Flax seeds are everywhere these days. Buying bread from the health food store? It better have some flax seeds in it! Wanna health up your salad dressing? Make sure you pour on some flax seed oil! Eating oatmeal for a healthy breakfast? You should probably ground up some flax seeds and toss ’em in there, then!
But why are we so convinced flax seeds are so super-healthy? Why, they’ve got those magical omega-3 fatty acids, of course!
Yeah, except… they kinda don’t.
Are Flax Seeds a Good Source of Omega-3?
Okay, okay. I lied. Flax seeds do boast some pretty good amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. But there’s a catch.
The omega-3’s in flax seeds are actually the alpha-linolenic variety of O-3 fatty acids. Alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA, is supposed to be beneficial because it converts to EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) or DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), which are the types of omega-3 fatty acids the body can actually use.
Except, humans are terrible at converting ALA into EPA or DHA. ALA is mostly wasted in a human body (source). So if you think your flax seeds are providing you with any supposed benefits of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation, you’re probably wrong.
Potential flax seed dangers
Because the body can’t effectively convert ALA into EPA/DHA, the excessive ALA floating around can be problematic. Men with high blood levels or high intake of ALA have been shown in clinical studies to be at a greater risk of developing prostate cancer. Flax is high in ALA, and actually flax oil leads to even higher blood levels of ALA than the seeds do.
So… probably not the best choice for the guys. But what about prostate-less women?
Well if you’re pregnant, avoiding flax is a pretty good idea considering it’s been shown to quadruple the instances of premature labor in women who take flax oil.
I think that’s probably because of the high levels of phytoestrogens in flax, which aren’t good for anybody, pregnant or not.
Phytoestrogens mimic estrogen, which by the way, is not a hormone that males or females need in excessive amounts because it leads to the production of excess serotonin — which by the way, is not the “happy hormone” you might think it is. Phytoestrogens aren’t good. They’re a big reason why we’re not too keen on soy around these parts. But get this — flax has a higher phytoestrogen content than soy!
As if this all isn’t reason enough to ditch the flax, I’ve got another beef with this ornery little seed. Flax is high in yet another substance real foodies aren’t fond of — phytic acid. Yeah, that stuff in grains that we work so hard to soak, sprout, or ferment into oblivion? Flax is loaded with it. Given all this, I’m pretty surprised that the WAPF is so seemingly okay with flax. But, that’s probably because they’re only trying to promote omega-3 consumption.
Do we even need omega-3, anyway?
Since the omega-3 content seems to be the main reason why people are adding flax to their diet to begin with, I thought I’d put my thoughts here on omega-3 supplementation in general. I personally am not a big advocate of intentionally supplementing omega-3’s at all. I think it’s a much better solution to cut out as many omega-6 PUFA fats as you can.
That said, if you’ve eaten a typical diet in recent years containing PUFAs, they will still be stuck in your cells. It might be a good idea to temporarily boost your ratio just by eating more animal-based foods that contain EPA and DHA, which are the only truly viable forms of omega-3, such as fatty fish.
But if you’re interested in supplements, instead of taking flax seeds/oil (which doesn’t provide true omega-3 and could be harmful), or highly-processed and oxidized, rancid fish oil capsules, I’d recommend fermented cod liver oil. I don’t take it for the omega-3s, I take it for the fat-soluble activators and high levels of natural vitamin D. But it does contain a significant amount of omega-3 EFA’s, if that’s something you’re interested in.
You can find fermented cod liver oil online here.
What do you think about flax seeds?
Do you take flax for omega-3? Maybe you’re rethinking that now! Share with us in the comments.
I’m adding this to my safari reading list but my short answe is…
As for the preterm labor thing – evening primrose oil is often suggested by midwives to be taken orally and inserted in the vagina during the last few weeks because it breaks down collagen and helps ripen the cervix….and believe me, it really helps! I would guess flax seed oil kind of does the same thing and maybe that’s why women have higher rates of preterm labor.
Since I’ve started listening to how my body digests food, I’ve realized flax gives me the toots real bad, so I avoid them now. I tried finding out why this happens, but couldn’t find anyone else with this same problem through a google search.
Good for you for (literally) listening to your body! 🙂
Hi, I’m trading this through the link on modern alternative mama FB page. Iim using flax seed for my bread, half ground half seeds, i just Like the crunch of the seed itself. But i started reading about how good was it and that everybody recommmends it, so i was thinking about adding it to other food. I guess it was not the good idea after all. Good that I’ve just read that. Thank you.
Meant to say I’m reading. Sorry, typing from my phone
Wow! Yet another eye-opener from you! I cannot even begin to tell you how much I have learned from you (and a few other bloggers) over the past few weeks. I have completely changed my family’s diet. Oh, and we got our FCLO in the mail last week. 🙂 You are doing so much good, I could never thank you enough! xoxo
If I may offer a bit of opposing opinion. It’s true that humans can’t convert ALA into DHA, but the same can’t be said of EPA. The conversion to EPA is not very effective, something like 5-10%. I do remember at least one study that showed increase in EPA levels when dietary ALA intake goes up.
As to phytoestrogens, all the human studies I’ve seen show that their hormonal effects are weak to non-existent. Yes, there are animal studies and case reports with more ‘shocking’ results, but the better quality human studies tend to show soy doesn’t lower testosterone levels or semen quality in men. Though I can’t say I’m aware of every soy study out there, so if you have some I’d be happy to look over them.
But the points you make out increased risk of prostate cancer and premature labor are quite interesting. Though for premature labor the risk was not seen with flax seeds, only with their oil.
In the end flax seeds are just food. As such they have some positive and negative qualities.
Gah! My midwife suggested the flax seed oil as a good way to get those omega-3s in when I told her I hated the fish burps from the DHA pills I’d taken with my last pregnancy. And I’ve been taking it religiously… I’ll be sure to share that study with her at my next appointment.
In the meantime, I placed an order for your suggested FCLO, but YIKES, what a price tag! I hope it’s worth it!
maybe read up a bit on this too…might save you some money as well and offer you many other benefits.
I do a lot of experimentation with my health and see no noticeable benefits from eating seeds. Having said that, I do take omega 3 tablets…
This is fascinating! I just re posted this on my facebook page. I have to admit I have never heard any of the negative sides effect of flax seeds. I use flax occasionally, especially soaked, but I had no idea there was some controversy about them. Thank you for making me aware of it. I will take a look at the studies you quoted. Great article! Thank you for sharing!
Im confused after reading this article http://www.greenmedinfo.com/blog/confirmed-flaxseed-contains-estrogens-regress-cancer
what your saying is still valid, but I guess this is one of the benefits? Honestly its mostly over my head, but I’m wanting to take something to counteract all the x-rays I’ve been having recently.
Love the blog!
Thanks, Hannah! I have tons of respect for Sayer Ji, the author of GMI. But I am not convinced that phytoestrogens have anti-estrogenic properties. If you want to read more about how the issue relates to soy, I’d check out what the WAPF has to say about it. Again, flax is higher in phytoestrogens than soy.
If you’re concerned about exposure to ionizing radiation, I’d recommend astaxanthin. Dr. Mercola talks about it a lot (and sells it), but it’s cheaper on Amazon. I wrote about it a while back here.
Amy Jane (Serendipity ScrapNook) says
The first thing I think of when I think of flax seed is the multi-grain bread my parents used to buy that would shed seeds on the cutting board.
I had just vanquished bedbugs in my home (non-chemically, even!), and just about stopped breathing when I walked into the kitchen and saw the flax seed on the counter.
If you’re ever wondering, people– that’s a pretty good visual comparison. Keep. breathing.
ugh. Never saw flax bread the same again.
Ha! What a funny story. They do kind of look like little bugs!
gail metcalfe says
I had stopped taking them a few years ago after I had read an article that said anyone who has problems with triglycerides shouldn’t take them as they make triglyceride levels even higher…. also heard the same about chia seed (I have high triglycerides). Not a lot of references to this fact in the literature online, but I’m erring on the safe side. Great article. I’ve become very skeptical about most of this stuff lately because it almost always seems that the *flavour of the day* turns out to be bad for us for some reason..
Hi, what do you think about zero carb miracle noodles/rice? and shirataki noodles?.
Oh, wow. Um. I’m honestly not sure how to respond! I had to google those things. I guess it would suffice to tell you that I do not advocate low-carb diets for any reason, ever, and I think restricting carbohydrates is one of the most damaging things a person can do to their body.
Noodles are great. Eat noodles. Normal noodles. Please!
Interesting, but I am not sure I am fully persuaded. I don’t think (not well vesed at all) that phtyoestrogens mimic estrogen. I believe they bond to estrogen and prevent the absorption of more estrogen which is why it has shown help to protection against breast cancer. I also think bc of that it can help with moods. It does for me!!
Does anyone take the fclo capsules?? I don’t think I can stomach the gel
Daneen Dressler says
The phytoestrogens you speak of in plants, such as flax, is not necessarily acting the same way as the estrogen we produce as humans, here’s a good article to expand your knowledge base on the subject.
That’s a bullcrap. They are so good to your body, there is not doubt about that. Sorry but i would rather listen to my doctor than you.
FCLO/butter oil capsules are my source. I figure since FCLO has endured through the ages it can’t be too bad
If you look at flax growing in the fields and especially in the wild you can see that it would take alot of energy to gather very many seeds at all, certainly it would take alot to make a flaxmeal loaf for instance. I think foods should be eaten in their natural proportions to each other.
I suspect that flax is one of nature’s condiments rather than a main ingredient.
Smart observation. I think you’re right that even traditionally it wouldn’t have been a “main ingredient” type of food.
I think when people go flax-crazy it can be a problem, flax this, flax that, flax OIL galore, etc… but I don’t see a problem with moderate, occasional consumption of freshly ground flax. The mucilage can be soothing to GI tract, I’ve read mixed reviews in the literature regarding the effects of ALA and flax lignans.
Totally. I don’t have a problem with the occasional flax stuff here and there. A lot of natural/health food manufacturers throw it into their foods and I wouldn’t avoid something just because I saw flax on the ingredient list. But I definitely don’t go out of my way to buy the seeds themselves.
I think gelatin is a better GI soother than any plant-based mucilage. If you ever have “the runs,” it’s a lifesaver. 😉
Hi, just to clarify, so is it okay for a guy to mix a couple of tsp (ground) with his oatmeal or is that quantity too much as well.
Up to you, Jimny. If you want omega-3s, eat fish (or cod liver oil). If I were a dude, I’d be a little leery of consuming flax at all due to the prostate cancer concerns. But if you genuinely enjoy it for the taste or something, eat it, but be educated about its effects.
I recently did a fatty acid profile and found I was deficient in ALA but was great on DHA and even high on EPA. I also was low in many of the fatty acids even though I eat quite a lot of quality fats including pastured butter, coconut oil and fatty pastured meats. Ironic, at the time of the profile, I had been consuming at least a tsp of chia seeds a day for at least a year.
My question is, does ALA have any value other than converting to other fatty acids like EPA and DHA? What makes it essential exactly, and is it still necessary to consume ALA foods when EPA and DHA are fine?
I’ve been supplementing with chia oil since I got the results. I just don’t know what to do, whether to ignore the low ALA result or try to bring it up.
Totally confusing, the more i research health foods the deeper the rabbit hole gets. I just stated eating the LSA mix, flax sunflower and almond ground up. i thought it was delicious, plus if Phytoestrogens mimic estrogen wont i get bigger boobs?? Yet i have to say the serotonin link was a shocker, hmmm maybe i shouldn’t be so quick to think i have found the right way of eating….
What about Organic ground organic flax seeds in homemade whole wheat bread. I use 1/2 c or so for three loaves. Should I bother or is it providing fiber/some nutrition?? I learn something new every day. Thanks!
What if you’re allergic to fish, shellfish, eggs, dairy, and beef?
Marjorie Olah says
You may believe in butter? But I can tell you from personal experience what dairy products do to my body and it isn’t pretty. I perfer to use olive oil to replace butter. I have a terrible time finding any kind of spread that will not cause a reaction. This is what is happening to butter. Why? I don’t have a clue, but flax would be better. So you see I eat healthy for my health, literally. The choice is not mine.
Feels like those articles I read where spinach and kale is bad for you cause of those acids, etc etc… omg, I’m SO tired of reading one day something is a ‘superfood’ and then the next find out it’s useless and not only that, bad for you. *headdesk* Sucks, fish burps aren’t fun at all.
Banana farmer says
I think I’ll get my nutrition info elsewhere than from a ‘food writer’.
Lol. Go for it. I’ve only spent hundreds upon hundreds of hours studying and researching this stuff for a living. So, what the hell do I know?
What about people who are allergic to fish? Also to wheat and dairy? What do you suggest then? Also would soaking the flax seeds be good? AND would you recommend chia seeds instead?
Aakash kanaujia says
I use flaxo seeds for makings ladoo and i eat them
Earlier i was thinking that flaxo seeds are
good for healthy but by reading this i cant
understnd that its good or not
Not one single study referenced. The nutrition counter culture has gone too far!
Are you blind? Click the links that are littered all over the post!
Would love to know your thoughts on chia seeds…i started mixing them in with my food in place of flax seed but wondering if they have the same/similar issues as flax seed.
Marthese Attard says
My husband and I add one tablespoon of ground flax seed to our cereal every morning. (Husband has minor prostate problem). But the reason we do this is because it helps us to go to the toilet every day! It is supposed to be a sort of stool softner. Can you suggest something else? Thanks.
I think when people go overboard with any food it isn’t good. Especially when that food is processed and added to other foods to “boost nutrition”.
Although I certainly wouldn’t recommend anyone choke down flax for the Omegas for the reason you mentioned, I think for most people they are not likely to be problematic when consumed in moderation. There’s also some evidence that the lignans can help process excess estrogren, which is a plus. I happen to like them and don’t feel there’s a big downside to eating them, but I don’t consider them a “supplement” for fibre or Omega-3s.
I use 1 TBSP flax seed meal dissolved in 3 TBSP water as an egg replacer in all of my baked goods because hubby has an egg allergy. Is there something else you would recommend to use?
Very interesting and concerned! It really is confusing when Dr’s, Naturopathic Dr’s, etc., recommend Flax seed and oil.
I also heard and read, Krill is the best??
My 22 year old son who is athletic has been taking a tbsp of Flax Oil everyday, as it was highly recommended by 3 Health Food stores.
Recently, I was told Krill is far best then any other fish oil or Flax seed. So now we both take Krill everyday. A lot more expensive then other fish oils.
I began taking several tablespoons of ground Flaxseed, every morning, about 5 years ago, for all the “good” things for which its popularity has grown, in recent years.
Earlier this year, a series of alarming symptoms sent me to a Urologist, who diagnosed Prostate Cancer, following a series of tests. I’m not suggesting a cause/effect relationship, but based on my reading here, it does leave me scratching my head, wondering…
Hi! Thanks for the great info, i love learning both the good and the bad of all super foods. I’ve always known that whole flax seeds are extremely hard to digest and if eaten whole can actually cause more damage than good, especially in people who have any gastric distress, but what’s your opinion on sprouted flax? I’ve switched my family over to sprouted ground flax for a while with the thinking the I’m boosting the seeds nutritional density along with more efficient absorption… Thanks again and keep up the great work! 🙂
I enjoyed learning about flax seeds as I have just started adding them to different foods including oatmeal. I do not rely on them as my main source of omega-3s but I do like to add them into my meals along with chia seeds.
I do disagree though with what you said about phytoestrogens as they are not as bad as everyone thinks. Phytoestrogens actually bind to the estrogen receptors but they are such a weak form of estrogen that they do not have any side effects to the point it has a beneficial effect on our body because binding to it blocks the stronger much more harmful estrogens. I eat soy every day and have never felt any side effects.
Thanks again for sharing this information about flax seeds 🙂
I am not sure where the post on this page originated or if this is the original but it appears that there is a lot of plagerism going on somehow. I have seen this post written on other blogs as well, changing bits about their life but the details about flax have been directly and word for word copied from somewhere else because they are IDENTICLE on each blog…all written by separate people who claim this research as their own. I think not.
Emily Benfit says
Um… hmm. That’s concerning, since I certainly didn’t plagiarize this. Could you give me some links where you’ve seen this repeated? I can get them taken down via the Google Gods. 😉