Flaxseed has been used as both food and medicine for thousands of years, dating back to the ancient Egyptians. In the past, flaxseeds were used mostly for their laxative effects. Flaxseeds are rich in fiber, omega-3 fats and lignans, and the currently known health benefits of ground flaxseeds go beyond laxative use. While flaxseeds can be sold as whole or ground, whole flaxseeds pass through the body undigested. Consuming ground or milled flaxseed is the best way to obtain the nutritional benefits.
According to the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, which uses scientific evidence to rate the effectiveness of food and disease treatment and prevention, flaxseeds were found to be possibly effective for the treatment of high cholesterol. Evidence shows that ground flaxseed reduces both total and LDL, or "bad" cholesterol, in men and premenopausal women with high cholesterol, as well as those with normal cholesterol. However, there is no evidence showing that flaxseeds have an effect on HDL, or "good" cholesterol.
Flaxseeds are among the richest sources of ALA, an essential omega-3 fat the body needs and can only obtain through diet. According to the Cleveland Clinic, ALA in flaxseeds may help lower the risk of heart disease by reducing triglyceride levels, blood pressure, clot formation in the arteries and inflammatory response.
Treatment for Constipation
Another health benefit of flaxseed is constipation treatment and prevention. Flaxseeds contain 1.9 grams of dietary fiber per ground tablespoon; fiber helps soften stool and move it through the digestive tract. Germany's Commission E, similar to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, recommends fiber consumption for a variety of digestive problems including chronic constipation, irritable bowel syndrome and stomach discomfort.
A double-blind study published in the Journal of Gastroenterology found that those taking flaxseed for three months had significantly fewer problems with constipation, bloating and stomach pain than those taking psyllium, another common constipation treatment. The researchers also found that even when the study was complete, those taking the flaxseed continued to have fewer problems with constipation and bloating.
Possible Cancer Prevention
Fiber contains lignans, a plant chemical that may be helpful for cancer prevention. Several animal studies have found that lignans from flaxseed have reduced the growth of breast and colon tumors, and observational studies suggest that people who eat more lignan-containing foods have a lower risk of developing breast and colon cancer. The only clinical study for lignans and breast cancer performed on humans found that a daily diet with flaxseed may have the potential to reduce breast cancer tumor growth, but the evidence is not enough to make any conclusions. Therefore, more research is needed on humans to determine if flaxseed can prevent or reduce cancer growth.
Serving Size and Use
A healthy amount of ground flaxseed to eat per day is 2 tablespoons, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Flaxseeds can be eaten in smoothies, sprinkled onto cereal or yogurt, or used as a fat replacer in baked goods. Flaxseed should be stored in the refrigerator to avoid spoiling.
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