Flaxseeds: Punching Above Their Weight to Fight Inflammation

They may be small, but flaxseeds provide a mighty health boost, both easing symptoms of arthritis and protecting against other chronic conditions.

Step aside, salmon. Scoot over kale. Make room for flaxseed, a proud member of the healthy foods club. Flaxseed has been shown to protect against cancer and heart disease and to ease symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and Raynaud’s phenomenon.

To understand this tiny nutritional star, take a look at what’s inside.

Essential fatty acids. Of the total fatty acids in flaxseed, 57% is alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), one of three main omega-3 fatty acids. To be effective, ALA must be converted into two more powerful omega-3s, docosahexaenoic (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic (EPA) acids. Only about 5% of ALA is converted to EPA, while less than 0.5% is converted to DHA. Still, observational studies and randomized controlled trials have shown that ALA can lower cholesterol, blood fats and blood pressure and reduce the risk of diabetes and cognitive decline.  

Lignans. Found in flaxseed hulls, these chemicals convert to plant estrogen (also called phytoestrogen) in the digestive tract and function much like natural estrogen in the body. Although many plants contain lignans, flaxseeds have 100 times more than most other sources. Research suggests they may protect against several forms of cancer, especially breast cancer, and may make the drug tamoxifen more effective. Results of studies on prostate cancer are mixed, but some research has shown that 30 grams or two tablespoons of flaxseeds a day may slow the growth of prostate tumors. Flaxseed oil does not contain lignans, so look for brands that have them added.

Flavonoids. Found in all forms of flaxseed, flavonoids are well known anti-inflammatories and may play a role in reducing the low-grade inflammation that triggers many chronic diseases, including autoimmune arthritis. In one trial,120 patients with rheumatoid arthritis were randomized to one of three groups: 30 grams of flaxseed a day plus an anti-inflammatory diet, 30 grams of flaxseed plus a normal diet or placebo plus a normal diet. After three months, joint pain and morning stiffness decreased significantly in the flaxseed groups compared to controls. Flaxseed also improved quality of life and disability scores.

Fiber. Flaxseeds pack a lot of fiber for their size. Most people in the U.S. don’t begin to meet the minimum daily requirement for fiber — about 25 to 30 grams. One tablespoon of ground flaxseed has 3 grams of fiber — not enough to make a dent in the MDR, but enough to make it a safe and effective laxative. It’s important to go slow when first adding flaxseed to your diet. Stay away from flaxseeds if you have active IBS, ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease.

How to Use It

Use flaxseed oil or ground flaxseeds; whole flaxseeds are hard to break down and may pass through your system undigested. You can buy them already ground or DIY with a blender or seed grinder. 

Refrigerate all flaxseed products; they quickly become rancid when exposed to air, heat and light. Look for flaxseed oil in dark bottles that are refrigerated and have an expiration date. According to independent tests, some flaxseeds are contaminated with the toxic metal cadmium, so do your homework before you buy.

There’s no minimum requirement for flaxseed; one or two tablespoons a day should be plenty.

Six Ways to Get Your Flaxseed

Heat is the enemy, robbing flaxseed products of nutrition and turning them rancid. If you want to add them to something hot, like soup or oatmeal, add after cooking. 
  1. Stir 1 Tbsp. ground flaxseed into oatmeal and smoothies.
  2. Use ground flaxseed as a topping for salads.
  3. Make vinaigrette with 1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard, 1 Tbsp. vinegar and 3 Tbsp. flaxseed oil.
  4. Mix 1 Tbsp. ground flaxseed into tuna, chicken and egg salads.
  5. Toss 1/2 lb. cooked pasta with 2 Tbsp. flaxseed oil.

Stay in the Know. Live in the Yes.

Get involved with the arthritis community. Tell us a little about yourself and, based on your interests, you’ll receive emails packed with the latest information and resources to live your best life and connect with others.