Flaxseed oil: properties, benefits, applications and warnings
A precious oil with an excellent nutritional profile that contributes to the organism’s health
Made from flax (Linum usitatissimum), flaxseed oil is a versatile product with an excellent nutritional profile and potential beneficial effects for our health. It can be consumed in food or taken for medical reasons, and in addition to its use in the kitchen, it is also a valued ingredient in cosmetic beauty treatments (ideal for skin and hair applications). Let’s find out more about its properties and benefits.
The properties of flax seeds
In recent years, plant-based foods have attracted increasing attention due to their potential health benefits. Because they contain high amounts of nutritive substances, flaxseeds are recognized as a “functional nutriment”, since they benefit the organism and help prevent numerous maladies.
Fresh flax seeds are oval, flat and come to a point at one end; their dimensions vary from 4 to 6 mm (just a bit larger than sesame seeds), their color ranges from dark brown to light yellow, they have a crunchy, gummy consistency, a pleasantly nutty taste – like hazelnuts – and are very sensitive to heat, light and oxygen; they are therefore cold-pressed if they are intended to be consumed as food.
Since they are covered by thick exterior layers, flaxseeds pass through the intestine intact, and the body is unable to absorb the many nutritive substances they contain. However, through a process known as “decortication”, the exterior layers can be removed, making possible the absorption of the nutritive substances.
For decades, flaxseeds have mainly been used to make paints, printers’ ink, cosmetics, enamel and linoleum. Recently, the product has been re-evaluated thanks to its nutritive properties and its pharmaceutical value as a “functional nutriment”.
In addition to being particularly rich in alpha (α)-linolenic acid (an unsaturated fatty acid of the Omega-3 family) and lignins, this plant product contains nutritional fiber, high quality protein, minerals and vitamins (like vitamin E and vitamin K), as well as containing phenols and phytoestrogens.
In the array of functional nutriments, flaxseeds have acquired a role as a potential new natural ingredient with a vast range of medical applications.
It is a versatile product, used in a wide range of food products (whole, ground into powder and as an oil or mucilage). The flaxseed mixture is useful for replacing eggs in vegetarian diets (one tablespoon of ground flaxseed [approximately 15 g] together with three tablespoons of water [approximately 45 ml] can replace an egg).
The benefits of flaxseed oil
Adding flaxseed oil to baked goods (like pancakes, muffins and cookies) makes them chewier and gives them a better texture.
But flaxseed oil has many other virtues besides: some are related to its antioxidant function. In fact, flaxseed oil is an important plant source of essential fatty acids, specifically polyunsaturated Omega-3 (linolenic acid) and Omega-6 (linoleic acid) fatty acids. These are considered “essential” because they are necessary for our organism, which is unable to produce them, so they must be ingested in food.
Flaxseeds and the oil made from them are increasingly used as dietary supplements effective against constipation, diabetes and high cholesterol, and thanks to the polyphenolic compounds and the fibers they contain, they are known to have antitumoral properties. In particular, the lignins present in flaxseeds play a fundamental role in the prevention of various types of cancer sensitive to hormones, like breast and prostate cancer, due to their antioxidant action and their ability to re-equilibrate hormonal mechanisms.
There is still a debate over the capacity of flaxseeds and flaxseed oil to reduce cholesterol levels: some studies have reported modest effects on cholesterol reduction, others found a reduction in cholesterol levels in subjects whose levels were initially relatively high. Animal studies have shown that using these products contributes to improving the reactivity of blood vessels, inhibits the development of atherosclerosis (by reducing plaque formation), reduces the frequency of arrhythmias and lowers the concentration of circulating cholesterol.
Among the many uses of flaxseed oil, it is also effective as a laxative, relieving constipation and facilitating defecation by softening the feces:
- the insoluble fibers found in flaxseeds absorb water and thus increase the intestinal mass. The increase in volume of the intestine’s contents elicits the “lengthening” stimulus, which translates into less time spent passing through the intestine;
- the soluble fibers (found in the flaxseed mucilage) instead increase the viscosity of the intestinal bolus and form a lubricated layer that facilitates its expulsion.
How to use flaxseed oil
Flaxseed oil can be used as a functional nutriment or in the form of a dietary supplement.
Ideal dosage for flaxseed oil is 1 tablespoon per day, poured, for example, on vegetables unheated, or alone, if its flavor on food is found unpleasant.
General recommendations for the daily consumption of ground flaxseeds agree on daily dosages of 1-3 tablespoons.
Attention: be sure to store this product away from light and sources of heat, which ruin it.
- 1-2 teaspoons of flaxseed oil dissolved in 5 ml of water are effective against constipation.
- To prepare a laxative beverage, soak 5-10 g of whole or ground seeds in 250 ml of water until they have swelled fully and drink the solution up to three times a day, half an hour before meals.
- The mucilaginous mixes can be consumed with or without seeds.
- To prepare a poultice, gradually add 100 g of ground flaxseeds to 250 ml of boiling water.
Warnings about the use of flaxseed oil
Flaxseed oil is generally tolerated well, but not entirely warning-free.
People who are hypersensitive to flaxseeds should avoid any products that contain them.
Moreover, flaxseeds and the products made from them, like flaxseed oil, should be used with caution and only under your doctor’s supervision when taken in concomitance with other pharmaceuticals.
Flax is gluten-free, so people who are intolerant can include flax seeds and oil in their diet.
Some particular warnings:
- Products containing flax seeds must be ingested along with at least 150 ml of water (or other aqueous liquid) to prevent them from swelling inside the throat or esophagus. In addition, failure to drink enough liquid can result in intestinal occlusion.
- In the case of chest pains, vomiting or difficulty swallowing or breathing after having taken a flaxseed or flaxseed oil product, consult your doctor.
- Elderly or debilitated patients should only take these products under medical supervision.
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