Flaxseed, or linseed, is a shiny, reddish-brown seed about the size of a sesame seed that is rich is protein, fat, and dietary fiber. In addition, it includes phytochemicals such as phenolic acids and lignans, as well as small amounts of vitamins and minerals. It is important to note that the fats found in flaxseed are not the same types of bad fat commonly associated with increased risk of high cholesterol and heart disease. These are a group of unsaturated fats (good fats) called essential fatty acids. Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are so named because the body cannot make them from any other substance. You must get them in your diet. Two EFAs you may have heard about in the media lately are omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
One of the most popular reasons people are adding flaxseed to their diets is to lower blood cholesterol levels. This is particularly important for people living with HIV who are taking protease inhibitors (PI's) or experiencing central fat accumulation associated with lipodystrophy syndrome. These conditions can greatly increase the risk of elevated blood cholesterol and, therefore, heart disease.
The good news is that recent clinical studies have shown that people who ingest flaxseed daily show significant reductions in total cholesterol, LDL (the bad cholesterol), and even triglycerides. It has been suggested that some people may see improvement simply from the addition of flaxseed alone even if their diet remains the same otherwise! This is partially attributable to the high levels of alpha linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid found in high concentrations in flaxseed. ALA has also been shown to have beneficial effects in protecting against coronary heart disease and stroke, prevention of fatal arrhythmias, and prevention of hypertension (high blood pressure).
Although the relationship between flaxseed and the immune system is not fully understood, several observations have been made that show promise for flaxseed as an immune regulator. First, ALA alters the composition of membrane phospholipids, which influence the production of eicosanoids and cytokines. It inhibits the production of tumor necrosis factor (TNF) and interleukin-1 (IL-1), two cytokines that contribute to inflammation associated with autoimmune disorders. Thus, it is thought that flaxseed may play a beneficial role in management of autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). As of yet, there is no research on how flaxseed might affect HIV specifically.
The presence of ALA and lignans (a type of fiber found in flaxseed) may also reduce the risk of developing certain types of cancer. Research suggests that it might be the most beneficial in preventing hormone-sensitive cancers such as breast, endometrium, and prostate. Flaxseed also contains soluble and insoluble fibers that can prevent diarrhea and constipation (good news for those on HAART), help regulate blood sugars, lower cholesterol, and aid in the prevention of colon cancer.
In Part II of this article (to be published in the April issue of Survival News) we will discuss how flaxseed may be easily incorporated into the diet, give tips and additional recipes for its use, and provide some sources from which whole or milled flaxseed and flaxseed oil may be purchased.
Flax Oatmeal Cookies1 cup margarine or butter
1 cup sugar
1 cup brown sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup oatmeal
1/2 cup milled flaxseed
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 1/2 cups almonds, chopped
2 cups chocolate chips (optional)
Cream margarine or butter and sugars until light and fluffy. Add eggs and vanilla and beat well. Mix together flour, oatmeal, milled flaxseed, salt, baking powder, and baking soda. Stir into creamed mixture. Add almonds and chocolate chips (if desired). Mix until blended. Form into 1 inch balls. Place on an ungreased cookie sheet, leaving about 2 inches between cookies. Bake at 350 degrees F for about 10 minutes.