Health from your gardens – part III: Flax seeds.

Flax, also known as common flax or linseed, is called botanically as Linumusitatissimum (Latin usitatissimum means most useful). It is known as ‘Alsi” in Hindi, Urdu,Gujarati and Punjabi, “Agase” in Kannada,”Alividai” in Tamil, “CheruchanaVithu” in Malayalam and “AviseGinzalu” in Telugu language. It is a food and fibre crop grown in Mediterranean, Western Asia and Middle East & India. India is the 4th largest producer, after Canada, China & Russia, of linseed for its commercial uses.

Flax plant with capsules

Flax Flowers

Flax seed was cultivated in Babylon about 3000 BC and highly recommended and enforced for use by law by King Charlemagne, for its health benefits.

The term “flax” refers to the plant itself or the unspun fibres of the flax plant. It is an upright annual plant with slender stems growing to a height of 1.2 m ( 3′ 11″). Its green leaves are slender and lanceolate, 20-40 mms long and 3 mms broad. Flowers with 5 petals are pale blue or sometimes red and 15-25 mms diameter. Fruit is round with dry capsule, 5-9 mm diameter and contains several 4-7 mm long glossy brown seeds, like apple pips.

Uses of Flax:

Flax seeds is considered one of the most powerful plant foods on the planet. It may be of some help in reducing risk of heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes.

Oil from flax is edible and used as nutritional supplement (not recommended for routine use) and also as an ingredient in many wood finishing products like paints and varnish and as linoleum and printing inks. It is also an ornamental plant in gardens. Flax fibres from its stem are smooth, straight and 3 times stronger than cotton and are used to make linen.

Flax seeds are either brown or golden yellow in colour. Both are rich in omega-3 fatty acids and hence its value as nutritional supplement. But flax is more popular for its use as commercial oil and fibres and in wood industry as drying oil in paints and varnishes.

Culinary uses:
Flax seeds are edible as it is or as fried and salted, as powder added to dishes or eaten with rice.Flax seed sprouts are also tasty and edible. Ground flax seeds can go rancid unless packed and sealed immediately on being ground. It is also added to bread to increase its nutritional value.

Nutritional values:
100 Gms of flax seeds have:

Calorific Value – 534
Fat content – 42.16 g(Saturated-66 g)
Proteins – 18.29 g
Fat – 0.52 gm
Carbohydrates – 28.88 g
Sugars – 1.55 g
Vitamins B1, B2,B3 etc & Vit C
Minerals Calcium, Iron, Magnesium etc

Flax seeds are found in various food products in the market like crackers, frozen waffles, oatmeal etc. It was estimated that about 300 new flax based products were launched in U.S. and Canada in 2010. Consumer demands have grown considerably and flax seeds used in chicken feeds is now mostly used in humans.

Brown Flax seeds

Golden Flaxseeds

Medicinal value:
Health benefits of Flax seeds is mainly due to 3 of its constituents:

  • Omega-3 fatty acids is good fat having heart healthy effects. One tsp of ground flaxseed contains about 1.8 gm of Omega-3s
  • Lignans are good source of plant estrogens and antioxidants, containing up to 800 times more lignans than other plant foods.
  • Fibres, both soluble and insoluble are in plenty in flax seeds.

Omega-3s beneficial effects on cardiovascular system is by its anti-inflammatory action, B P lowering effects and normalizing heartbeat. It is also believed to prevent hardening of arteries and plaque formation in blood vessels.

Lignans reduces build-up of atherosclerotic plaque by up to 75%.

Lignans and Omega-3s may also be useful to treat irregular heartbeats (arrhythmia) and heart failure too.

All the above 3 components help in normalizing the cholesterol levels and profile.Regular intake of flaxseeds are also found to be helpful in control of Diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, asthma and in preventing heart attack and stroke also.

Flax seeds has been used in traditional Austrian medicine internally (directly soaked or as tea) or externally as compresses or oil extracts for treatment of disorders of various systems in the body.

Some studies have shown protective effects of flax seed in cancers of prostate, colon & breast. It also works as a laxative, because of its fibre content, if taken with lots of water.

Word of caution& Tips for use:

  • Flaxseeds supplementation is best avoided in pregnant women and breast feeding mothers.
  • Ground flaxseeds if exposed or stored at room temperature loses its potency. Freshly grind it before use or keep powder in a tight container in freezer compartment.
  • Whole flax seeds may be stored at room temperature for up to one year. Preferably it is to be kept in a dark cool place.
  • Brown or golden flaxseeds are both equally good and effective.
  • Consuming in large quantities is not advisable and it may have adverse effect if taken with some oral medications. It may also rarely have some neurotoxic actions also.
  • Linseed oil my produce reactions on contact with skin and oral intake may have toxic effects.

Recommendations for daily use:
Regularly consuming Flax seeds as a nutritional supplement is useful by virtue of its contents like Omega-3 fatty acids, lignans, minerals, anti-oxidants and fibres. About 1 to 2 tablespoons per day (maximum limit per day) may be taken as mildly roasted seeds (to be munched well, since whole seeds may remain undigested) or powdered and mixed with rice and eaten or maybe added to any other dishes. Flaxseed powder may be added to other contents while baking any food or mixed with other flours making chapathis, dosaetcLarger quantity of intake may be harmful and should be avoided. But it must be remembered that flaxseeds are not any magic bullets for health. But its various constituents have generally beneficial effects on health promotion when combined with other healthy life style measures.

Be knowledgeable, follow healthy life style and enjoy good health,

Best Wishes,
Dr M Mohan Rao,
M.D & Chief Surgeon (Now retired),
Dr U Mohan Rau Memorial Hospital, Chennai.
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