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Can Flaxseeds Support Liver Health?


An ingredient well known in many health food circles, flaxseeds are a terrific addition to a diet crafted for a healthy liver.

Applicable to various natural botanicals, the seeds of some plants are nutritional superstars. Loaded with the necessary nutrients for creation, seeds can harbor a wide range of health benefits when consumed. This sentiment is especially true for flaxseed, a tiny kernel from the flax plant. Based on numerous studies and several of its characteristics, the liver appears to get a healthful boost from regular consumption of flaxseed.

About Flax
According to the Flax Council of Canada, flaxseed was cultivated in Babylon as early as 3000 BC. By the 8th century, King Charlemagne believed so strongly in the health benefits of flaxseed that he passed laws requiring his subjects to consume it. Thirteen centuries later, research on flaxseed demonstrates that King Charlemagne was justified in his beliefs.

Upon analyzing its nutritional content, the flaxseed contains three distinct healthful constituents:

1.    Lignans
2.    Omega-3 essential fatty acids
3.    Fiber

Each of these flaxseed components contributes to a healthful liver.

Flax’s Lignans
Found in the cell walls of plants, lignans are fiber-like compounds that have antioxidant properties. In the form of phytoestrogens, the unique structure of lignans makes them one of the few naturally occurring compounds in food that function as weak or moderate estrogens when consumed. Among all foods commonly eaten by humans, researchers rank flaxseeds as the number one source of lignans. In comparison:

•    sesame seeds come in second, containing one-seventh of the total lignans as flaxseeds
•    sunflower seeds contain about 1/350th as many lignans as flaxseeds
•    cashews nuts contain about 1/475th as many lignans as flaxseeds

Although several hundred individual lignans have been discovered, most lignan research has focused on those from flaxseed – primarily secoisolariciresinol diglucoside (SDG). As published in the July 2010 edition of the journal Nutrition Research, Japanese researchers investigated the effects of SDG on high cholesterol and liver disease risk factors in men with moderately high cholesterol. High triglyceride levels and obesity can cause elevated liver enzymes. Researchers found that subjects who took 100 mg of SDG daily had lower blood levels of two liver enzymes – a sign that inflammation and cell damage in the liver had decreased – compared to the start of the study and to placebo.

Flax’s Omega-3’s
Ground flaxseed is a rich source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a precursor of the omega-3 fatty acids that help address hyperlipidemia (high levels of fat in the blood) by improving cholesterol ratio. In addition, the plant omega-3 ALA helps decrease inflammatory reactions in humans. Since inflammation in the liver can damage liver cells, flaxseed’s high dose of ALA could help protect the liver from cellular injury.

Flax’s Fiber
Another reason flaxseed is unique is because it contains both the soluble and insoluble types of fiber. Both types of fiber are important for health, digestion, and preventing conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity, diverticulitis, constipation and fatty liver disease.

•    Soluble – Soluble fibers attract water and form a gel, which slows down digestion, minimizes insulin resistance, helps control weight and reduces absorption of dietary cholesterol.

•    Insoluble – Helping prevent constipation, insoluble fiber passes through the digestive tract. Because constipation can cause toxins to build up in the body – placing an added detoxification strain on the liver – insoluble fiber is a key dietary strategy for maintaining liver health.

Consuming Flaxseed
When faced with how to consume it, those new to flax may feel a bit overwhelmed by the options. Several guiding points will help beginners start incorporating flaxseed into their diet:

•    Purchase milled flax or grind it yourself – Whole flax seeds stay fresh longer than ground flax, but will likely pass through your system undigested. Thus, consume ground flaxseed – also known as milled flax or flax meal.

•    Keep it cold, sealed and dark – If using ground flax, it will keep longer in the freezer. To further prevent oxidation and maintain potency, flaxseed should be stored in an airtight, dark-colored container.

•    Add ground flaxseed to foods and drinks – Imparting a subtle, nutty flavor, ground flaxseed can add a liver health benefit to many types of foods and drinks. It can be added to smoothies, baked goods, cereal, soups, stews and cooked vegetables.

A drug capable of reducing liver inflammation, improving the cholesterol ratio, reducing blood sugar levels, easing constipation and fighting obesity would be prescribed to most people at risk for a fatty liver and many with chronic liver disease. Much safer and less expensive than a drug, flaxseed accomplishes all of these tasks naturally. Based on the properties of its lignans, fiber and ALA content, flaxseed makes an ideal addition to diets prioritizing liver health., Effects of Flaxseed, Mark Babyatsky, MD, Retrieved June 17, 2012, Everyday Health, Inc., 2012., Meta-analysis of the effects of flaxseed interventions on blood lipids, Pan A, et al, Retrieved June 17, 2012, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, August 2009., Flaxseed lignan lowers blood cholesterol and decreases liver disease risk factors in moderately hypercholesterolemic men, Fukumitsu, S, et al, Retrieved June 17, 2012, Nutrition Research, July 2010., Lignan Information and health benefit of supplements, Ray Sahelian, MD, Retrieved June 17, 2012,, 2012., The Benefits of Flaxseed, Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, Retrieved June 17, 2012, WebMD, LLC, 2012., Dietary Fiber: Insoluble vs. Soluble, Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD, Retrieved June 17, 2012, WebMD, LLC, 2012., Flaxseeds, Retrieved June 17, 2012, The George Mateljan Foundation, 2012.

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About the Author

Nicole Cutler, L.Ac., MTCM, Dipl. Ac. (NCCAOM)®

Nicole Cutler, L.Ac., MTCM is a long time advocate of integrating perspectives on health. With a Bachelor's degree in Neuroscience from the University of Rochester and a Master's degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine from Five Branches Institute, Nicole has been a licensed acupuncturist since 2000. She has gathered acupuncture licenses in the states of California and New York, is a certified specialist with the National Acupuncture Detoxification Association, has earned diplomat status with the National Commission of Chinese and Oriental Medicine in Acupuncture and Chinese Herbology and is a member of the Society for Integrative Oncology. In addition to her acupuncture practice that focuses on stress and pain relief, digestion, immunity and oncology, Nicole contributes to the integration of healthcare by writing articles for professional massage therapists and people living with liver disease.

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