Scientific Name: Linum usitatissimum
Also called: Linseed
Parts used: Seed, stem
Native to: Europe, Asia, and the Mediterranean region
Traditional Uses: Seed used internally for inflammation of the mucous membranes, chronic gastritis, urogenital irritation, and in laxatives, and externally in poultices for skin conditions. Stem fibers created sterile suture and thread, as well as linen fabric.
Current Medicinal Uses and Purposes: As a source of beneficial essential fatty acids (EFAs) and as a laxative; for gastrointestinal conditions, diabetes, immune disorders, and preventative for cardiovascular disease and cancer. Asian use of linseed oil from flax includes poultices for burns, rheumatism, and gout.
Side Effects and Contraindications: No health hazards or side effects are known in conjunction with the proper administration of designated therapeutic dosages. The use of large quantities of the drug as a laxative with too little fluid intake can lead to ileus. Flaxseed can delay the absorption of some other drugs if taken simultaneously.
Areas of Further Research: Flax may help with lupus, malaria, rheumatoid arthritis, prevention of kidney transplant rejection, and reducing ovarian dysfunction, a risk factor in breast cancer.
Listen to the Plant Detective radio show about Flax
Photos courtesy Flax Council of Canada
Blue-flowered flax's scientific name includes usitatissimum, or, "most useful." What makes flax most useful medicinally can be traced to several compounds it contains. One, alpha-linolenic acid, is an essential fatty acid (EFA). We need EFAs for all kinds of metabolic functioning, but our bodies don't produce them naturally. We're supposed to get them from food--for example, fish also contains them--but often we don't get enough. More research is needed, but including flax in our diet seems to have benefits. It seems to help with the prevention of cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Possible anticancer activity linked with flax may be traced to other helpful compounds in the plant are called lignans. One in particular, SDG, may be responsible for flax's good effects on women's menstrual cycles and ovarian function. Ovarian dysfunction is a risk factor in breast and other cancers. A 1992 study also showed a correlation between SDG and reduced breast and colon tumors in early stages of formation.
Flax looks delicate, but it contains strong fiber. Linen, the fabric, is made from flax. Ancient scraps in stone-age caves in Switzerland, Israel, and Egypt show that humans were using linen at least about 9,000 years ago. Most Egyptian mummies were wrapped in linen. Today, flax fiber is used for buttonholes and button thread, firehoses, and mailbags--items that get a ton of wear and pressure. The dried woody stalk of the plant is the part that provides the fiber. Flax has the greatest tensile strength of any plant fiber other than ramie, and it's even stronger when it's wet.
Linseed oil, extracted from flax seeds by a special process, is used in paint, varnish, and other products. Linoleum, which covers kitchen and bathroom floors, used to be made exclusively from flax, but has been largely replaced by vinyl flooring. But real linoleum flooring, some of it known as "marmoleum," is making a comeback among green builders and health-conscious and chemically sensitive folks.
If you add actual flax seeds to your diet, grind them up first with a clean coffee mill or a rolling pin, or buy them preground. Otherwise they pass right through you unopened, without your body benefiting from the healthful compounds. Sprinkle one tablespoon to a quarter of a cup on cereal or soup or in fruit juice. Or try a 1 1/2 tablespoons of flax oil a day in salad dressing or on bread. Don't cook with flaxseed oil--the heat turns it into linseed oil, which is unhealthy! Likewise, always make sure the seeds or oil you use are fresh.
Linum usitatissimum was introduced to North America, but it thrives across the continent now. A similar-looking species, Linum perenne lewisii, is native to North America. In Europe and the Middle East, Linum angustifolium is the wild ancestor found in ancient sites.
Canada is the leading flax-producing country. North American farmers are growing a new yellow-seeded flax cultivar called solin. You can cook with its oil, unlike the oil of traditional flax cultivars. Solin seeds do not provide the same nutritional benefit of traditional brown- and yellow-seeded flax.
Flax in the Kitchen
Flax seed produces a really gooey gel when it is soaked in water (or other liquids), so you can use it to substitute for oil or eggs.
Fat substitution instructions: Use a 3:1 ratio when substituting flax for oil in a recipe. For example, 3 tablespoons of milled flax can replace 1 tablespoon of butter, margarine, shortening or vegetable oil.
Egg substitution instructions: For every egg being replaced, mix 1 tablespoon whole or milled flax with 3 tablespoons water in a small bowl and let sit for one or two minutes. The mixture will become gel-like. Add to your recipe as you would an egg. 1 tablespoon milled flax + 3 tablespoons water = 1 egg.
Pizza Bread Recipe with Flax
An American novel featuring the soothing effects of flax is Winter Wheat by Mildred Walker. The father of the young heroine, Ellen, fought in World War II and was hit by shrapnel. As an older man, the shrapnel disables him as it works its way out of his body during the rest of his life. His wife and daughter help him by preparing warm flaxseed compresses. Ellen doesn't like the smell of the flaxseed, perhaps because of its association with her father's pain.
Flax References for The Plant Detective Radio Show
Bisset, N. G. and M. Wichtl, Eds. 1994. Herbal Drugs and Phytopharmaceuticals. Medpharm Scientific Publishers, Stuttgart.
Blumenthal, M., senior ed. 1998. Complete German Commission E Monographs: Therapeutic Guide to Herbal Medicines. American Botanical Council, Austin, TX.
Brendler, T., J. Gruenwald, C. Jaenicke. 1997. Herbal Remedies (Heilpflanzen) CD-ROM. 2nd ed. Deutscher Apotheker Verlag, Stuttgart.
Bruneton, J. 1995. Pharmacognosy, Phytochemistry, Medicinal Plants. Lavoisier, Paris.
Evans, C. E. 1996. Trease and Evans Pharmacognosy. 14th ed. W.B. Saunders Co. Limited, London.
Integrative Medicine Access: Professional Reference to Conditions, Herbs, and Supplements. 2000. Integrative Medicine Communications, Newton, MA.
Physicians’ Desk Reference for Herbal Medicines. 1998. Medical Economics Co., Inc., Montvale, NJ.
Swerdlow, J. L. 2000. Nature's Medicine. National Geographic Society, Washington, DC.
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