Flax: the heath world’s version of Put a Bird on It. Breads, smoothies, snack bars, baked goods… this seed is inescapable. But flax doesn’t quite stand up to the marketing claims.
Here are three reasons to leave flax to the birds, and get your nutrients elsewhere.
1. Flax seeds are good for everyone to eat
Flax contains high levels of phytoestrogens, so called because they mimic estrogen in the body. Estrogen must be tightly regulated in the hormone systems of both men and women but unfortunately modern diet and lifestyle impair this ability to properly regulate estrogen.
Estrogen dominance occurs when our bodies cannot detox estrogen and/or we take in too much estrogen. Popular sources of estrogen include pesticides, chemicals in body care products, some herbs and vegetables, and hormone therapy.
Men, woman and children may suffer estrogen dominance. It manifests as early puberty for girls, and delayed puberty for boys. It may mean a host of hormonal symptoms, particularly PMS, for women. Men may grow moobs or suffer erectile dysfunction.
Unlike chemical estrogens, phytoestrogens have less potency than human estrogens. The phytoestrogens fill up cellular estrogen receptor sites without giving the full-blown action of estrogen. This can be a good or bad thing. For men, phytoestrogen intake often means too much estrogen period. For women, it *may* in *certain cases* mean reduced symptoms of estrogen dominance.
The research is conflicting about the use of phytoestrogens. Some studies show flax reduce breast tumor growth and another study claimed that flax doesn’t work better than a placebo for menopause.
I recommend Stephani Ruper’s comprehensive article on phytoestrogens. She sums up,
The fact of the matter is that while the medical community has yet to understand and come to grips with phytoestrogen biochemistry, it is clear that phytoestrogens can cause unnatural hormonal disruptions. This is especially problematic for people with high or low estrogen levels or other reproductive issues. If estrogen seems to be increasing by one measure in one type of receptor and in one type of tissue, it is possibly decreasing in others. And vice versa. This can do real damage, since it is impossible for us to understand what is going on in every kind of our tissues at once.
2. Flax seeds are a good source of omega-3
The omega-3 found in flax seed is very poorly absorbed and utilized by the body. There are three types of omega-3: ALA, EPA and DHA. Plant sources, like flax seeds, contain only ALA. In order to reap anti-inflammatory benefits from ALA, the body must convert it into the useable form of EPA and DHA. This conversion, however, creates only a tiny quantity of EPA or DHA (source and source).
The lack of omega-3 from plant sources is one of the key reasons why I do not recommend a vegan diet for health.
3. Flax seeds are a good source of fiber
It is true that flax seeds contain fiber, but this is not a reason to gorge on them. I used to put ground flax seed into my smoothies, in an effort to ameliorate my constipation. It didn’t help, and passed into my stool undigested. I should have taken notice of that red flag… consuming a food which the body can’t digest is stressful to the body.
Flax contains both soluble and insoluble fiber, but that doesn’t make it a panacea for slow transit time. The early studies that prompted the high fiber movement found that young, healthy study participants had better bowel movements. None of the participants were actually constipated. Current studies show that a high fiber diet may actually exacerbate constipation:
The role of dietary fiber to treat chronic constipation is exaggerated. A low fiber diet has been proven not to be the cause of constipation and the success of fiber intake as treatment is modest. The study reviewed conducted by Voderholzer et al showed that only 20% of slow transit patients benefited from fiber. Further data suggests that while many patients may be helped by a fiber-rich diet, some actually suffer from worse symptoms when increasing their fiber intake. Read more at Science Daily.
Further, we need to consider flax as a whole, and not just as a source of fiber. As with most nuts and seeds, it contains a large amount of phytic acid, which is stored largely in the fiber content. Phytic acid is an anti-nutrient that blocks the absorption of the minerals in the flax.
What have your health experiences been with flax seeds?