"Wherever flaxseed becomes a regular food item among the people, there will be better health", said Mahatma Gandhi. He was right. The true nature of flax as a health food has been known for centuries. In the eighth century, Charlemagne considered flax so essential for health that he actually passed laws requiring its use. Flax was one of the original medicines, used by Hippocrates himself.
Flaxseed oil can help protect against cardiovascular disease, cancer, arthritis, and many other degenerative diseases. And though it's primarily a source of omega-3, the oil has the virtue of containing some other fatty acids as well, notably some omega-6's and some heart healthy omega-9's, providing a nice fatty acid balance.
There's been a long-standing controversy among health professionals over the relative virtues of flaxseed oil and fish oil. Fish oil contains two omega-3 fatty acids- EPA and DHA-, which are absolutely critical to human health. Many people believe that those are the true "superstars" of the omega-3 community.
And herein lies the heart of the controversy.
Flaxseeds and flaxseed oil are one of the best sources on the planet for the important omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linoleic acid. Alpha-linoleic acid (ALA) is considered an essential fatty acid because the body can't make it- it has to be obtained from the diet. The body can then take that ALA and theoretically convert it to EPA and DHA. The problem is that it doesn't do a very efficient job of conversion. Best estimates are that the body will convert about 8-20% of ALA to EPA, and only .5-9% into DHA.
But this ceases to be a problem at all if you simply take a tablespoon of flaxseed oil every day. And it's a non-issue if you're taking both flaxseed and fish oil!
Here's why: one tablespoon of Barlean's flax oil is 14 grams (14,000 mg) of which 55% (7,700 mg) is omega-3's. IF you convert 7% of that to EPA you get 539 mg EPA and if you convert even 5% to DHA you'd get 385 mg of DHA. So even if you were a vegetarian and using flaxseed oil as your only source of omega-3's you'd be OK, though I'd recommend a couple of tablespoons a day instead of one.
And conversion to EPA and DHA isn't the only reason to take flaxseeds or flaxseed oils. A recent article in Nutrition Reviews (June 2008) pointed out that ALA may have "independent, therapeutic properties similar to those of other omega-3 fatty acids" and "may also be of particular importance for neural development".
But the benefits of flax are not limited to the omega-3 content. Both the oil and the seeds (especially the seeds!) are a great source of something called lignans which have a whole host of health benefits of their own, for both men and women. Lignans have a protective effect against cancer, especially those that are hormone-sensitive like breast, uterine and prostate cancer.
Yes, if you put a gun to my head and told me I could only take fish oil or flaxseed oil, I'd probably choose fish oil. But truth be told I take them both. Every single day. And if you won't or can't eat fish or take fish oil, then simply up your intake of flaxseed oil! A recent study of male firefighters found that only 2.4 to 3.6 grams of flaxseed oil alone raised the firefighters EPA levels (though not their DHA levels). That's about 1/4 to 1/3 of a tablespoon! If you upped that dose a bit to just the one or two tablespoons a day I recommend, I'm willing to bet both EPA and DHA levels would rise.
This month (September 2008) we're offering a free bottle of Barlean's new cinnamon flavored flaxseed oil with every vitamin store order of $99. or more. This stuff is really great- I use it daily on my yogurt, nuts and fruit breakfast. The cinnamon flavor makes it really easy to get down even if you just take it right off the spoon, and if you add it to something like yogurt, it's even better!