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Flaxseed: The true superfood?

By Swati Shetty,

Every morning my parents make a hearty bowl of oatmeal and mix in their one and only miracle ingredient: flaxseed powder. According to nutrition experts, this seed is supposed to help lower cholesterol levels in the blood and promote a healthy cardiovascular system. However, does recent research support these claims and how exactly does flaxseed work?

When discussing hyperlipidemia or elevated fat levels in the blood, it is important to define a few terms. LDL, or low-density lipoprotein, is known as “bad cholesterol” because it contributes to atherosclerosis or plaque build-up in the arteries. In comparison, HDL, or high-density lipoprotein, is known as “good cholesterol”, as it acts as a scavenger and carries LDL towards the liver where it can be broken down and excreted. Flaxseed is one of the oldest cultivated crops and it’s name, which is derived from Latin, means “very useful”.1 This ingredient is rich in -linolenic acid (omega-3-fatty acid) and fiber.1 A double-blind, randomized controlled trial investigating the effect of flaxseed on cardiovascular risk markers in adults with high cholesterol found that 40g of ground flaxseed/day caused a short-lived reduction in LDL-C levels.2 It was also seen to reduce lipoprotein a(Lp[a]), which serves as a measure of insulin resistance, thus indicating improved insulin sensitivity.2 Other studies similarly found that consuming 1-5 tablespoons of ground flaxseed meal a day can reduce total cholesterol and LDL concentrations without significantly affecting triglyceride and HDL levels.3 With decreased LDL levels and unchanged HDL levels, it is more likely that ingested fats will be carried to the liver for breakdown, instead of to the arteries to be deposited. Although the mechanism of action is still unclear, the soluble fiber component of flaxseed is thought to be responsible for the reduction in cholesterol levels.

Flaxseed should be used in conjunction with other healthy lifestyle habits, instead of as a substitute. However, a simple change, such as introducing ground flaxseed into a healthy diet, may improve cardiovascular health by helping to keep cholesterol levels low and arteries clear of plaque.

 

References

  1. “Ethanol Production – Dry versus Wet Grind Processing – Energy.” North Dakota State University, www.ag.ndsu.edu/AgCMS/flax/history-and-uses-1.
  2. Bloedon, L T, et al. “Flaxseed and Cardiovascular Risk Factors: Results from a Double Blind, Randomized, Controlled Clinical Trial.” Advances in Pediatrics., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Feb. 2008, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18460483. 
  3. Bloedon, Leanne T., and Philippe O. Szapary. “Flaxseed and Cardiovascular Risk.” Nutrition Reviews, vol. 62, no. 1, 2004, pp. 18–27., doi:10.1111/j.1753-4887.2004.tb00002.x.
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