The Facts on Flax

perimenopausal symptomsNew visitors to my home sometimes like to snoop around my kitchen, curious to see what foods I stock up on. If you were to peek inside my refrigerator, you’d undoubtedly find a bag of flaxseed. Here’s why flax is a staple in my self-healing pantry, and how you can add these versatile seeds to your table as well.

The benefits: Flaxseed has long been valued for its health benefits (Hippocrates used flax as a remedy for gastrointestinal problems), but only recently have researchers investigated its helpful compounds. Flax is one of the best plant-based sources of alpha-linolenic acid, which converts in the body to the same heart-protective omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon, sardines, and mackerel. It also contains both soluble and insoluble fiber (about 3 grams of total fiber per tablespoon), which promote intestinal health. In addition, flaxseed is one of the richest dietary sources of lignans, phytoestrogens thought to protect against cancer of the breast, prostate, and colon.

My advice: I recommend one or two tablespoons of ground flaxseed a day to anyone who wants to keep their heart healthy, especially vegetarians may not otherwise get omega-3s from their diet. Women experiencing menopausal or perimenopausal symptoms should also give flax a try to help ease hot flashes and heavy bleeding, and because it may promote health of vaginal tissues. Flax is safe for almost everyone (including women who are pregnant or breastfeeding), although its mild laxative effect may bother people with inflammatory bowel disease.

Tips: Whole flax seeds are sold inexpensively at natural-food stores, and they can be stored in the refrigerator. Grind a quarter-cup or so at a time, in a blender or a coffee grinder dedicated to flax. (You must grind these tiny, hard-shelled seeds, or they will pass through the body undigested.) Ground flax meal should be refrigerated in an airtight, opaque container, where it will keep for up to 30 days. You’ll know that flax meal has spoiled if it smells like oil paint.

Flax meal has a sweet, nutty flavor and tastes delicious when sprinkled over cereals, soups, salads, and rice. You can also bake flax meal into muffins or bread-but bear in mind that when flax is heated, it’s more susceptible to spoilage. Prepared foods made from flax are becoming more common, but it can be hard to tell from the ingredients label if they contain flax meal rather than whole seeds (which offer fewer benefits).

I don’t recommend using flaxseed oil, available in liquid form or in capsules. Aside from being more expensive and less palatable than flax meal, flax oil spoils faster and, most importantly, lacks the protective lignans found in the ground seeds.