Flax Seed: Myths and Misinformation

by Steven Carney on May 3, 2014

This is post #105 on the site (about the health benefits and myths of flax seed). The site is a collection of breakthrough articles and resources at your fingertips! Feel free to browse the information here.

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This is a post about flax seed and flax oil. Flax seed has many good health benefits but there is also a lot of misinformation about flax. It’s been spread by the usual suspects: mass media and uninformed online sources.

Most reporters are and health and medical amateurs who are highly gullible when it comes to research hype. Most simply paraphrase a press release to write their story, never actually reading the study they are reporting on. Most don’t understand research methods, language, jargon or how to look for bias and fraud.

As a result, biased stories are widespread, and they often lack critical detail, balance or perspective. The public is fed exaggerated and biased stories on a constant basis, providing a steady flow of. . .misinformation! In fact, mass media sources follow a simple formula when it comes to nutrition and alternative health stories: alternative health is suspicious or quackery, while drugs offer miracle treatments and cures. Both positions are largely false!

I’ve written extensively about these problems in many previous posts (see “Research” Category on the right or scroll down through past articles below where I cover many of these issues in detail).

When it comes to flax seed, rumors, myths and speculation about flax have been widespread, especially in the area of hormones. First, let’s explore some background, history and benefits for flax before we bust the myths about harms from this healthy seed!

Flax history

Flax has a fascinating history. The earliest forms go back about 10,000 years, to a wild ancestor of modern flax, originating in the Mediterranean region. This includes southern Europe and northern Africa, Egypt, etc. The flax plant fibers were used to weave fabrics and linens in Egypt. The Greeks and Romans also valued flax linen, along with the oil, and its nutritional and medicinal benefits. These uses go back to about 6,000 BC!

Over time, flax and its many uses spread across the rest of Europe and Russia. It was only 400 years ago when it was brought to North America, starting in Canada (see links below for complete histories, health benefits, uses, etc.).

Health benefits/uses

Flax in seed form has many nutritional and health benefits but they should be ground before eating. That will release their nutritional benefits and nutty flavor (otherwise, the whole seeds can pass right through your system). Flax can be added to oats or oatmeal, Greek yogurt (higher in protein), on salads, veggies, dips or in soups or stews, a homemade smoothy, etc. Most experts recommend about 1-2 tablespoons daily for an adult.

Look at this impressive list of nutrition, health and disease benefits for flax seed (see links below for more details and research):

  • Flax is high in ALA, a precursor to healthy omega-3 fats
  • Flax is a good source of fiber
  • Flax has many important B vitamins
  • Flax has vitamins C and E
  • Flax has important minerals, including magnesium, potassium and zinc
  • Flax has phytochemicals and antioxidants
  • Flax is heart healthy
  • Flax can help to lower high BP
  • Flax can help lower oxidized LDL cholesterol
  • Flax can help manage inflammation
  • Flax may help with blood glucose/diabetes
  • Flax can help to balance hormones and lower cancer risk
  • Flax can help with cancer proliferation, tumor growth and survival
  • Flax may help to alleviate symptoms of menopause

So these tiny seeds pack a surprising nutritional and heallth punch, one that beats most other seeds!

Hormone basics

As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, these amazing little seeds have become controversial because some unproven claims have been published about their assumed effects on hormone levels, especially female hormones. These claims are based on old studies in rats that purported to show that flax increased hormone levels. However, the study was a comparative one between flax and wheat.

As usual, the media and researchers got carried away and skewed the headlines toward a misinterpretation of the non-human study. For those who don’t realize it, small mammal studies in rats and mice rarely carry forward to human subjects, only about 20-30% of the time. So most of the time, they don’t work in humans (good or bad) as claimed. And many times, rats and mice are bred with gene defects or are given huge doses of foods or drugs, also adding to exaggerated claims.

Here is some basic information about flax seeds and hormones, comparing regular hormones to the phytoestrogens (plant estrogens) found in flax, flax oil and lignans: 

1. True estrogens have 3 main steroidal forms produced in the body: estrone (E1), estradiol (E2) and estriol (E3). Of these, estradiol has the greatest effects through most of adult life; later, estrone (E3) becomes more dominant after menopause, although it is less potent. True estrogens are produced in the ovaries and adrenals, plus smaller amounts are made in the liver, breasts and abdominal fat. They are cholesterol-based, steroid sex hormones.

2. Flax seeds are high in something called lignans. Lignans are a type of antioxidant found in many plant foods, including nuts, seeds, grains, beans, legumes and vegetables. When digested, lignans are converted to non-steroidal compounds in the gut, called enterodiol and enterolactone.

These plant lignans and resulting phytoestrogens are NOT true estrogens. No evidence suggests that they combine with, activate, or increase normal steroidal estrogen levels in the body. In short, no credible research shows any direct effects of lignans on true estrogens (E1-E3).

3. The broad claims that flax seeds or oil raise steroid estrogen levels is demonstrably false and unsupported by any credible science or evidence (even though many studies have been done—see numerous links and studies below). In fact, these claims and fears are not logical given the differing origins and chemical structures of steroid estrogens and lignan-based phytoestrogens.

What flax does appear to do is to help balance estrogenic activity by temporarily binding to estrogen receptors in the body. This may explain why women who use flax seeds in their diet have less cancer and or better cancer outcomes and less other chronic disease These phytoestrogens offer mild competition for estrogens.

Yet, I’ve encountered many who have made false claims that flax seeds are toxic or harmful. They are in stories, blogs and various online sources. None have any credible human research to back their claims (for research conclusions to be credible, they need to be done on several, large human studies that are replicated). Animal studies alone are not enough to make health claims.

I’ve looked at 30 or more studies with flax and human subjects and none supports the fears that flax is toxic or that their lignans increase estrogen levels. Quite simply, these plant foods don’t appear to damage health for adult males or females. In fact, many studies show the exact opposite, based on all the health benefits in list above.

Those who state that flax seed or oil raise estrogen levels or increase cancer or other disease risk are spreading misinformation. It’s no different than telling someone that cholesterol and saturated fat causes heart disease, a falsehood we have been told for 60 years, largely debunked by many credible experts for a decade or more.

In fact, here is a brief quote form the AICR (American Institute for Cancer Research) site. See links below for more details:

Studies do not support fears that flaxseed could increase incidence or recurrence of breast cancer.

When it comes to any information about nutrition or health, never rely on mass media sources or sensationalistic online sources! And remember this:

Ignorance provides fertile ground for myths and falsehoods to take hold. Beware of mass media sources and sites with names like carbwars (a name clearly chosen to get attention and feed conflict), because they usually offer little scientific proof or accuracy. Instead, most offer big doses of sensationalism, based on mass media-style hype and drama.

A good health or nutrition blog needs to include credible human research studies as sources, not mass media outlet sources (local or national news, magazines, blogs or online sources).

Those common outlets often base their stories on lab or animal studies (often small mammals like mice and rats as mentioned before), which is exactly how the whole flax hormone “danger” claims got started). Then toss in a few colorful stories and anecdotes and an “expert” quote or two and presto, a dramatic but false story is born (see links below for some flax research history).

A blog with misinformation

A while ago, I ran into a cookbook author who commented on an online forum about flax seed. The actual topic was a nice article about the health benefits of flax, but after she added negative comments, I and others challenged her claims of harm. She had apparently written a blog post about flax seed in 2013, which included many wild claims and biased comments.

Several of us challenged her comments in the online forum, including some claims from her blog post. Her sources for her writing were a few anecdotes and weak online sources, most of which had little or no evidence of harm. Her claims was basically that flax could contribute to hormone-related cancers and harms for men and women, including being poisonous. I introduced a series of links to background articles about flax seed, lignans (the element of flax and other plant foods, nuts and seeds that have phytoestrogens).

She claimed that flax had medical effects and should be treated like a drug! What? Many foods have health effects because they contribute to good digestive, metabolic, hormonal and other bodily functions. Foods like fruits, veggies, fish oil and EVOO/extra virgin olive oil can all help to activate health genes and lower inflammation, but that doesn’t make them drugs or medicines. Whole, healthy foods like flax seed are not drugs just because they provide positive health effects. Her comments seemed so ridiculous!

I challenged her scientific education, background and understanding (she is a cookbook author not trained in research). Some medical people supported my comments and information with their positive comments.

I then added 5 more links from Pubmed, the online library for published journal research. They were all based on credible, human-based research studies. Several were clinical trials, the best kind. They all showed health benefits with no dangers for flax seed (there may or may not be an effect for pregnant or nursing women, based on non-human studies). I mentioned later that I had 5 more studies if people wanted to see them. Several more people supported my comments and research.

Her response was to attack the articles and the studies I offered, complaining that the dosages were controlled (this is how good research is done, and the amounts were similar to the range as the original poster had mentioned). She used the tactic of selectively quoting a phrase or sentence removed from its contenxt, ignoring the totality of the research showing many health benefits for flax and no real harms. It was clear she didn’t understand the fundamentals of research or know the differences between steroid estrogens and those from plants, as outlined above. They are not the same.

She added that flax and other foods contained poisons, including parsley, cabbage, beans, celery, tomatoes and others. She confidently stated that plantains can cause heart disease! What? Where are all the bodies from eating tomatoes, cabbage and beans in places like Italy or the U.S.? And what were her sources for this new batch of wild claims? Her source was an old blog that appeared to be abandoned since 2012. Again, no studies or research were provided in that blog post, just wild, dramatic claims.

I responded with a comment about several searches I tried on Pubmed for “flax harm” or “flax dangers.” I found nothing of consequence. I also asked for credible studies to support all the claims of danger and increased cancer for flax. Of course, there are none (by this point, I had searched Pubmed for many hours and would have found them).

All you find are the same mass-media and medical sites where nutrition is not studied in any detail and where older animal studies are considered proof, even when the majority fail in human trials. She gave a manipulative response that if there were studies for harm, there would be no controversy about flax seed, basically admitting that her work was designed to feed controversy, like others in mass media outlets.

BTW, the use fo the word “controversy” in mass media is a euphemism for conflict, and conflict gets people aroused and emotional. This is how she (and most news outlets) draw readers to themselves. It’s seeking attention through manipulation and hype instead of facts, balance or perspective.

Each time I review her biased post on flax, I cringe. Her work shows a clear bias toward sites and quotes which appear to show danger (often without credible evidence), along with selective quoting (ignoring the totality of articles and research with positive benefits), preferring to highlight scary-sounding quotes instead.

The links she included as source material are insufficient to support her exaggerated and wild claims about supposed flax dangers (at one point claiming men will get larger breasts, which is nonsense!). Overall, her blog post presents an unbalanced, distorted view of flax seed, using an overly-dramatic style.

For comparison, see my numerous, credible article and research links below (over 60), about half of which are research studies and study abstracts. The totality of these sources shows overwhelmingly positive health and disease-fighting benefits for flax seed and its lignans, with no toxic or consistent negative hormonal effects (one small study showed a slight rise in a hormone called prolactin, but the levels were still in the mid-range of normal). It’s why details like normal ranges should be disclosed, something the media rarely does.

And here’s the reality the cookbook writer doesn’t get: with all the human studies done, if flax was toxic or harmful to humans or hormone levels it would have shown up in many of those studies! That’s because the studies often measure hormones as part of the research.

It’s concerning that she is distributing misinformation that could actually harm people’s health, especially women. That’s because many studies show that phytoestrogens actually help to reduce heart disease, cancer risk, as well as other diseases! No matter, her work is designed to play on reader’s fears and anxiety. The anti-flax post she published is irresponsible!

Now think about this: It’s been more than a good month since we had the exchanges in the forum and weeks since she was exposed to the positive and credible research about flax and health, yet she has yet to do any updating to her post with more balanced information. She has chosen to be irresponsible about a serious health topic and disease risks. In addition, I’ve see her post various topics in other groups, again using mass-media sources. Fortunately, most people have ignored her spammy posts (some were duplicates)!

In summary, I can only condemn her writing and misinformation. I don’t think she has any business writing about health or medical topics given her shallow knowledge base, sensationalistic approach and lack of scientific rigor! In the end, I challenge anyone to read all the links below and then tell me that flax seed, flax oil or lignans are unhealthy or pose a danger to human health.

If you have any questions or comments, feel free to contact me at: steve@endsicknessnow.com or comment below the links.

Helpful links about flax:

http://www.saskflax.com/flaxhistory.html

http://www.craigavonhistoricalsociety.org.uk/rev/luttonhistoryoflinen.html

http://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-7390/flaxseed-how-to-use-this-wonder-ingredient.html

http://mydietmatters.com/blog/?tag=how-to-add-flaxseed-to-your-diet

http://lowcarbdiets.about.com/od/cooking/a/flaxseedrecipes.htm

http://www.healthyflax.com/flax-faq/

http://lowcarbdiets.about.com/od/whattoeat/a/flaxinfo.htm

http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/263405.php

http://www.webmd.com/diet/features/benefits-of-flaxseed

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24013641

Some early history about rats, rat babies and flax debunked cancer/hormone claims:

http://www.denvernaturopathic.com/news/flaxseeds.html

http://oregon.providence.org/location-directory/p/providence-st-vincent-medical-center/forms-and-information/ask-an-expert-soy-and-flax-in-hormone-receptor-positive-breast-cancer-survivors

http://specertified.com/blog/view/what-are-the-phytoestrogens-in-soy-and-are-they-good-for-me

http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/infocenter/phytochemicals/lignans/

http://naturalmedicinejournal.com/journal/2014-02/flaxseed-reduces-high-blood-pressure

Different versions of flax oil and lignans:

http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=george&dbid=316

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23354422

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22591208

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22925074

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18502107  (20 to here)

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23885993

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24126178

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23261749

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19515737

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18779299

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22642930

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2703189/

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14684762

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11588903  (30 links to here)

Several studies showing how untrustworthy animal studies can be:

http://www.theguardian.com/science/2010/jan/23/ben-goldacre-bad-science

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2846855/

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3411287/

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3883631/

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23261749

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/07/130716194952.htm

http://nutritionfacts.org/video/flaxseeds-breast-cancer-prevention/

http://nutritionfacts.org/video/flaxseeds-breast-cancer-survival-epidemiological-evidence/

http://nutritionfacts.org/video/flaxseeds-breast-cancer-survival-clinical-evidence/

http://nutritionfacts.org/video/flaxseed-vs-prostate-cancer/  (40 to here)

http://healthscience.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=523:are-flax-seeds-toxic-pt-3&catid=102:jeff-novicks-blog&Itemid=267

http://www.aicr.org/foods-that-fight-cancer/flaxseed.html#intro

http://www.aicr.org/foods-that-fight-cancer/flaxseed.html#research

http://www.doctorshealthpress.com/heart-health-articles/the-seed-that-could-take-down-cancer-diabetes-and-more

https://www.drfuhrman.com/library/foods-that-fight-breast-cancer.aspx

Study for lignans: enterodiol and enterolactone

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17576639

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22888664

http://www.news-medical.net/health/Estrogen-Types.aspx

http://www.youthfulagingcenter.com/three-estrogens.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Estrogen

http://www.cdc.gov/biomonitoring/Phytoestrogens_BiomonitoringSummary.html (50 to here)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Estrogen_receptor_beta 

http://www.maureenwilliamsnd.com/articles/estrogen.html

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24013641

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23566060

http://www.bibliotecapleyades.net/salud/salud_defeatcancer174.htm

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=flax+oil+and+BPH

http://blogs.webmd.com/health-ehome/2010/08/early-puberty-whats-the-chemical-connection.html

http://www.drpincott.com/publications/publishedarticles/Articles/article223.htm

http://healthscience.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=522:are-flax-seeds-toxic-pt-2&catid=102:jeff-novicks-blog&Itemid=267

http://healthscience.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=521:are-flax-seeds-toxic-pt-1&catid=102:jeff-novicks-blog&Itemid=267

http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/killer-tomatoes-and-poisonous-potatoes/

http://www.buzzle.com/articles/are-raw-cashews-poisonous.html

If you are still dying to see her version for flax dangers, here is a link:

http://carbwars.blogspot.com/2013/02/wheat-belly-cookbook-review-is-flax-new_3.html

© 2014 by Steve Carney/End Sickness Now

 

{ 10 comments }

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mark May 13, 2014 at 12:01 AM

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