What you will learn in this article:
- History of flaxseed
- Harvesting flaxseed
- How flaxseed got a bad rep
- Flaxseed is estrogenic, so it’s bad for me?
- How does flaxseed work as an “estrogenic adaptogen”
- The amazing healing benefits of flaxseed
– Helps with estrogen dominance
– Helps menopause and postmenopause
– Helps reduce risk and growth of estrogenic cancers
– Source of insoluble and soluble fiber
– Anti-inflammatory agent
– Cardiovascular health
- Best ways to use (and not to use) flaxseed
What about flaxseed oil?
- Who may get a negative response to flaxseed?
- Flaxseed for men?
- Bottom line – know your sources!
Few foods are as controversial as flaxseed. Some women swear by it, others fear it.
In this article, I will lay out the science and the oversimplification of information that has earned flaxseed its bad reputation. After reading this article, I hope you give this seed a well-deserved consideration.
History of flaxseed
“Flaxseed is one of the oldest crops, having been cultivated since the beginning of civilization (Laux 2011). The Latin name of the flaxseed is Linum usitatissimum, which means “very useful”. Flax was first introduced in the United States by colonists, primarily to produce fiber for clothing (Laux 2011).
Every part of the flaxseed plant is utilized commercially, either directly or after processing. The stem yields good quality fibers having high strength and durability (Singh et al. 2011). Flax has been used until the 1990s principally for the fabrication of clothes (linen) and papers, while flaxseed oil and its sub-products are used in animal feed formulation (Singh et al. 2011). There is a small difference in using the terms flaxseed and linseed. Flaxseed is used to describe flax when consumed as food by humans while linseed is used to describe flax when it is used in the industry and feed purpose (Morris 2008).” Source
Have you ever seen flaxseed available anywhere other than a supermarket?
If you live in Canada or North Dakota where the majority of flaxseed is grown, you might have seen fields of these pretty purple flowers.
The flowers then transform into pods. Each pod holds between 6 and 8 flaxseeds. They get picked and shaken out of their pods.
Like with many foods, flaxseed can be a powerful, healing food that can help women, especially those struggling with their hormones. You will also learn that some women should not use it.
How flaxseed got a bad reputation
Flaxseed got a bad rep from the blogosphere – mainly for being called “estrogenic” and therefore “causing cancers” and hormonal problems in women. This could not be further from the truth (most of the time, see more below) and I have therefore spent hours researching and writing the below article to show you otherwise.
Just because something is estrogenic, does not make it a bad thing right away. Yes, skincare products containing parabens and phthalates are estrogenic and that’s not a form of estrogen you should ever be exposed to. These forms of estrogens, also known as xenoestrogens, have been linked to cancers.
The blogosphere has concluded that if flaxseed is estrogenic, then it must be as bad as the synthetic estrogens found in these toxic products.
This is an oversimplification. It makes no sense to compare a plant-derived estrogen with a synthetically-derived estrogen. Unfortunately, this is shabby journalism, poor research, and a pure laziness to fact-check.
It’s important to check where you are getting your information from. I searched for medical studies that show the harmful effects of flaxseed on women and…found none. Bloggers and social media “writers” who make such claims offer no citations. Be leery when a writer states “studies show” and offers no links to substantiating resources.
It’s a real shame because hundreds of thousands of readers are missing out on a food that can not only help with a ton of symptoms but could even save lives.
Having said that, there is a sliver of people who, like with many other foods, have a “paradoxical” response to flaxseed – more on that below. These people, however, are in a vast minority.
Bottom line: Be selective where you get your information from and whom you choose to trust.
Flaxseed is estrogenic, so it’s bad for me?
There is a fear of estrogen-containing foods, such as flaxseed, which is not only wrong and unjust but can also prevent you from reversing symptoms of estrogen dominance quickly and effectively.
Just because you experience estrogen dominance, does not mean you should stop ingesting gentle plant-based estrogens. You need estrogen – as a woman you need it to have healthy breasts, butt, periods, glowing hair, and skin, etc. The issue is not to cut out estrogen but to break it down properly.
Most women with estrogen dominance do not suffer because of too much estrogen but because they are not breaking down and evacuating these estrogens well enough. Flaxseed can help shift estrogen metabolism from the “dirty” estrogen in the direction of the “clean” ones.
The only thing you want to remove from your life as much as possible are xenoestrogens which are synthetic estrogens that mimic estrogen without doing the right work. They are found in all commercial skin care products, perfumes, and cleaning products.
Having said that, I have met a few women (they are the minority) who have a paradoxical response to flaxseed – their estrogen dominance symptoms worsen. If that’s you (be sure not to make any other significant changes during this time), please stop flaxseed and look into the supplement protocol to see how else you can support estrogen metabolism.
How does flaxseed work as an “estrogenic adaptogen”
Among all foods, flaxseed contains the highest amount of lignans, a form of polyphenols, which are high in phytoestrogens.
Let’s unpack this a little.
The word “phyto” comes from Greek and means “plant” or “that which has grown.” Therefore phytoestrogen is a plant-derived, completely natural form of estrogen.
You might have heard the word “polyphenols” being thrown around; so what is it?
Polyphenols are a group of over 500 phytochemicals which are naturally occurring micronutrients in plants. They are highly medicinal in nature and many supplement companies are cashing in on that.
Some of the polyphenols include quercetin (found in apples), catechins (in dark chocolate and cherries), lignans (in flaxseed), resveratrol (in pistachios, wine, and blueberries) and curcumin (in turmeric).
There are three types of phytoestrogens: Lignans (enterolactone, enterodiol), isoflavones (genistein, daidzein, biochanin A), and coumestans. Genistein and daidzein are found in soy, another phytoestrogen.
The highest concentration of phytoestrogens, however, is found in lignans.
When plant lignans are ingested, they can be metabolized by the intestinal bacteria in the large intestine into enterolactone. Enterolactone is the bioactive form of phytoestrogen.
It is enterolactone that binds to estrogen receptors, blocking and competing with estrogen which may help to reduce the growth of estrogenic cancers.
One of the most fascinating chemical phenomena about lignans is that that can act as weak estrogen agonists (promoter), partial agonists, or as antagonists (blocker) to endogenous estrogens (internally produced) and xenoestrogens which are synthetic estrogens found in much commercial skincare, cosmetic and cleaning products.
In short, flaxseed is an estrogenic adaptogen; it can act as an estrogen amplifier or estrogen blocker depending on what the body needs.
How fascinating is that?! For that reason I coined the term “estrogenic adaptogen” – the seed adapts to what your body needs.
This explains why flaxseed has been used for a wide spectrum of women issues by menopausal and postmenopausal women by gently and naturally raising their estrogen levels as well as menstruating women who struggle with too much of the “dirty” estrogen that causes estrogen dominance (and the result is PMS, fibroids, endometriosis, thyroid nodules, etc).
I have written extensively about estrogen dominance (what it is) (what are estrogenic cancers) and I’m very passionate about it because I feel that 80% of women experience estrogen dominance at some point in their lives, yet, 80% of them don’t know that they have it.
One powerful yet simple way to use flaxseed in your daily life is the seed rotation method – you can learn about it by downloading the Seed Rotation Starter Kit.
The seed rotation method, however simple, has been one of the most popular methods used by our community. Because of the adaptogenic features of flaxseed, I see women both with too much estrogen and too little estrogen benefiting from this potent seed.
Many have reported:
- Less or no hot flashes
- Less or no night sweats
- Less or no PMS (including bloating, pain, food swings)
- Better sleep
- More regular periods
- Return of periods
- Weight loss
The amazing healing benefits of flaxseed
There is a strong body of research to support the claim that flaxseed is hugely beneficial and can change lives. Here are the reasons why I use and recommend flaxseed to women suffering from PMS, all the way to post-menopausal symptoms.
#1 Helps with estrogen dominance
Symptoms of estrogen dominance include:
- Irregular periods
- Heavy flows
- Terrible PMS (bloating, moods, pain, energy, headaches)
- Breast lumps
- Thyroid Nodules
- Fibrocystic and painful breasts
- Low thyroid
- Hair loss and brittle hair
- Weight gain around the hip and thighs
- Water retention
The reason why a woman experiences these is NOT that she has too much estrogen but because of how she BREAKS down these estrogens.
If you have a bit of biochemistry interest, the problematic estrogens are:
- Too much estradiol E2 (the “aggressive” estrogen) as compared to estrone E1 and estriol E3
- Estrone gets broken down to 2, 4 and 16 hydroxyestrone – 2 is protective where else 4 and 16 hydroxyestrones are antagonistic and cause symptoms of estrogen dominance.
The good news? Flaxseed has been proven to push the metabolism of these estrogens in the protective direction, hence helping with symptoms of estrogen dominance.
Flaxseed interrupts the circulation of estrogens in two ways:
- It can bind unconjugated estrogens in the digestive tract, which are then excreted in the stool.
- Beneficially affects the composition of intestinal bacteria and reduce intestinal b-glucuronidase activity, resulting in lowered estrogens via the conjugation of estrogen and reduced reabsorption.
Flaxseed also helps with:
- It inhibits aromatase activity, thus decreasing conversion of testosterone and androstenedione into estrogens in fat and breast cells.
- Women consuming 10g of flaxseed per day experienced longer menstrual cycle length, increased progesterone-to-estrogen ratios, and fewer anovulatory cycles, all of which are considered to reflect improved ovarian function.
A few studies to share with you:
#2 Helps menopause and postmenopause
The adaptogenic properties of flaxseed can help women in menopause and postmenopause as well.
A few citations and benefits:
- Reduction on hot flashes and vaginal dryness
- Improved blood cholesterol
- Increased anti-inflammatory Omega 3 markers and decreased LDL cholesterol
#3 Helps reduce risk and growth of estrogenic cancers
Estrogenic cancers include ER+ (estrogen receptor positive) breast, uterine, ovarian, thyroid and lung cancers in non-smokers.
Because of its adaptogenic quality, flaxseed can attach itself to an estrogen receptor and block the growth of the cancer cells. The “dirty” estrogens are the ones that cause and fuel the growth of some cancers.
- Flaxseed reduces ER+ breast cancers: “Our results suggest that flaxseed and its lignans have potent anti-estrogenic effects on estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer and may prove to be beneficial in breast cancer prevention strategies in the future.” –
- Flaxseed helps reduction of thyroid cancer
- Flaxseed reduces tumor growth and strengthened the effects of Tamoxifen: “FS inhibited the growth of human estrogen-dependent breast cancer and strengthened the tumor-inhibitory effect of TAM at both low and high E2 levels.”
#4 Source of insoluble and soluble fiber
Flaxseed is a wonderful source of both insoluble and soluble fiber.
Insoluble fiber does not dissolve in water and it moves through the digestive system quickly, “sweeping” the waste and debris through the colon, including metabolized and harmful hormones. It also helps to bulk up the stool which helps to create a well-formed stool. Chronic constipation is one of the causes of hormonal imbalances in women – which goes to say that a good, daily bowel movement is a prerequisite to good hormonal health.
Insoluble fiber also slows down sugar metabolism, helping balance blood sugar – one of the pillars of hormonal balance.
Soluble fiber forms a gel when combined with water, it helps you feel full and satisfied with a meal so you don’t reach out for snacks and unnecessary calories. It also stabilizes blood sugar levels, lowers LDL (“bad”) blood cholesterol and is high in prebiotics – the food for probiotics.
Two tablespoons of freshly ground flaxseed per day will give you the above-mentioned benefits.
This study also states that: “In populations with low average intake of dietary fibre, an approximate doubling of total fibre intake from foods could reduce the risk of colorectal cancer by 40%”.
#5 Anti-inflammatory agent
If that was not enough, flaxseed also contains the highest level of plant-based Omega 3.
It can be beneficial but not for all – here is why. Flaxseed contains the highest levels of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). It’s common amongst the vegans and vegetarians to say that nobody needs to eat fish for the Omega 3 because flaxseed is also very high in Omega 3. This is true but not for all.
The form of Omega 3 that the body benefits from is in the form of EPA and DHA. In the case of flaxseed and its ALA content, the body needs to convert ALA to EPA and DHA in the sufficient presence of vitamins B1 and B6, zinc, and magnesium. If a person is depleted in any of these (and many are), then flaxseed alone might not be the best source of the highly anti-inflammatory Omega 3. On the other hand, if the person is well nourished, then it is true – flaxseed can be a great source of Omega 3.
#6 Cardiovascular health
Cardiovascular health can be a concern in postmenopausal women. This study concluded: In conclusion, a high intake of phytoestrogens in postmenopausal women appears to be associated with a favorable metabolic cardiovascular risk profile.
This study states that ground flaxseed has LDL (“bad”) cholesterol-lowering properties and it improves insulin sensitivity.
Best ways to use (and not to use) flaxseed
A few tips on how to use flaxseed to reap its medicinal properties:
#1 Always buy it in seed form (not as pre-ground flax meal) and grind it freshly in a coffee or spice grinder. Grinding flaxseed makes lignans more bioavailable.
#2 Flaxseed oil does not contain lignans unless ground flaxseed has been added to it.
#3 Amount – One to two tablespoons per day of freshly ground flaxseed is the recommended medicinal dose.
If you want to learn how to use flaxseed in the context of seed rotation (can help with hormonal issues in menstruating and menopausal women), get the Seed Rotation Starter Kit.
What about flaxseed oil?
I’m not a fan of flaxseed oil for a few reasons:
- It does NOT contain lignans, which are the beneficial phytoestrogens I covered above.
- It gets oxidized very quickly and loses its medicinal properties – this is why it has to be refrigerated and kept in a dark container.
- It contains ALA only which still needs to be converted to the bioavailable Omega 3 which is in EPA and DHA form.
- It contains no fiber.
Who may get a negative response to flaxseed?
We get many emails from our readers confused why I would suggest flaxseed. As you can tell from the above narratives, why would I not?!
Having said that, I have met women who had, what is called, a paradoxical response to flaxseed. Instead of feeling better, their symptoms worsened.
It is not fully understood why some women experience an adverse reaction (from digestive issues to getting worse PMS, painful breasts and heavier periods) to flaxseed).
Here is my hypothesis on it:
#1 Food intolerances or allergies – some people have an allergy or intolerance to flaxseed, just the way it can happen with any other foods. If that’s you – do not eat flaxseed.
#2 Digestive sensitivity – Some people experience such dire digestive issues that the lignans and fiber found in the seeds might be too much to tolerate. If you are following the AIP diet, you can’t eat flaxseed until you are ready to re-introduce it when your GI tract is rebuilt.
#3 Gut bacteria – my research shows that for flaxseed to be active, it needs to be converted by a host of bacteria residing in the colon. It is likely that some people lack these beneficial bacteria and therefore don’t convert lignans to enterolactone which is the bioactive form of phytoestrogen.
Flaxseed for men?
I do not work with men so I have limited experience and feedback from men. The little research available shows that men might not be benefiting from flaxseed as much as women do. One study points out elevated prostate cancer risk and infertility.
It’s important to check where you are getting your information from. I searched for medical studies that show harmful effects of flaxseed on women and found none. I did, however, find a number of blogs that make such claims. None of them offer citations and only state “studies show.”
Be selective where you get your information from.
To know if flaxseed is your friend, it’s simple: Add it to your diet (just two tablespoons of freshly ground flaxseed is enough) for one to two months and see how your symptoms change.
If they improve – great! Keep going; you can use flaxseed in the long term. If you feel worse, stop it immediately.
“Early Life Exposure to the Phytoestrogen Enterolactone and Breast Cancer Risk in Later Years.” Breast Cancer and The Environment Research Centers.
Horn-Ross, Pamela L., et al. “Phytoestrogens and Thyroid Cancer Risk.” Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, American Association for Cancer Research, 1 Jan. 2002.
Atkinson, et al. “Lignan and Isoflavone Excretion in Relation to Uterine Fibroids: a Case-Control Study of Young to Middle-Aged Women in the United States.” OUP Academic, Oxford University Press, 1 Dec. 2006.
“Effects of flaxseed supplementation on endometrial expression of ISG17 and intrauterine prostaglandin concentrations in primiparous dairy cows submitted to GnRH-based synchronized ovulation.” Canadian Journal of Animal Science.
Franco, Oscar H, et al. “Use of Plant-Based Therapies and Menopausal Symptoms: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” JAMA, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 21 June 2016.
Dodin, et al. “Effects of Flaxseed Dietary Supplement on Lipid Profile, Bone Mineral Density, and Symptoms in Menopausal Women: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Wheat Germ Placebo-Controlled Clinical Trial.” OUP Academic, Oxford University Press, 1 Mar. 2005.
Jungeström, Malin Bergman, et al. “Flaxseed and Its Lignans Inhibit Estradiol-Induced Growth, Angiogenesis, and Secretion of Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor in Human Breast Cancer Xenografts In Vivo.” Clinical Cancer Research, American Association for Cancer Research, 1 Feb. 2007.
Chen, Jianmin, et al. “Dietary Flaxseed Enhances the Inhibitory Effect of Tamoxifen on the Growth of Estrogen-Dependent Human Breast Cancer (MCF-7) in Nude Mice.” Clinical Cancer Research, American Association for Cancer Research, 15 Nov. 2004.
Bingham, Sheila A, et al. “Dietary Fibre in Food and Protection against Colorectal Cancer in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC): an Observational Study.” Lancet (London, England), U.S. National Library of Medicine, 3 May 2003.
Jackson, Maria D, et al. “Urinary Phytoestrogens and Risk of Prostate Cancer in Jamaican Men.” Cancer Causes & Control: CCC, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Dec. 2010.
Xia, Yankai, et al. “Urinary Phytoestrogen Levels Related to Idiopathic Male Infertility in Chinese Men.” Environment International, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Sept. 2013.