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?
Both flaxseed and fish oil have high concentrations of fatty acids called Omega-3. Eating foods rich in Omega-3 fatty acids helps counteract the effect of another type of fatty acid called Omega-6, which creates inflammation in your body.
Omega-6 fatty acids contribute to arthritis and heart disease, and many of them are in a typical American diet. Omega-6 fatty acids are found in popular foods like popcorn, pasta, potato chips, corn chips, bread, French fries, hot dogs, and many salad dressings, which contain either canola or soybean oil.
Fish oil contains 2 main types of Omega-3 fatty acids: EPA and DHA, which can help counteract the inflammatory effects of a diet high in Omega-6 fatty acids. Flaxseed contains large amounts of ALA, a different Omega-3 fatty acid. Unfortunately, ALA is not active as an Omega-3 until changed into EPA or DHA, and most people can’t convert it into its active form.
Although flaxseed is not a good source of Omega-3 fatty acid, it helps lower blood sugar in diabetics, and lowers both high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
Flax is an oily grain grown for its fiber and seeds. Flax fiber can be used for clothing, while the seeds are sold as whole seeds, partially defatted seeds, ground seeds, flaxseed meal, and flaxseed oil. Flaxseed may help decrease your total cholesterol and “bad” LDL cholesterol levels and relieve menopausal symptoms like night sweats and hot flashes.
Flax seeds are an excellent 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 is a bulk laxative, similar to psyllium or Metamucil®. Much of the documented benefits of eating flaxseed can be explained by the beneficial effects of adding soluble fiber to your diet. Taking 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 lower your "bad" cholesterol (LDL) and total cholesterol levels. These benefits can be found by eating whole seeds or using ground 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. Because whole and ground flaxseed contains a lot of fiber, they can act as a bulk laxative, similar to psyllium or Metamucil®. Add flaxseed slowly to avoid suffering intestinal distress such as gas, bloating, cramps, or diarrhea. You should also get plenty of fluids to prevent intestinal blockage.
Most sources suggest up to 40 grams of 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 daily (4.5mg tablespoons of whole flaxseed or 8 tablespoons of flaxseed meal) to decrease your risk of intestinal problems.
Flaxseed and oil contain natural compounds called lignans, which contain phytoestrogens. These phytoestrogens can reduce the risk of cancer, especially breast cancer. Flax phytoestrogens block soy’s stimulant effect on estrogen-positive breast cancer tumors.
Here are 5 Key Facts About Flaxseed and Omega-3 Fatty Acids:
1. 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 improve cholesterol levels.
2. Start flaxseed slowly to avoid intestinal distress.
Add whole or ground flaxseed to your diet gradually to minimize painful gas, bloating, or cramps, up to 45gm daily.
3. Minimize use of flaxseed while pregnant or breastfeeding.
Flaxseed contains phytoestrogens, which could affect the developing baby.
4. Flaxseed lignans can reduce hot flashes and the risk of breast cancer recurrence.
The phytoestrogens in flaxseed lignans can relieve menopausal symptoms like hot flashes and night sweats without increasing the risk of breast cancer. Flax’s anti-estrogen effect on breast cancer can boost the benefits of medications used for estrogen-sensitive breast cancer.
5. Fatty fish, fish oil, and krill oil have higher Omega-3 fatty acid concentrations than flaxseed.
The Omega-3 fatty acid ALA in flaxseed must be converted to EPA and DHA to be comparable to fish oil Omega-3. Most people only convert a little ALA to either EPA or DHA.
Dr. Louise Achey, Doctor of Pharmacy, is a 44-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 Ó2023 Louise Achey
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