oil) supplementation lowers cholesterol. (7) Other studies have not confirmed this. (8) One study examined the ratio of total cholesterol to HDL cholesterol, a ratio considered to be indicative of heart attack risk than a simple cholesterol measurement. The researchers from the Framingham Study found that higher intake of alpha linolenic acid and other essential fatty acids reduced this ratio and therefore heart disease risk. (9) It also seems clear that large amounts of alpha linolenic acid lowers triglycerides in the blood, probably by creating DHA and EPA oils found in fish.*(10)

Immune System Functioning

Essential fatty acids are important for proper functioning of the immune system. One double-blind, placebo-controlled crossover study found supplementing school children with a combination of alpha linolenic acid and another essential fatty acid reduced respiratory tract infections. Supplementing with the oil decreases the production of several problem-causing factors including cytokine production, tumor necrosis factor alpha, and interleukin 1 beta synthesis. (11) Flaxseed oil also suppresses the proliferation of peripheral blood mononuclear cells and the delayed hypersensitivity response to recall antigens. (12) There may be other roles for flaxseed oil. Early studies indicate a possible role in migraine headache treatment. (13)

References

  1. Ascherio, A., Rimon, E.B.. et al. Dietary fat and risk of coronary heart disease in men: cohort follow up study in the United States. BMJ. 1996. July 13;313(7049):84-90
  2. Hartman, I.S.. alpha-Linolenic Acid: a preventive in secondary coronary events?. Nutr Rev. 1995. Jul;53(7):194-7
  3. Simon, J.A. Serium fatty acids and the risk of stroke.. Stroke. 1995. May;26(5);778-82
  4. Cigolini. M. et al. Plasma factor VII and its relation to adipose tissue fatty acids and other atherogenic risk factors in health men. Eur J Clin Invest. 1996. Mar;26(3):247-53
  5. Mutanen, M. Freese R. Polyunsaturated fatty acids and platelet aggregation.. Curr Opin Lipidol. 1996. Feb;7(1):14-9
  6. Allman, M.A. Supplementation with flaxseed oil versus sunflower seed oil in healthy young men consuming a lot fat diet: effects on platelet composition and function.. Eur J Clin Nutr. 1995. Mar;49(3):169-78
  7. Chan, J.K., et al. Dietary alpha-linolenic acid is as effective as oleic acid and linolenic acid in lowering blood cholesterol in normolipidemic men. Am J Clin Nutr. 1991. May;53(5):1230-4
  8. Harris, W. S. n-3 fatty acids and serum lipoproteins: human studies.. Am J Clin Nutr. 1997. May;65(5 suppl): 1645S-1654
  9. Siguel, E. A new relationship between total/high density lipoprotein cholesterol and polyunsaturated fatty acids.. Lipids. 1996. Mar;3131 Suppl: S51-6
  10. Caughey, G.E., et al. The effect on human tumor necrosis factor alpha and interleukin 1 beta production on diets enriched in n-3 fatty acid from vegetable oil or fish oil. Am J Clin Nutr. 1996. Jan;63(1):116-22
  11. Kelley, D.X., et al. Dietary alpha-linolenic acid and immunocompetence in humans. Am J Clin Nutr. 1991. Jan;53(1):40-6
  12. Wagner W, and Nootbaar-Wagner U. Prophylactic treatment of migrane with gamma-linolenic and alpha-linolenic acids. Cephalalgia. 1997. Apr;17(2):127-30

*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.