Remember when there used to be only two kinds of oil available: vegetable oil and olive oil? There are now dozens of different kinds of oils out there, and it can be hard to know the differences.
We are going to focus on one type of oil in particular: flaxseed oil. This lesser known oil is gaining popularity and the research on flaxseed continues to grow. We will tell you what you need to know about flaxseed and discuss flaxseed oil benefits.
Before we can talk about flaxseed oil, we need to first explain flaxseed.
Flax, flaxseed, and linseed are all common names for the seed that comes from the plant Linum usitatissimum. There is a bit of debate on the correct terms for flaxseed. One source says that flaxseed is used to refer to the seed for human consumption and the term linseed is used for animal feed. While others use flaxseed and linseed interchangeably. We will stick to using the term flaxseed.
The flaxseed plant has a long history of use and is actually one of the oldest crops. Humans have been eating flaxseed for thousands of years, and its fibers were used to make clothing and paper. It is also part of ayurvedic medicine.
Flaxseed contains compounds such as alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), lignan (a polyphenol), protein, and minerals that may provide potential benefits to the body. These seeds can be ground to make flaxseed meal and are often used to add fiber to breads, pasta, and cereal. They can also be used to make an egg replacement for baking purposes.
Let’s look at the specifics of flaxseed oil benefits.
Potential flaxseed oil benefits include the support of heart, digestive, and skin health. Before we unpack the research on each of these benefits, we first need to look at the type of fatty acids flaxseed oil contains to better understand its role as a functional food.
As we mentioned earlier, flaxseed oil contains alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). ALA is considered an essential fatty acid because it cannot be made by the body and must come from the diet. ALA is converted to eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and then to docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA, DHA, and EPA are all omega-3 fatty acids.
The conversion rate of ALA to EPA and DHA is reported to be less than 15%. This has led some to question the use of flaxseed oil as a source of omega-3s. However, this study demonstrated that flaxseed oil does increase blood levels of omega-3 in a specific population.
Let’s take a closer look at the research on flaxseed oil benefits.
Most of the research on omega-3s and heart health has focused on EPA and DHA from marine sources or as dietary supplements (fish oil). But there is some data to support the benefits of flaxseed and flaxseed oil for heart health.
This review paper found that flaxseed and flax meal may support a variety of cardiovascular health markers. They also note that flaxseed oil was found to support healthy blood clotting. It was also shown to act as an antioxidant and promote a healthy inflammation response.
This study also found that flaxseed oil supports healthy lipid levels.
A randomized controlled trial found that flaxseed helped maintain healthy CRP levels. They did not find this benefit in flaxseed oil. This may be because flaxseed oil does not contain the same lignan content as flaxseed. Flaxseeds contain polyphenolic compounds called lignans and research suggests that lignans may support cardiovascular health.
Flaxseed may be beneficial for supporting healthy bowel movements. Flaxseed appears to have a dual effect on helping promote normal bowel movements and consistency. An animal study found that there may actually be two different mechanisms responsible for these benefits. So flaxseed could help no matter which way your bowel movements may “swing.”
But the question is: Can flaxseed oil alone have the same benefits on gut health as whole flaxseed? Or is the fiber in flax the reason for all the gut health benefits?
One study found that flaxseed oil supported bowel movement regularity in a specific population and this animal study found that flaxseed oil may be helpful for colon health. Therefore, flaxseed oil alone may be beneficial for gut health, but flaxseed contains fiber that can likely provide even more benefits.
We know that a deficiency of omega-3s can lead to rough and scaly skin. A randomized controlled trial on healthy volunteers with sensitive skin showed that flaxseed oil may improve skin health. They found that “supplementation with flaxseed oil led to significant decreases in sensitivity…skin roughness and scaling, while smoothness and hydration were increased.”
This animal study also suggests that flaxseed oil may support skin health.
Flaxseed and flaxseed oil supplements are reported to be well tolerated with minimal side effects. But there are a few precautions to keep in mind.
It’s important to talk to your doctor about all the medications and supplements you take before starting flaxseed oil.
Flaxseed oil may impact blood thinning and blood pressure, so caution should be used if taking it with any related medication.
While flaxseed is not a common allergen, there is a possibility to be allergic to flaxseed and flaxseed oil.
If you are pregnant, talk to your doctor before using flaxseed oil. Per the NIH: “Some research suggests that flaxseed oil taken in the second or third trimester of pregnancy may increase the chance of premature births.”
If you want to get more ALA into your diet, you can consume flaxseed that is added to breads, pasta, and cereal. You can also use flaxseed to make an egg substitute or to sprinkle on a salad.
You should not use flaxseed oil as a replacement for cooking oil. It has a low smoke point and can burn and produce an off flavor if used for cooking. Instead, stick to using flaxseed oil for salad dressings and in smoothies.
A wide variety of dosages were used in studies on flaxseed oil benefits.
The adequate intake for ALA for adults is 1.1-1.6 grams per day and one tablespoon of flaxseed oil contains 7.26 grams of ALA.
Depending on your reason for using flaxseed oil, start with a lower amount and slowly increase to get to the desired dose. Ask your healthcare professional for dosing recommendations.
Light and heat can break down flaxseed oil, so it’s best to store it away from light and in the refrigerator or in a cool place to extend its shelf life. No one wants rancid oil!
You can find organic and non-organic versions of flaxseed oil. Some products even have lignans added to it.
Flaxseed has been used as an ancient remedy and was one of the first crops to ever be cultivated. It has stood the test of time and is now a staple in many people’s kitchens. Flaxseed can be found as whole seeds, ground flax, or flaxseed oil. In order to get the highest concentration of the omega-3 ALA, flaxseed oil can be used (but should not be heated).
Flaxseed and flaxseed oil have shown potential benefits for heart, skin, and digestive health. If you are interested in supplementing for flaxseed oil benefits, talk to your doctor about the right dose for you.