For centuries, flax seeds have been prized for their health-protective properties.
In fact, Charles the Great ordered his subjects to eat flax seeds for their health. So it's no wonder they acquired the name Linum usitatissimum, meaning "the most useful."
Nowadays, flax seeds are emerging as a "super food" as more scientific research points to their health benefits.
Here are 10 health benefits of flax seeds that are backed by science.
Grown since the beginning of civilization, flax seeds are one of the oldest crops. There are two types, brown and golden, which are equally nutritious.
A typical serving size for ground flax seeds is 1 tablespoon (7 grams).
Just one tablespoon provides a good amount of protein, fiber and omega-3 fatty acids, in addition to being a rich source of some vitamins and minerals.
One tablespoon of ground flax seeds contains the following (1):
- Calories: 37
- Protein: 1.3 grams
- Carbs: 2 grams
- Fiber: 1.9 grams
- Total fat: 3 grams
- Saturated fat: 0.3 grams
- Monounsaturated fat: 0.5 grams
- Polyunsaturated fat: 2.0 grams
- Omega-3 fatty acids: 1,597 mg
- Vitamin B1: 8% of the RDI
- Vitamin B6: 2% of the RDI
- Folate: 2% of the RDI
- Calcium: 2% of the RDI
- Iron: 2% of the RDI
- Magnesium: 7% of the RDI
- Phosphorus: 4% of the RDI
- Potassium: 2% of the RDI
Interestingly, flax seeds' health benefits are mainly attributed to the omega-3 fatty acids, lignans and fiber they contain.
Summary: Flax seeds are good sources of many nutrients. Their health benefits are mainly due to their content of omega-3 fats, lignans and fiber.
If you are a vegetarian or don't eat fish, flax seeds can be your best source of omega-3 fats.
They are a rich source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a mostly plant-based omega-3 fatty acid (2).
ALA is one of the two essential fatty acids that you have to obtain from the food you eat, as your body doesn't produce them.
Animal studies have shown that the ALA in flax seeds prevented cholesterol from being deposited in the blood vessels of the heart, reduced inflammation in the arteries and reduced tumor growth (3, 4, 5).
A Costa Rican study involving 3,638 people found that those who ate more ALA had a lower risk of heart attack than those who consumed less ALA (6).
Also, a large review of 27 studies involving more than 250,000 people found that ALA was linked to a 14% lower risk of heart disease (7).
Furthermore, a recent review of observational data concluded that ALA had heart health benefits comparable to eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), two of the more well-known omega-3 fats (11).
Summary: Flax seeds are a rich source of the omega-3 fatty acid ALA. Plant-based ALA fatty acids are proven to have heart health benefits and are linked to a lower risk of stroke.
Lignans are plant compounds that have antioxidant and estrogen properties, both of which can help lower the risk of cancer and improve health (12).
Interestingly, flax seeds contain up to 800 times more lignans than other plant foods (5).
Observational studies show that those who eat flax seeds have a lower risk of breast cancer, particularly postmenopausal women (13).
Additionally, according to a Canadian study involving more than 6,000 women, those who eat flax seeds are 18% less likely to develop breast cancer (14).
However, men can also benefit from eating flax seeds.
In a small study including 15 men, those given 30 grams of flax seeds a day while following a low-fat diet showed reduced levels of a prostate cancer marker, suggesting a lower risk of prostate cancer (15).
Flax seeds also appeared to have the potential to prevent colon and skin cancers in laboratory and animal studies. Yet, more research is needed to confirm this (16).
Nevertheless, the evidence thus far points to flax seeds being a potentially valuable food in the fight against various cancers.
Summary: Flax seeds contain a group of nutrients called lignans, which have powerful antioxidant and estrogen properties. They may help in preventing breast and prostate cancer, as well as other types of cancer.
What's more, flax seeds contain two types of dietary fiber — soluble (20–40%) and insoluble (60–80%).
This fiber duo gets fermented by the bacteria in the large bowel, bulks up stools and results in more regular bowel movements.
On one hand, soluble fiber increases the consistency of the contents of your intestine and slows down your digestion rate. This has been shown to help regulate blood sugar and lower cholesterol (18).
On the other hand, insoluble fiber allows more water to bind to the stools, increases their bulk and results in softer stools. This is useful for preventing constipation and for those who have irritable bowel syndrome or diverticular disease (5).
Summary: With so much fiber packed in each tiny seed, adding flax seeds to your diet promotes regular bowel movements and can improve your digestive health.
Another health benefit of flax seeds is their ability to lower cholesterol levels.
In one study in people with high cholesterol, consuming 3 tablespoons (30 grams) of flaxseed powder daily for three months lowered total cholesterol by 17% and "bad" LDL cholesterol by almost 20% (19).
Another study of people with diabetes found that taking 1 tablespoon (10 grams) of flaxseed powder daily for one month resulted in a 12% increase in "good" HDL cholesterol (20).
In postmenopausal women, consuming 30 grams of flax seeds daily lowered total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol by approximately 7% and 10%, respectively (21).
These effects appear to be due to the fiber in flax seeds, as it binds to bile salts and is then excreted by the body.
To replenish these bile salts, cholesterol is pulled from your blood into your liver. This process lowers your blood levels of cholesterol (18).
This is definitely good news for those wanting to improve their cholesterol.
Summary: The high fiber content of flax seeds can help lower cholesterol and may play an important role in improving heart health.
A Canadian study found eating 30 grams of flax seeds daily for six months lowered systolic and diastolic blood pressure by 10 mmHg and 7 mmHg, respectively (23).
For those who were already taking blood pressure medication, flax seeds lowered blood pressure even further and decreased the number of patients with uncontrolled high blood pressure by 17% (23).
Furthermore, according to a large review that looked at data from 11 studies, taking flax seeds daily for more than three months lowered blood pressure by 2 mmHg (24).
While that might seem insignificant, a 2-mmHg reduction in blood pressure can lower the risk of dying from stroke by 10% and from heart disease by 7% (25).
Summary: Flax seeds have been proven to lower blood pressure and are especially helpful for those with high blood pressure.
Flax seeds are a great source of plant-based protein, and there's growing interest in flaxseed protein and its health benefits. Flaxseed protein is rich in the amino acids arginine, aspartic acid and glutamic acid (26, 27).
If you are considering cutting back on meat and worried that you will be too hungry, flax seeds may just be your answer.
In fact, in one recent study, 21 adults were given an animal protein meal or plant protein meal. The study found no difference in terms of appetite, satiety or food intake noted between the two meals (31).
It's likely both the animal and plant protein meals stimulated hormones in the gut to bring about the feeling of fullness, which resulted in eating less at the next meal.
Summary: Flax seeds are a good source of plant-based protein and can be an alternative protein source for people who do not eat meat.
Type 2 diabetes is a major health problem worldwide.
It's characterized by high blood sugar levels as a result of either the body's inability to secrete insulin or resistance to it.
A few studies have found that people with type 2 diabetes who added 10–20 grams of flaxseed powder to their daily diet for at least one month saw reductions of 8–20% in blood sugar levels (20, 32, 33).
This blood sugar-lowering effect is notably due to flax seeds' insoluble fiber content. Research has found that insoluble fiber slows down the release of sugar into the blood and reduces blood sugar (5, 34).
However, one study found no change in blood sugar levels or any improvement in diabetes management (35).
This might be due to the small numbers of subjects in the study and the use of flaxseed oil. Flaxseed oil lacks fiber, which is credited with flax seeds' ability to lower blood sugar.
Overall, flax seeds can be a beneficial and nutritious addition to the diet of people with diabetes.
Summary: Flax seeds may lower blood sugar due to their insoluble fiber content. They can be a beneficial addition to the diet of people with diabetes.
If you have the tendency to snack between meals, you might want to consider adding flax seeds to your beverage to stave off hunger pangs.
The feelings of reduced hunger were likely due to the soluble fiber content of flax seeds. It slows digestion in the stomach, which triggers a host of hormones that control appetite and provide a feeling of fullness (37, 38, 39).
Flax seeds' dietary fiber content may aid weight control by suppressing hunger and increasing feelings of fullness.
Summary: Flax seeds keep you full for longer and may help you manage your weight by controlling your appetite.
Flax seeds or flaxseed oil can be added to many common foods. Try the following:
- Adding them to water and drinking it as part of your daily fluid intake
- Drizzling flaxseed oil as a dressing on salad
- Sprinkling ground flax seeds over your hot or cold breakfast cereal
- Mixing them into your favorite yogurt
- Adding them into cookie, muffin, bread or other batters
- Mixing them into smoothies to thicken up the consistency
- Adding them to water as an egg substitute
- Incorporating them into meat patties
Summary: Flax seeds are versatile can be easily added to your daily diet. There are a variety of recipes you can try.
Many impressive health benefits are attributed to consuming flax seeds.
Here are some tips on how you can add these tiny seeds into your diet.
Consume Ground Seeds Rather Than Whole
Opt for ground flax seeds, as they are easier to digest.
You won't reap as many benefits from whole flax seeds, as your intestines cannot break down the tough outer shell of the seeds.
That being said, you can still buy whole flax seeds, grind them in a coffee grinder and store the ground flax seeds in an airtight container.
What About Flaxseed Oil?
The resurgence of the use of flaxseed oil is due to its nutritional properties and health benefits.
It's usually extracted by a process called cold pressing.
Given that oil is sensitive to heat and light, it's best kept in dark glass bottles and stored in a dark, cool place like a kitchen cabinet.
Because some of its nutrients are heat sensitive, flaxseed oil is not suitable for high-temperature cooking.
Nevertheless, some studies have shown that using flaxseed oil in light stir-frying of up to 350°F/177°C did not cause any reduction in the quality of the oil (5).
It's worth noting that flaxseed oil contains more ALA than flax seeds. One tablespoon of ground flax seeds contains 1.6 grams, while one tablespoon of flaxseed oil contains 7 grams.
Nonetheless, flax seeds contain a host of other beneficial nutrients that are not included in its extracted oil, such as fiber. To fully reap the health benefits of flax seeds, ground flax seeds will make a great first choice.
How Much Do You Need?
The health benefits noted in the studies above were observed with just 1 tablespoon (10 grams) of ground flax seeds per day.
However, it's recommended to keep serving sizes to less than 5 tablespoons (50 grams) of flax seeds per day.
Summary: Ground flax seeds provide the greatest health benefits. If using flaxseed oil, remember to store it in a cool, dark place and use it when cooking at a lower temperature to retain its nutritional properties.
When it comes to nutritional goodness, flax seeds are full of it.
Though tiny, they are rich in the omega-3 fatty acid ALA, lignans and fiber, all of which have been shown to have many potential health benefits.
They can be used to improve digestive health, lower blood pressure and bad cholesterol, reduce the risk of cancer and may benefit people with diabetes.
As a versatile food ingredient, flax seeds or flaxseed oil are easy to add to your diet.
With many proven health benefits and possibly more, there's no better time than now to grab some flax seeds from your local grocery store.