Flax is an oily grain grown for its fiber, seeds

Q: My sister takes flaxseed oil because she can’t stand getting “fishy burps” from the fish oil, and insists that flaxseed is just as good for you as fish oil. Is this true?

Flax is an oily grain grown for its fiber and seeds. While the fiber is used for clothing, the seeds are sold as whole seeds, partially defatted seeds, ground seeds, flaxseed meal and flaxseed oil. Flaxseed is used as a natural way to decrease your total cholesterol and “bad” LDL cholesterol levels and can relieve menopausal symptoms like night sweats and hot flashes.

Both flaxseed and fish oil have high concentrations of a type of fatty acid called Omega-3. Eating foods rich in Omega-3 fatty acids helps counteract the effect of  “bad” fatty acids called Omega-6, which create inflammation in your body.

Omega-6 fatty acids contribute to arthritis and heart disease, and there are lots of them in a typical American diet. Omega-6 fatty acids are found in popular foods like popcorn, pasta, potato chips, corn chips, bread, French fries and hot dogs as well as many salad dressings, canola oil and soybean oil.

The “good” Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA help counteract the inflammatory effects of a diet high in Omega-6 fatty acids. Flaxseed also contains large amount of an Omega-3 fatty acid called ALA, but ALA is inactive until it is changed into EPA or DHA, and most people can’t convert it into an active form.

Although flaxseed oil CAN decrease menopausal symptoms in SOME women, this supports the fact that most people can't convert enough of the inactive Omega-3 fatty acid ALA in flaxseed into biologically active EPA or DHA to get much benefit.

Flaxseed is a very good source of fiber, especially soluble fiber. Adding fiber to your diet with flaxseed has been shown to decrease LDL and total cholesterol. Flaxseed’s fiber helps you stay regular because it works as a bulk laxative, similar to psyllium or Metamucil®. In fact, most of the documented benefits of eating flaxseed can be explained by the effect of more fiber in your diet. Flaxseed oil has not been shown to lower either LDL or total cholesterol.

The outer coating of flaxseed is a gummy layer that’s very high in fiber, especially soluble fiber. Getting adequate fiber in your diet helps decrease your “bad” cholesterol (LDL) level and your total cholesterol level.

The beneficial effects of flaxseed over flaxseed oil or lignin extract on your LDL and total cholesterol can be explained by the increased fiber from its seed coat, whether from eating the whole seeds or grinding them up like flaxseed meal.

You can add whole flaxseed to your diet by adding it to cereal, granola, or smoothies. Ground flaxseed or flaxseed meal is less gritty and can be blended into smoothies or baked into breads, muffins or cookies. Whole and ground flaxseed each contain lots of fiber and act as a bulk laxative very similar to psyllium or Metamucil®. When starting them, add flaxseed to your slowly to avoid suffering intestinal distress such as gas, bloating, cramps or diarrhea and get plenty of fluids to avoid intestinal blockage.

Most sources suggest up to 40 grams flaxseed daily (4 tablespoons of whole flaxseed or 7 tablespoons of flaxseed meal) to lower LDL and total cholesterol. Avoid taking more than 45 grams per day (4.5mg tablespoons of whole flaxseed or 8 tablespoons of flaxseed meal) to decrease your risk of intestinal problems.

Here are 5 Key Facts About Flaxseed and Omega-3 Fatty Acids:
1.The Omega-3 fatty acid ALA found in flaxseed is not active in your body.

ALA from flaxseed needs to be converted into active Omega-3 fatty acids like EPA and DHA by your body before it can benefit you. Some people can make this happen, but most cannot.

2.Fatty fish, fish oil and krill oil have high concentrations of the active Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA.

The foods containing the most Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are fatty fish like salmon, herring, mackerel and sardines.

3.The soluble fiber in flaxseed lowers total cholesterol and LDL (bad) cholesterol.

Flaxseed’s soluble fiber is concentrated in its seed coat. Flaxseed oil and lignin extracts do not significantly affect cholesterol levels.

4.Start slowly and limit whole or ground flaxseed to 45gm daily to avoid intestinal distress.

Add fiber to your diet gradually to minimize painful gas, bloating or cramps.

5.Avoid flaxseed while pregnant or breastfeeding.

Flaxseed contains phytoestrogens and should be avoided if possible during pregnancy and while breastfeeding.

Dr. Louise Achey, Doctor of Pharmacy is a 40-year veteran of pharmacology and author of Why Dogs Can’t Eat Chocolate: How Medicines Work and How YOU Can Take Them Safely. Your questions and comments are always welcome at www.AskDrLouise.com  ®2019 Louise Achey

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