If you’re looking for a food that packs a punch, but doesn’t cost the earth, look no further than one of the oldest crops in the world, flaxseed.
Flaxseed has been a staple food across Africa, Asia and Europe for centuries. It can be added to a wide range of meals or eaten as a snack, making it one of the most versatile health foods around.
But what is it about flaxseeds that has resulted in them being used, and eaten, far and wide for many centuries?
We explore the many benefits of flaxseeds in this article, as well as their nutritional make-up. We also share some ideas for how you can easily incorporate them into your daily diet.
Flaxseed (also known as flax or linseed) is a seed that comes from the flax plant, which happens to have a bit of an interesting life story.
You see, before flaxseeds were renowned for being a healthy ingredient and snack, they were actually more commonly used to make textiles.1
The flax plant, which was first grown in Egypt, is where flaxseeds originate from; they’re found in the plant’s delicate blue flowers.
This plant can also be woven into linen and, believe it or not, its fibres are reportedly two to three times stronger than cotton.
Traditionally, flax plants were mainly used to produce clothing.
However, when cotton became the fibre of choice in the mid-century, this drove a step change to use flax plants for their seeds instead. This was particularly the case in North America.
These days, flax plants are grown all over the world, and the seeds are eaten on their own or crushed or cold-pressed to produce flaxseed oil.
The versatility of flaxseeds means they can be found in all sorts of food, from loaves of bread and cereal to supplements and pet food.
Flaxseeds have a whole host of benefits - here are the top 11.
Flaxseed has been linked to several hair benefits – it can reportedly help prevent split ends and dandruff, strengthens hair from the roots and improves the elasticity of individual hair fibres.
How does it achieve all this?
Flaxseeds are packed full of Omega 3 fatty acids, particularly alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which acts as an anti-inflammatory agent and boosts blood circulation.
They also contain Vitamin E and proteins that help keep hair nourished and hydrated from root to tip.2
Handpicked content: Omega 3 benefits for skin, hair & nails.
Flaxseeds are high in dietary fibre and, because of this, can help with constipation because they soften and lubricate the bowel motion.
However, it’s important you use golden flaxseeds and not brown flaxseeds because the brown seeds aren’t as refined and do not work in the same way for constipation as golden flaxseeds do.
Depending on how bad your constipation is, flaxseeds can take anywhere between 12 hours to 3 days to fully work.
Ideally, you should also drink plenty of water (two litres of fluid a day) to enable the linseeds to work to their full potential.3
To use flaxseed for constipation:
If your symptoms persist or get worse, see your GP or medical professional right away.
Flaxseeds are a skin-friendly food, regardless of whether you eat them or apply them topically.
There are several reasons for this skin-friendly status. As we’ve already mentioned, flaxseed is high in Omega 3, which has anti-inflammatory properties and can help strengthen skin cells and retain valuable moisture. 4
Meanwhile, highly concentrated antioxidants that are also present in flax help protect skin against free radicals and UV rays by reducing redness and speeding up overall skin cell recovery.
These same antioxidants can soothe inflammation and irritation and soften the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
What’s more, the Omega 3 fatty acids in flaxseed can also help tone and tighten skin, as well as make it look fuller and more plump.
The majority of research carried out so far that has seen a link between flaxseed and weight loss has been on mice.
A review of all of the studies carried out so far, on mice and humans, was published in 2017, which concluded that the plant compound, lignans, which is found in flaxseed, was responsible for contributing to the weight loss because of its antioxidant powers.5
Meanwhile, the fibre content may lead to weight loss in humans because it fills you up and makes you feel fuller for longer, reducing the need for snacking in between meals.
The fibre content in flaxseed, which is both soluble and insoluble, can help with constipation (as previously mentioned) and regular bowel movements.
In turn, regular bowel movements can help keep the body regularly detoxed.
It can also promote digestive health by feeding the good bacteria in the gut.6 Because of its high fibre content, flaxseed has prebiotic properties, and is broken down in the gut where it provides the gut's microbiome with good bacteria.
A 12-week study was carried out on mice to explore flaxseed’s impact on digestive health.
The mice were split into four different groups, with one group eating 4.6% soy-based fibre, and the other three eating high-fat diets with different fibre levels —none, 10% cellulose fibre and 10% flaxseed fibre.
The flaxseed group showed promise for improved digestive health, with researchers reporting that bacteria reacted positively to the shells of the flaxseeds.7
Handpicked content: Guide to microbiome
Flaxseed’s fibre content may help lower cholesterol. This is due to the fact the fibre is mainly water-soluble.
In one particular study, three different diets were tested: a low-fibre control diet, a diet with flaxseed fibre drink and a diet with flaxseed fibre.
The study concluded that both flax drink and flax bread reduced LDL-cholesterol and increased fat excretion and that flaxseed dietary fibres may be a useful tool for lowering blood cholesterol and potentially balancing energy levels.8
Another, 2012 study, carried out by the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, found that flaxseed reduced total cholesterol by 12% and heart-threatening LDL cholesterol by 15%.
In addition, a 2008 study from the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, in which 55 people took flaxseed extract daily for 8 weeks, found that their fasting blood glucose levels fell by 25%.9
While research is limited, a study of 55 people with constipation-predominant IBS found that flaxseed may not only help ease constipation, but it may also reduce bloating and abdominal pain.
After three months of taking flaxseed, there was a significant decrease in the groups’ constipation and abdominal symptoms.10
Handpicked content: Foods to eat with IBS
The lignans in flaxseed have been linked to improving glycaemic control in type 2 diabetic patients without affecting fasting glucose, lipid profiles and insulin sensitivity.
In one particular study, participants, who all had pre-diabetes, were given 0g, 13g, or 26g of flaxseed a day for 12 weeks.
The people in the group who consumed 13g of flaxseed a day had lower blood glucose and insulin levels, and improved insulin sensitivity at the end of the study.11
Some studies suggest flaxseed can help with perimenopausal hot flushes.
One study found that women who consumed 20g of crushed flaxseed twice a day, mixed into cereal, juice or yogurt, had half as many hot flashes as they did before.
The intensity of their hot flashes also reduced by more than 50%.12
As well as boosting hair and skin, flaxseeds can also be beneficial for our teeth because they contain plenty of calcium (428mg per cup), magnesium (658mg per cup) and zinc (7.3mg per cup).13
Meanwhile, the granular make-up of flaxseeds when chewed, can also help clean any plaque or other germs from the surface of the teeth.14
One tablespoon of flaxseeds contains around 2g of protein, which helps with the maintenance and growth of muscles, and the maintenance and repair of your body.
Adding flaxseed to a salad, soup, smoothie or other meal can help boost your protein intake by around 4% of your daily target, providing you are taking on 2,000 calories a day.15
We’re sure you’re already aware of this right now, but flaxseed contains a whole lot of goodness.16
One tablespoon of flaxseed contains:
|Omega-3 fatty acids||1597mg|
|Vitamin B1||8% of RDI|
|Vitamin B6||2% of RDI|
|Folate||2% of RDI|
|Calcium||2% of RDI|
|Iron||2% of RDI|
|Magnesium||7% of RDI|
|Phosphorus||4% of RDI|
|Potassium||2% of RDI|
Flaxseeds are recognised as being an excellent source of plant-based protein and are rich in the amino acids - arginine, aspartic acid and glutamic acid.17
Research has found that flaxseed protein helps boost immune function and reduce cholesterol.
It also has anti-fungal properties too. According to one particular study, 21 adults were given an animal protein meal or plant protein meal.
The study found no difference in terms of appetite, satiety or food intake.
It was concluded that both animal and plant protein meals stimulated hormones in the gut to bring about the feeling of fullness, which resulted in eating less at the next meal.
One of the main drivers behind flaxseed’s health benefits is its Omega 3 content.
Omega 3 fatty acids are important for overall health and body function, as they support our cardiovascular, pulmonary, immune and respiratory systems.18
Omega 3 enables us to function properly.
It can be found in food, such as nuts and fish, as well as in oils, including flaxseed oil, which is recognised as containing a high concentration of flaxseeds.
Furthermore, there are different types of Omega 3, and while they are all beneficial for our health, there’s one in particular - alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) – which is present in flaxseed.
Our bodies don’t make this type of fat on their own because it’s plant-based. But we can still benefit from it because our bodies convert it into the types it does need.
This makes flaxseed oil a great way for vegans and vegetarians to maintain their Omega 3 intake.
Yes, it naturally doesn’t contain any gluten.
Make sure you always check the label though because there’s always the risk cross-contamination may have occurred during the manufacturing process.
Look for a gluten-free statement and/or certification it hasn’t crossed paths with any ingredients or equipment that may contain or come into contact with gluten. 19
When it comes to flaxseed, a little really does go a long way.
One of the quickest ways to supercharge your day with it is to add a sprinkle of ground flaxseed to your favourite condiments.
From mayonnaise to ketchup, adding a touch of flaxseed can give them a nutritious boost without taking away the flavour.
Given its high fibre content, make sure you drink plenty of water or other fluids when eating flaxseed to make it easier to digest.
Here are some ways you can easily add flaxseed to your diet:
For more, easy-to-follow ideas on adding flaxseed to your meals, take a look at this article, ’10 easy ways to supercharge your food with flaxseeds.’
As well as sprinkling some ground flaxseed on to your food, you can also take flaxseed supplements and flaxseed oil too.
If you are planning on adding supplements to your diet, always speak to your GP or medical professional first to make sure it’s safe for you to do so.
Flaxseeds – they may be small, but they’re incredibly mighty, in so many ways.
From making your hair stronger and scalp less prone to itching and dandruff, to filling you up for longer and possibly helping with weight loss, as well as easing constipation, they’ve been linked to a whole host of health benefits.
And the great thing is, they’re really easy to enjoy; in your meals and/or in your drinks or smoothies.
They deliver a wealth of benefits and they can be used in a wide range of ways too. How are you planning on incorporating this superfood seed into your diet?
Last updated: 7 July 2021
Joined Holland & Barrett: Jan 2018
Bsc in Nutrition, Registered Associate Nutritionist and Certification in Pre and Post Natal Nutrition
Donia started her career as a freelance nutritionist, later she joined Nestle as their Market Nutritionist to help support their healthier product range, before joining the team at Holland & Barrett in January 2018.
Donia has over 6 years experience as a Nutritionist and also works with clients on a one to one basis to support their goals which include weight loss, prenatal and postnatal nutrition and children’s health.