The Good Oil on Flaxseed
This ancient plant has always been important to mankind. But now, instead of being used to make cloth, flax is being heralded as a solution to two of modern civilization's greatest ills: cardiovascular disease and arthritis.
What's So Special About Flaxseed Oil?
Flaxseed is a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, containing twice the amount of omega-3s than fish. The most important omega-3 found in flaxseed is called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). ALA is an essential fatty acid, which means the body can't make it and it must come from the diet. Omega-3 fatty acids are at quite low levels in the Australian diet, and many authorities recommend we increase our intake of omega-3 fats. But why?
Cardiovascular disease kills more Australians than any other condition, in fact, one person dies every ten minutes from cardiovascular disease and many others are permanently incapacitated. Cardiovascular disease includes a number of conditions, like:
- Heart conditions, like heart attacks and angina
- Vascular disease, like strokes
- Blood vessel disorders, like high blood pressure and inappropriate clotting.
The main cause of cardiovascular disease is the blocking of blood vessels, usually by fatty deposits. As these deposits build up, the walls of the blood vessels become narrow and stiff. This is known as hardening of the arteries. As the blood vessels become narrower, blood pressure increases. The end result is either a blood vessel that is largely blocked, cutting off the blood supply, or a blood vessel that 'bursts', causing a stroke.
How Does Flaxseed Oil Help?
The ALA from flaxseed oil helps the fight against cardiovascular disease in a number of ways:
- Firstly, ALA lowers blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels, to reduce the fatty deposits in the blood stream
- ALA also improves the elasticity of blood vessels, and so reduces hardening of the arteries and high blood pressure. This is because one of the jobs of omega-3s is to make cell membranes, and high omega-3 cell membranes, more fluid and flexible
- ALA acts as a natural blood thinner, reducing the ability of blood to form clots. Studies have shown that, even in healthy young men, taking flaxseed oil every day decreases the tendency of platelets to aggregate.
What About Inflammation?
Another function of ALA is in inflammatory pathways. The body converts fatty acids into substances called prostaglandins, which are hormone-like chemicals that control inflammation. There are many types of prostaglandins, and some are more inflammatory that others. When the body produces more of these stronger, more inflammatory prostaglandins, a range of conditions can result, like:
- Arthritis, gout and joint pain
- Severe menstrual cramping
- Skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis
Old-timers used to say that flaxseed oil 'oils your joints', relieving the pain and stiffness of arthritis. Now we know that they were right about the effect, but now we understand the complex biochemistry behind the result. Prostaglandins made from omega-3 oils are weaker than those made from omega-6 oils, so a diet that includes flaxseed oil can 'down regulate' the inflammatory response and improve these inflammatory conditions.
Who Should Take Flaxseed Oil?
Flaxseed oil is an essential addition to the diet for many people. Most importantly, anyone who suffers from cardiovascular disease or inflammatory conditions like period pain, asthma or arthritis should add flaxseed oil to their daily regime. Many people are concerned with the level of heavy metals found in fish these days; people who don't eat the recommended two servings a week of fish, including vegetarians, can achieve their omega-3 requirements from flaxseed oil.
How Do I Choose the Right Flaxseed Oil?
- Flaxseed oil is available as a liquid or capsule.
- Make sure the oil you choose is cold pressed, unrefined and GMO free.
- Look for certified organic oil, because non-organic oils can sometimes carry trace amounts of herbicides and pesticides.
- A reputable company will measure the amount of ALA contained in their flaxseed oil, so make sure the one you choose has this clearly displayed on the label.
- Most importantly, all oils need to be fresh and not exposed to light or oxygen. A specialist oil manufacturer will have a fast turnover, and all flaxseed oil should be packed in opaque packaging and refrigerated.
- Always take flaxseed capsules with food.
- Flaxseed oil can be made into salad dressings, poured over cereals or mixed in yogurt or smoothies.
- Flaxseed oil is not suitable for cooking.