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Volume 38, No. 2

Flaxseed, a Neglected Food

Linen is a familiar fabric to all of us, but far less familiar is the seed of the plant from which it comes, flax. Yet until World War II, flaxseed (or, as it is sometimes called, linseed) was in common use in Europe and the United States as a food and a therapeutic agent. In fact, flax has been used since ancient times. Linen was found in the oldest excavated tombs in Egypt, and its other uses were multiple:

Ancient East Indian scriptures state that in order to reach the highest state of contentment and joy, a yogi must eat flax daily. . . . The 8th century emperor Charlemange considered flax so important for the health of his subjects that he passed laws and regulations requiring its consumption. The 15th century abbess, Hildegard von Bingen, used flax meal . . . in hot compresses for the treatment of external and internal ailments. . . . Mahatma Gandhi once observed: Wherever flaxseed becomes a regular food item among the people, there will be better health.1

For centuries, flaxseed has been prized for its health-giving properties for us and also for animals: correcting digestive disturbances, preventing infectious diseases, and making horses’ and dogs’ coats glossy. We humans find that flaxseed oil, taken internally, oils and beautifies the skin from within, making it "velvety, smooth, and radiant, without the need for external creams and at a small fraction of the cost."2

Little wonder, then, that flax acquired the name Linum usitatissimum, meaning "the most useful." And what are the properties that have made flax and flaxseed so useful? For one thing, flaxseed is an excellent source of two fatty acids that are essential for human health – linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid. For another, flaxseed contains a protein that has all the essential amino acids plus the extra one, histidine, that is essential for infants. In addition, flaxseed is an excellent source of fiber and a good source of minerals and vitamins, including those needed to protect the flaxseed oil. Also,

its content of mucilage makes . . . flaxseed the best natural laxative available. It sooths and protects the delicate stomach and intestinal lining, prevents irritation, and keeps the contents moving smoothly along. Because it absorbs water and swells (it reaches about three times its dry volume so this much liquid should accompany its consumption), the stools don’t become hard and dry.3

Most useful of all to our health is flaxseed’s supply of essential fatty acids alpha-linolenic (omega-3) and linoleic (omega-6). You have heard from us before about these two essential fatty acids (EFAs) and you will probably hear from us again about them. Both are essential to our health, yet both must be obtained from our food and neither can be converted to the other by our bodies. Once we have ingested them, with appropriate enzymes our bodies can convert these highly reactive fatty acids into essential parts of phospholipids, which are substances needed in the membranes surrounding all our cells and the organelles within them. Phospholipids are also needed in a single-layered membrane surrounding cholesterol that is being transported in the blood from the liver to the cells and back again.

Our bodies can also convert EFAs into prostaglandins needed for balancing our metabolism. For example, certain prostaglandins are involved in inflammation; others, particularly those developed from omega-3 fatty acids, block inflammation.

Along with sulfur-containing amino acids, the EFAs appear to be crucial for the proper functioning of highly active tissues such as buds in plants and such as out brain and liver. Dr. Johanna Budwig, a remarkable European physician considered "the world’s leading expert on the therapeutic uses of flax oil," has used fresh flaxseed oil plus a source of sulfur-containing amino acids, along with fresh foods for patients with severe EFA deficiencies. She found that their

vital energy increased. . . . [They] recuperated. It took about three months for these changes. During this time, the symptoms of cancer, diabetes, or liver disease disappeared. . . .4

To Dr. Budwig, the oil-protein combination is not a special diet. Rather, she says, it is

a return to the way we should have been eating in order not to get sick in the first place. And once [we are] sick, the return to a natural, nutritious way of eating supplies the life forces within us with the materials it needs to repair and rebuild our bodies. Once [we are] healthy, it is also the kind of nutrition that will keep us that way.5

Flaxseed oil, with its excellent combination of unsaturated EFAs, must be used fresh, as it was for centuries when only a little was pressed at a time. The linoleic and alpha-linolenic acids are easily destroyed by oxidation; they must be protected from air, heat and light – a pretty tall order! For this reason, when large-scale vegetable oil production got started in this century, industry turned to oils that would not so easily spoil and become rancid.

At about the same time, partial hydrogenation was introduced, for convenience and to increase shelf life. However, the high temperatures required for hydrogenation resulted in random changes in the configuration of any remaining unsaturated bonds, many being changed into unnatural, straight "trans" bonds. Lost in the process were the natural "cis" bonds, whose "kinks" are necessary for maintaining liquidity in cell membranes, as well as for taking part in exact reactions in our energy production – reactions, for example, with the sulfur-containing amino acids. Human metabolism requires exact changes, not random ones.

Donald Rudin, MD, a Pennsylvania psychiatrist, has coauthored The Omega 3 Phenomenon, describing his use of flaxseed oil, along with other nutrients, and the avoidance of antinutrients, in treating patients. He points out that

the normal brain is about 60 percent fat. The scientists who have identified the complex fatty acids in the human brain found that the most abundant polyunsaturated fats are derivatives of the only two fats we must have in our diet – the Omega-3 and Omega-6 essential fatty acids. The Omega-3 EFA are even more abundant in the brain than the Omega-6. The brain’s highly polyunsaturated Omega-3 and Omega-6 fats (we can call the former ultra-polyunsaturated fats) provide the fluidity needed for proper reception and transmission of impulses between the brain’s cells. . . . Pregnant mice deprived of EFA gave birth to mice with small, underdeveloped brains.6

Based on his experiences, Dr. Rudin believes that "today’s public is starved of omega-3 EFA." In a study of 44 of his patients, he found striking similarities in their ailments:

  • Ninety percent had dry skin dermatosis (flaking of the skin of the scalp, eyebrows, arms, legs and hands; fissuring of skin on the fingers).
  • Seventy-five percent suffered fatigue (although they often didn’t recognize it until they achieved real stamina).
  • Fifty percent had an immune disorder (food or airborne allergies, rheumatoid arthritis, and others).
  • Forty-five percent had bursitis, tendonitis, or osteoarthritis.
  • Many had headache, itching or burning skin sensations, and tinnitus (ringing in the ears).
  • Irritability was common.
  • A number of subjects suffered all of these symptoms – and more.

These problems plus the major illnesses accompanying them constitute a syndrome. Because most cases responded to the linseed [flaxseed] oil regimen, the conclusion is that they had the modernization disease syndrome. . . .7

[My] analysis of national food consumption data shows that 70 percent of our food is now processed or exotic and that this has seriously distorted every essential nutrient family while at the same time significantly increasing the antinutrient load.8

1Erasmus, Udo. Fats and Oils, Vancouver, Canada, Alive Books, 1986, pp. 260-61.

2Ibid., p. 268.

3Ibid., pp. 264-65.

4Ibid., p. 273.

5Ibid., p. 275.

6Rudin, Donald, and Clara Felix, with Constance Schrader, The Omega 3 Phenomenon, London, England, Sidgwick & Jackson, 1988, p. 20. For a discussion of optimal individual doseages and possible reverse effects, see pp. 96-97.

7Ibid., pp. 43-44.

8Ibid., p. 270.

Article from NOHA* NEWS, Winter 1991

*The American Nutrition Association was formerly known as the Nutrition for Optimal Health Association [NOHA].

For informational purposes only - not intended as medical advice, diagnosis or treatment, nor an endorsement by the American Nutrition Association®. Use permitted for non-profit and non-commercial uses or by healthcare professionals in their practice, with attribution to Other use only with written ANA℠ permission. Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the ANA℠. Works by a listed author subject to copyrights as marked. © 2010 ANA℠