Flaxseed (Linum usitatissimum), also known as linseed, is a flowering plant cultivated for food and fiber. The stems of the plant provide a fibrous material that’s more than twice as strong as cotton. While these fibers are used today to produce linen, there is archeological evidence that the plant was used to spin textiles in Eastern Europe as long as 30,000 years ago.
The seed of the plant yields an edible oil (linseed) that’s used to manufacture paint, varnish, linoleum and various other products. The seed itself is a powerhouse of nutrition, with a 3.5 ounce serving providing 27.3 grams of dietary fiber, 18.29 grams of protein and significant amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus and zinc. Flax seed is also the richest source of lignans, a class of naturally occurring phytoestrogens that behave like the human hormone estrogen. In fact, flax seed contains approximately 100 times more lignans than any other food. (Note this does not apply to flax seed oil.)
We’ve all heard about the benefits that flax seed offer to men who experience enlarged prostate or benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). According to Canadian researchers, women also benefit from the tiny seed. It appears that the phytoestrogens in flax seed compete with human estrogen to bind at the same receptors sites, thereby blocking rogue estrogen activity and reducing the risk of breast cancer in post-menopausal women. Based on a survey of more than 6,000 women who participated in the Ontario Women's Diet and Health Study, the researchers conclude that daily consumption of flax seed may cut the risk by as much as 25%.
It’s easy to get flax seed into your diet – add to cereals, yogurt and smoothies, and bake into muffins, breads, crackers and cereal bars. Keep in mind, however, that it’s best to grind the seed because the whole seed tends to sweep straight through the plumbing and escape absorption. Fortunately, the lignan content remains intact during cooking and is readily absorbed by the body.