Flax seed is one of the original health foods, treasured for its healing properties throughout the Roman Empire, and was one of the original medicines used by Hippocrates. Mahatma Gandhi himself was right when he said, “Wherever flax seeds become a regular food item among the people, there will be better health.” Dr. Andrew Weil, one of the more reputable alternative medicine physicians, says that if we can make only a single dietary change, it should be to add flax seeds to our diet. Okay, but where do we find them, and how should we eat them?
Flax seeds are almost always in the bulk section of any natural food store. For about a dollar a pound, you’ve got like a two-month supply. There are brown ones and golden ones. They’re the same nutritionally, so pick your favorite color, I guess. They come with nature’s own finest packaging: a hard natural hull that keeps them fresh for up to a year, in an airtight container. Unfortunately, nature’s packaging is actually a little too good; if we eat flax seeds whole, they are likely to pass right through us, come out the other end, and not do us much good. So chew them really well, or grind them up in a coffee or spice grinder, a mini food processor, or a good blender. After they’re ground, store them in the refrigerator, and they’ll last a few months.
An easy way to get our daily intake is with a morning smoothie. Just put two tablespoons of flax seeds in a blender, grind them to powder, throw in some frozen berries, maybe half a frozen banana, some soy milk or almond milk (any of the so-called “motherless milks”). Flax seeds have this binding quality that makes for these thick, rich kind of milkshake-y type smoothies. In fact, you can use ground flax seed to replace eggs in baking. Just blend one tablespoon of ground flax with three tablespoons water, until it gets all kind of gooey, for each egg in the recipe.
Ground flax is better than the flax seed oil. The seeds are little nutrition powerhouses, and we lose much of the nutrition when we just press out the oil. Not only are flax seeds the richest source of lignans, they are a great source of iron, zinc, copper, calcium, protein, potassium, magnesium, folate, soluble fiber—which can lower our cholesterol and triglycerides—even boron, a trace mineral important for optimum bone health. We don’t get any of those, though, with just the flax seed oil. Another example of the importance of eating whole plant foods.
Flax seeds are incredibly powerful at dampening the effects of estrogen. Eating just a single tablespoon of ground flax seeds a day extends the length of a woman’s menstrual cycle—not the menses itself, but the whole month-long cycle—by an average of about one day. So you have fewer periods throughout your life, which means less estrogen exposure, and lower breast cancer risk.
There’s an interesting story behind this; we’ve known for a long time that young women who have frequent bladder infections were at an increased risk for breast cancer. Frequent bladder infections tied to breast cancer? It seems strange, and used to be a big mystery, but now we think that repeated antibiotic treatments for the bladder infections were probably wiping out all the good bacteria from the colon, which take the lignans in our diet, and turn them into these powerful anticancer compounds. So eating flax, the world’s best source of lignans, may indeed help prevent breast cancer.
It’s good for men, too. Flax seeds were recently compared to a leading pharmacological treatment for enlarged prostates. The standard drug costs about $300 a year versus only about $10 for daily flax. This new study found they both work just as well as each other. But what about the side effects? Well, the drug can cause headaches, dizziness, diarrhea, and all sorts of abnormalities. Flax has some side effects too, though: it improves our cholesterol and blood sugar, controls our blood pressure, and helps control hot flashes—though that’s not usually a big problem in sufferers of enlarged prostates.
More about flax seeds in the prevention and mediation of breast cancer:
- Flax Seeds & Breast Cancer Prevention
- Flax Seeds & Breast Cancer Survival: Epidemiological Evidence
- Flax Seeds & Breast Cancer Survival: Clinical Evidence
And for a few of the latest videos on flax seeds and prostate health:
For more context, check out my associated blog posts: Breast Cancer and Diet; Is Caffeinated Tea Really Dehydrating?; Stool Size and Breast Cancer Risk; Vitamin B12: how much, how often?; Treating an Enlarged Prostate With Diet; and Flax Seeds for Prostate Cancer.
Michael Greger, M.D.
Michael Greger, M.D., is a physician, New York Times bestselling author, and internationally recognized professional speaker on a number of important public health issues. Dr. Greger has lectured at the Conference on World Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, and the International Bird Flu Summit, testified before Congress, appeared on The Dr. Oz Show and The Colbert Report, and was invited as an expert witness in defense of Oprah Winfrey at the infamous “meat defamation” trial. Currently Dr. Greger proudly serves as the Director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture at the Humane Society of the United