Flaxseed Oil

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Which plant is it from?

Flaxseed oil taken to supplement dietary essential fatty acids is unrelated to the New Zealand flax plant (harakeke of the genus Phormium), which is really a lily unique to New Zealand. Flaxseed oil is sourced from the flax plant Linum usitatissimum, from the Linaceae family native to eastern Europe and parts of Asia, commonly known as Linseed. New Zealand Flaxseed Oil is produced from a blue flowered, annual crop grown mainly in the South Island.

How important is flaxseed oil?

Traditionally this flax plant has provided fibre for weaving (linen) and linseed oil for preserving woodwork. Oil from the seeds of this plant has high nutrient value, providing Omega 3 and 6 essential fatty acids (EFAs).

Essential fatty acids, as their name suggests, are essential to our health, and our bodies can’t produce them. Good quality food sources of EFAs are therefore vital and flaxseed oil is one of the best available to us. Other good plant sources are non-GMO organic canola oil, hemp oil and walnuts.

The plant form of Omega 3 is called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Flaxseed oil has the highest ALA content of any vegetarian source. Our bodies convert ALA to the bioactive fatty acid nutrient eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), some of which is then converted to docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). EPA is necessary for healthy cardiovascular function. DHA is the main fatty material in the brain, vitally important as a structural component of grey matter and the retina of the eye. Both brain and eye development and function are seriously impaired without adequate levels of DHA.

The second essential fatty acid we need is Omega 6, or linoleic acid. Historically the human diet contained a balanced proportion of Omega 6 to Omega 3 EFAs. Our ancestors’ diet served them up in a 1:1 ratio and our bodies evolved to function accordingly. Typically, people today eat a western style diet containing far more Omega 6 than Omega 3, sometimes 20-30 times more (USA figures). The excess Omega 6 comes from high consumption of cooking oils, grain-fed meats and processed foods. For a healthy balance of Omega 3 and Omega 6 EFAs through daily food intake, the traditional Mediterranean diet is recommended, being rich in Omega 3 through both fish and plant sources.

We need to reduce the Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratio to between 4:1 and 1:1 for optimum health outcomes. Research suggests the relatively small percentage of dietary ALA converted to EPA and DHA in the body is further compromised by excessive levels of dietary Omega 6. Too much Omega 6 creates a pro-inflammatory environment in the absence of adequate Omega 3s, which are the balancing anti-inflammatory EFAs. There is a greater risk of clinical depression when your EFAs are out of balance, due to low levels of DHA in the brain.

Flaxseed oil contains 60% Omega 3 (alpha linolenic acid), 20% Omega 6 (linoleic acid) and 20% Omega 9 (oleic acid). This is a 3:1 ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6, helping reverse the dietary imbalance present in the western style diet. The plant form of Omega 3 is definitely the most stable form because it contains high amounts of the protective antioxidant Vitamin E, compared with fish oil Omega 3s which do not.

Some new studies indicate residual unconverted ALA is beneficial to our health, potentially increasing the value of Flaxseed oil as a dietary supplement. A Japanese study showed that plant oil ALA supplementation for at least 10 months duration slowly increases blood levels of EPA and DHA. Observing results over an extended time frame in this study revealed information not seen in shorter trials. More dedicated research is needed to clarify the overall benefits of Omega 3 ALAs in Flaxseed and other plant oils.

While Omega 9 (oleic acid) is a non essential fatty acid that can be produced in the body as long as there is enough Omega 3 or 6 available, it must be sourced from the diet when they are in short supply.

What are the health implications of a distorted ratio of Omega 6 : Omega 3?

We rely on adequate dietary essential fatty acids for the ongoing healthy function of our organs, glands and all tissues. Every cell of the body needs these nutrients and when they are deficient or imbalanced a variety of symptoms can result. These could include depleted energy, fatigue, heart and circulation problems, mood swings, depression, hormonal imbalances, poor cognition, brain disorders, lowered immunity, poor eyesight, poor skin and hair condition, infertility, impaired foetal brain development, allergies, loss of bone density, joint problems, a range of inflammatory conditions, auto-immune disorders and more

What are the known health benefits of Flaxseed oil?

Research has linked Flaxseed oil to improved outcomes in coronary heart disease, heart arrhythmias, blood pressure, cholesterol reduction, artery health, cancer prevention, diabetes, hormonal imbalances, menopausal symptoms, excess weight gain, stress response, injury prevention, joint pain, arthritis, digestive function and constipation, Alzheimer’s symptoms, acne, skin condition and cognitive function.

Benefits from lignans (phytoestrogens) contained in flaxseed hulls are sometimes mistakenly attributed to flaxseed oil. In fact, the oil does not contain lignans so it’s important to differentiate between the two forms of supplement.

What is the best way to take Flaxseed oil?

Studies show essential fatty acids are most effective when combined with sulphur amino acid containing foods. Some dietary suggestions are Flaxseed oil with raw nuts, beansprouts, eggs, quark, yoghurt or cottage cheese, but not with hot food as heat destabalises the oil’s beneficial properties.

It’s best to start with a small amount - about 5 ml (1 teaspoon) per day and build up to 1 or 2 tablespoons (15-30 ml) per day. Then your body will gradually adjust to an influx of nutrients that might be too much to metabolise in a sudden large dose.

View a range of quality Flaxseed Oil supplements available at discount prices from healthpost.co.nz.

Are there any contraindications, concerns or adverse effects reported?

When taken by adults within the recommended dosage range there are no adverse effects and Flaxseed oil is non-toxic.

Babies and children, who have not been disadvantaged by many years on a western-style diet and are therefore unlikely to have an unbalanced ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3, are not recommended to take Flaxseed oil on a regular supplementary basis. Occasional doses as needed to relieve constipation or skin rashes can be beneficial.

Until more research is available, caution is recommended with flaxseed oil intake if you are at risk of macular degeneration. While studies show fish oil omega 3s have a preventative role, higher consumption of the plant based omega 3 ALAs has been linked to increased risk of this disease. More research is needed to clarify these findings.

People with either diabetes or schizophrenia may have problems converting ALA to EPA and DHA, so fish oil (a rich source of these), rather than flaxseed oil is recommended in these cases.

Some reports warn that flaxseed oil ALA has been linked to higher risk of breast and prostate cancers. Closer examination of various studies shows this view is not supported. Problems arise when ALAs from high consumption of saturated fat sources (butter, red meat etc) are included in data. Such foods are known to increase risk of many cancers due to their oxidative effect, whereas much current research has linked high quality flaxseed oil to a reduced cancer risk.

Importance of quality processing and pollution free sources

The importance of high quality processing is highlighted by misinterpretations of data based on poor research standards.

A high standard of cold pressing is essential to maintaining the beneficial activity of flaxseed oil, and preventing oxidative toxicity.

ALAs are fragile and easily damaged by oxidation, so from preparation through marketing, storage and consumption it’s important to keep flaxseed oil cold, away from light and in a sealed container. The best health outcomes are achieved when flaxseed oil is added to a diet that is low in free-radical forming foods.

Carolyn Simon
ND, DipMedHerb

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