Flax

Flaxseed has been consumed for its nutritiousness for over 30,000 years, but its list of medicinal and material uses just keeps growing.

Quick Facts
General Information
  • Common name(s)Linseed, flaxseed, linum, linen, lin, lan
  • Scientific nameLinum usitatissimum
  • Plant typeVegetable
  • Native regionCentral Asia
  • Main producer(s)Canada
  • Main Economic UseFood industry
Flax

Many herbs can claim a long history of human use, but perhaps none more so than flaxseed, an annual plant whose domestication can be traced back to the dawn of civilization. Its species name, usitatissimum, means "most useful" in Latin, and was given due to the grain's various essential uses and importance to human life.


Medicinal and Nutritional Information

Quick Facts (Medicinal and Nutritional Information)
  • Medicinal actionEstrogenic, Hypocholesterolemic
  • Key constituentsLignans, omega-3 fatty acids
  • Ways to useCapsules, Food, Freshly ground
  • Medicinal rating(4) Very useful plant
  • Safety rankingUse with caution

Health Benefits of Flax

Traditionally, flax has served many different purposes, both medicinal and culinary. Even today, flax has shown to improve numerous conditions and positively impact overall health. The main health benefits of flax include:

  • Relieving PMS and menopause symptoms. Flax can ease PMS and menopause symptoms, such as cramps, hot flashes, and night sweats.

  • Regulating cholesterol levels. Flax seeds are not only an excellent source of good cholesterol, they can help lower bad cholesterol levels in the body.

In addition, many recent studies have shown flax can help fight other conditions. It can be useful for:

  • Stimulating bowel movements. Because of their fiber content, flax seeds can work as a mild laxative.

  • Reducing inflammation. Flax can alleviate inflammatory pain, particularly in the pelvic muscles.

How It Works

Contemporary researchers agree that the main active ingredient responsible for the medicinal properties of flaxseed are lignans, a phytoestrogenic flavonoid.

The nutritional benefits of flaxseed have certainly added to the grain's reputation as indispensable: seeds contain high concentrations of unsaturated fatty acids, most notably omega-3 essential oils. They also feature high levels of both soluble and insoluble dietary fiber, other micronutrients such as antioxidants that promote overall wellness as well as manage specific medical conditions.

Since flaxseed contains lignans, a type of phytoestrogen, it is used to re-balance hormone levels by women with PMS or approaching menopause. In addition, flax is used as a treatment for constipation because of its soluble and insoluble fibers, which improve stool motility. Flaxseed oil is also used to improve cholesterol levels thanks to its unsaturated fatty acid content.

THE HIGH AMOUNTS OF OMEGA-3 IN FLAX ARE BELIEVED TO IMPROVE BRAIN FUNCTION

Sacha inchi and chia are also rich in omega-3, fatty acids, while alfalfa and soy can be used as alternative sources of phytoestrogens as well.

Flax Side Effects

Flaxseed is likely safe for most individuals who consume it orally. Because it works to increase bowel movements, however, there are some mild, unpleasant side effects that can be associated with taking flaxseed, which include bloating, gas, upset stomach, constipation, diarrhea, and nausea. It can also block the intestines if taken in excess, so it is important to take it with water to prevent this from occurring.

Cautions

It is important to note that unripe flax seeds can be potentially poisonous, so it is important to make sure they are ripe before consumption.

In spite of their numerous benefits, flax seeds contain linamarin, a potentially toxic cyanogenic glucoside that can be found in trace amounts in flax, as well as in cassava root and lima beans.

  • Individuals with gastrointestinal (GI) obstructions should not take flax seed, since flax can worsen obstruction of the digestion tract

  • Individuals with bleeding disorders, such as hypertension or hypotension, or who suffer from diabetes should consult a physician before taking flax, since it can significantly lower blood pressure and blood sugar levels.

  • Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should consult a physician before taking flax seed due to estrogenic compounds, which can cause hormones to fluctuate

How to Consume Flax

Quick Facts (How to Consume)
  • Edible partsSeed

The most effective way of obtaining the health benefits from flax is in medicinal forms of consumption, where the properties are more concentrated.

Remedies

Main preparations: Capsules, freshly ground, oil

  • Capsules. In this medicinal form, flax capsules are often used to stimulate bowel movements and reduce menstrual cramps.

  • Freshly ground. When freshly ground, flax works to balance cholesterol levels.

  • Oil. Flax seed oil has numerous medicinal properties, including the relief of menopause symptoms due to its estrogenic compounds.

Buying

Quick Facts (Buying)
  • Where to buySupermarkets, Specialized health stores, Online herb stores

Fresh and Dried Flax

Many grocery stores and supermarkets are known to carry flax seed regularly, though health food stores provide another option in regions where supplies are scarce. Gardeners looking to grow the full plant for sustainable use can find seeds and starter sprouts at garden stores, generally in springtime months. Yellow flax seed is perhaps more prevalent, though brown flax seed can also be found worldwide.

Flax Seed Supplements

Flax seed supplements are generally available wherever dietary supplements are found, as they are one of the most commonly sought-after items on the market. They most frequently come in capsule form, though tablets and essential oils also exist. Health food stores, wholesale retailers, and online outlets offer a wide variety of brands so that consumers can choose one that works best for their budget and lifestyle.

Growing

Quick Facts (Growing)
  • Life cycleAnnual
  • Harvested partsSeeds
  • Light requirementsFull sun
  • Soil pH6.1 – 6.5 (Slightly acidic), 6.6 – 7.3 (Neutral), 7.4 – 7.8 (Slightly alkaline), 7.9 – 8.4 (Moderately alkaline)
  • Growing habitatTemperate climates
  • USDA Plant Hardiness Zones5a (From −28.9 °C (−20 °F) to −26.1 °C (−15 °F)), 5b (From −26.1 °C (−15 °F) to −23.3 °C (−10 °F)), 6a (From −23.3 °C (−10 °F) to −20.6 °C (−5 °F)), 6b (From −20.6 °C (−5 °F) to −17.8 °C (0 °F)), 7a (From −17.8 °C (0 °F) to −15 °C (5 °F)), 7b (From −15 °C (5 °F) to −12.2 °C (10 °F)), 8a (From −12.2 °C (10 °F) to −9.4 °C (15 °F)), 8b (From −9.4 °C (15 °F) to −6.7 °C (20 °F)), 9a (From −6.7 °C (20 °F) to −3.9 °C (25 °F)), 9b (From −3.9 °C (25 °F) to −1.1 °C (30 °F))
  • Potential insect pestsAphids, Thrips

One of the oldest domesticated crops, it is thought that flax has been cultivated since the Stone Age. It originates in the Mediterranean areas, so it prefers a temperate climate, with temperatures ranging from 65 - 75°F (18 - 24°C). For additional tips on how to help flax thrive, follow the growing guidelines below.

Growing Guidelines

  • Flax plants need full sun exposure in order to thrive.

  • Loamy soil, rich in organic material - particularly nitrogen - is recommended.

  • The soil must be kept moist, but not wet.

  • Flax seeds should be 10 - 12 inches (25 - 30 cm) apart and be sown by scattering early in the season.

  • Seed germination should occur within three to four weeks, but flowers won't appear until the following year.

  • Flax plants should not be grown in the same field every year, but instead should be rotated with other crops to reduce disease potential and improve yield.

Additional Information

Quick Facts (Additional Information)
  • Other usesTextiles, Paper, Furniture/carpentry

Plant Biology

While there are several different species in the Linum genus, Linum usitatissimum—or common flax—has distinctive properties that separate it from other species. For example, unlike other species of Linum, common flax is an annual plant, rather than a perennial like its relatives. Cultivated flax plants grow to 4 feet (1.2 m) tall and have slender stems. Its leaves are glaucous green and slender lanceolate, growing up to 20-40 mm long and 3 mm broad. The flowers are pale blue and contain five petals.

  • Classification

    Scientifically known as Linum usitatissimum, flax is a member of the Lineaceae family, sharing its main characteristics with approximately 250 other species found throughout the world.

    The genus Linum includes roughly 190 species of flax, each slightly different: Common flax in particular can grow up to four feet (1.2 m) tall and produces pale blue flowers and thin, green leaves. Glossy seeds are contained in the capsules of its round, dry fruit.

  • Related Species and Cultivars

    The diversity of species in the genus Linum depends on the area they grow in. A rich variety can be found in the Mediterranean basin (including parts of Asia), whereas fewer species occur in northern Europe. L. catharticum and L. austriacum are the only Linum species that grow naturally in Scandinavia, while North America and México register the greatest number of species, over 63.

    The genetic hybridization between common flax and wild Linum species has produced many cultivars. The most notable results have come from the breeding of L. gradiflorum and L. usitatissimum.

    When it comes to flax seeds, there are two main types available for consumption, differing very little in nutritional value but coming to have separate uses nonetheless: Yellow or golden flax seed is most commonly eaten by humans and utilized in culinary products, while brown flax seed is also safe for human consumption, but it is used chiefly as an ingredient in paint, fiber, and livestock feed. Solin, a variety of yellow flax, is the exception to the rule, as some research has shown its oil to have less nutritional benefit than others.

Historical Information

Flax seed is thought to originate between the eastern Mediterranean and India, dating back to 30,000 BCE as one of the first crops grown in the Fertile Crescent. Following Mesopotamia, ancient Ethiopian and Egyptian cultures also produced the plant for its nutritional value and textile use, and it then spread as far as China in the East and the British Isles in the West. Puritan settlers first introduced the plant to North America in the 15th century, where it continues to be a major part of the crop cultivation industry.

Flax is a symbol for Northern Ireland and the national flower of Belarus.

Economic Data

The highest demand for flax seed comes from the textile industry rather than the alimentary one. Modern times have only increased the demand for flax seed, and countries across the globe have risen to the occasion, producing 1.6 million tons in 2011 alone.

Canada leads the flax seed industry, contributing to 23% of the global production, closely followed by China and Russia. The rapid growth of the flax plant makes cultivation easy and efficient under the right conditions - an invaluable quality, given the several business sectors that depend upon it.

Popular Beliefs

Because common flax is one of the oldest cultivated crops, it is featured in many historic and fictional references, including Homer's Odyssey and the Christian Bible. Pliny, a Roman naturalist, wrote about the laxative and therapeutic powers of flax in the first century CE, and the plant ha been widely considered a subject of folklore and medicinal remedies since ancient times.

Other Uses of Flax

  • For Industrial Purposes
    To this day, common flax is still used for numerous industrial purposes due to its oil rich seeds. Linseed oil, which is found in flax seeds, is used as a drying agent for paints, varnishes, lacquer, and printing ink. It is also occasionally used to produce some paper products.

  • For Livestock
    Because it contains up to 35% crude protein, common flax is made into linseed oil meal, which is often used for feeding livestock. The straw that is found in flax, however, is considered poor quality and is not often used for livestock feed.

  • For Skin Care
    Extracts and oil of flax seed are often used for various cosmetic products, mainly as skin conditioning agents.

Bibliography

  • Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine, p. 111
  • The Herb Book, pp. 193-4
  • MedlinePlus Herbs and Supplements, Flaxseed
  • American Cancer Society, Herbs, Vitamins, and Minerals: Flaxseed
  • Flax: The genus Linum, pp. 35-37
  • The British Journal of Nutrition, Nutritional Effects of High Alpha Linolenic Oilseed, 1993
  • Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, Flaxseed: a potential source of food, feed and fiber, 2011
  • Journal of the Society for Integrative Oncology, Pilot evaluation of flaxseed for the management of hot flashes, 2007
  • Purdue University, Linum usitatissimum L. | Flax