My disenchantment with flax began quite innocently a couple years ago. When a nutritionist suggested I increase my flax consumption, I thought it was a great idea. After all, wasn’t flax the new “superfood”? Little did I know the potentially dangerous path I was heading down.
Many studies have shown positive effects of eating flax, but are these benefits worth it? Flax also has many real concerns that need to be taken into account.
Phytoestrogens are plant compounds that mimic the hormone estrogen in a human body. A study that examined the phytoestrogen content of foods common in a Western diet found that flax seeds contained the highest amount of phytoestrogens, followed by soy beans and tofu.
The same study determined that flax seeds contain almost four times the amount of phytoestrogens as soy beans. The phytoestrogens in soy have almost become an urban legend with tall tales of men growing breasts overnight.
Regardless of the exaggerated stories, the consumption of phytoestrogens can affect our hormonal system and should be considered before including any significant amount of this seed in your diet. And if you’re afraid of sprouting “man boobs,” perhaps you should be more worried about that flax bread on your counter than the occasional piece of tofu.
Certain cancers, such as breast, ovarian and uterine cancer, have been shown to be promoted by higher levels of estrogen in the body. Studies on the effect of phytoestrogens on hormonal affected cancers have been inconclusive as to whether they help or hinder these cancers.
Based on the inconclusive research, many sources recommend you discuss any potential hormonal risks with your doctor before starting any type of flax supplementation.
Flax seeds are also high in another controversial plant compound. Phytic acid is a natural part of all seeds and one of its purposes is to prevent a seed from germinating prematurely. When a seed is soaked, sprouted or fermented, phytic acid will naturally start breaking down as the seed prepares to grow.
If it is not removed properly before consuming a seed, phytic acid has been reported to impair the absorption of minerals and trace elements, such as calcium, zinc, iron and magnesium, giving it the label of being an “anti-nutrient.”
Flax is known to be high in phytic acid. This makes proper preparation of the seed even more important if you are planning to consume it.
Omega-3 fatty acids, also called omega-3 fats or oils, are an essential part of cell membranes and must be consumed directly from our diets. They cannot be synthesized from other foods we eat.
Flax seeds have a high amount of omega-3 fats, but this isn’t the end of the story. There are three main types of omega-3 fats: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). EPA and DHA are most commonly found in fish. ALA is the type found in flax seeds.
Research has shown that EPA and DHA are the types most easily used and required by the human body. And although we are able to convert some ALA into EPA and DHA, the amount that gets converted is very small. A lot of the ALA we ingest will simply be wasted and not used by the body.
That means the type of omega-3 in flax seeds, ALA, is not nearly as beneficial as the types found in fish oils. And having increased ALA consumption has been linked to certain health problems detailed later in this article.
Another issue with flax oil is rancidity. Have you ever opened a brand new, high-priced bottle of flax oil and given it a sniff? It can smell a bit nutty or otherwise fresh and pleasant. Have you tried smelling it a week later? Or after a month when the bottle tells you it’s supposed to be consumed by? It gets distinctly nastier as time progresses.
The oils in flax naturally become rancid quickly. But rancidity is more than just a nasty smell. When an oil becomes rancid, it is oxidizing. The process of oxidation creates “free radicals,” which promote aging and are harmful to the body. Research studies that fed oxidized vegetable oils to animals showed they can cause damage to brain cells, lead to inflammation and increase the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Potential Health Effects
The fact flax contains the ALA type of omega-3 fats is of special concern. ALA consumption has been linked to an increased risk of prostate cancer. Also, diets rich in ALA have been shown to potentiallyincrease the risk of macular degeneration.
In another study of over 3000 women in Canada, it was found that those who consumed flax oil in the last two trimesters of pregnancy had a quadrupled risk of premature births.
And according to the University of Maryland Medical Center, “people with a bowel obstruction, inflamed bowel, or narrowed esophagus should not take flaxseed. It is high in fiber and could make the condition worse.”
This brings us back to my own journey with flax. After taking my nutritionist’s advice, I did everything that was recommended. I put flax oil on my salads, added flax to my baking, put ground flax on my oatmeal in the morning, and found as many ways to include this “miracle seed” in my diet as I could.
Within a couple months, I started getting pre-menstrual symptoms I’d never had before, primarily breast pain. The pain was constant for at least a full week before my period. After some research, I found out that a cause of pre-menstrual breast pain can be high levels of estrogen. And when my well-meaning nutritionist had recommended I eat more flax, she also had mentioned that my husband shouldn’t eat the same because of flax’s phytoestrogen content. That’s when it clicked.
I looked into more detail on phytoestrogens and my disenchantment with flax began in earnest. I stopped eating the insidious seeds and my pre-menstrual symptoms completely disappeared the next month.
Flax is more complex than simply being the next breakthrough superfood. If you’re considering supplementing your diet with flax, make sure you discuss it with your doctor and research it well first.