Scientific name: Linum usitatissimum
Part used: Seeds
Common names: Flaxseed, Linseed
Flaxseed oil has one of the highest plant sources of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids and lignans, which are essential for healthy skin and hair which is why we use it in our award-winning multi-purpose oil here in Modern Botany.
Flax products have been used by humans for tens of thousands of years. In 2009, 30,000 years old flax fibres were found in a Georgia cave, suggesting that prehistoric man was using it for its fibres long before it was widely used as a medicinal and food source1. Flax was one of the first plants to be cultivated, and there is evidence of domestication from about 5,000 years ago in the fertile crescent area of Iraq and Syria. The Greeks used it to make sails for their boats, the Egyptians wrapped their mummies in it and it is said the body of Christ was entombed in it. Hippocrates recommended flax for inflammation of the mucous membranes2. In the 1st century ad, Pliny the Elder described the process of collecting flax seed which involved leaning the stalks to the centre and collecting the seeds as they dried and fell to the ground 3,4. In the 8th Century, King Charlemagne so believed in the health benefits of flax, that he passed laws to demand his subjects ate it2. In Ireland, Flax was traditionally grown for fibre for the linen industry.
Linum usitatissimum translates as “very useful” in Latin2, which is likely a reference to the fact that all parts of the plants can be utilized.
Flax is a member of the Linaceae family and is now grown throughout the world including Canada, China, United States, India, Europe, Russia and Ethiopia. Flax is an annual plant which can grow to up to 1.2m and can spread up to 60cm. The flower is a beautiful shade of sky blue. The stem is smooth and the leaves are linear and alternate. The seeds are flat and oval with a pointed tip. Flax is bee-pollinated. Flax grows well in deep moist soil and flourishes in Ireland 4, 5.
Traditional Medicinal Uses:
Flax medicinal use has been documented since ancient time. The seed or its oil have a long history of medical use as a laxative and an expectorant. It also has analgesic properties 6.
The Greek physician Dioscorides mentioned it in his Materia medica and said that when taken with honey, oil and water it would soften and dispel every internal tumour or swelling. It would clean the breasts, relieve cough and was used to help defaecation 6.
In Ayurvedic medicine, flax is said to balance the skin pH, to improve elasticity and strength, improve moisture retention and remove blemishes and dryness2.
Various physicians in the 17th century, eg. Tabernaemontanus (1625) and Matthiolus (1626), documented it’s use and indicated it for consumption the common cold. It was also indicated for tumours, constipation and intestinal issues. In 1927, Culbreth recommended linseed tea for inflammation of mucous membranes and a 5% decoction as an enema. A poultice made from boiled seeds was also recommended for swellings and boils 6.
The Chinese pharmacopeia indicated the use of flax for constipation, dryness and itching of the skin and loss of hair 6.
Flax medicinal properties are primarily based on its seed. Flaxseed is a rich source of plant lignans which give it hormonal activity (1,3). It is emollient (skin soothing) and anti-inflammatory (1), antioxidant, anti-carcinogenic (1,2) and cholesterol lowering (1). It is laxative, anti-diarrhoeal and anti-spasmodic. It is also good for developing brain function (5).
(1) Consumption of flax in the diet was shown to increase the body’s levels of healthy fatty acids (α -linolenic acid and enterolactone) 7.
(2) Flaxseed oil has valuable bioactive molecules with immunosuppressive and anti-cancer properties 8.
(3) Women with a high phytoestrogen intake have a lower risk of breast cancer 9.
(4) Flax supports and develops brain function by increasing levels of DHA in the brain and nervous system 10.
Flaxseed and flaxseed oil contain 30-45% unsaturated fatty acids, including α-linolenic (Omega-3), linoleic (Omega-6), and oleic acids (Omega-9). It also contains 3-5% soluble fibre mucilage and 25% protein 11.
Omega3 C18H30O2 Omega6 C18H32O2 Omega 9 C18H34O2
Medical use - Herbal medicine:
The European medicines agency indicates flaxseed as a bulk forming agent for treatment of constipation 12 and it has listed in the German commission E monograph for constipation, irritable colon, diverticulitis, and as a mucilage for gastritis and enteritis. Externally, it is indicated for local inflammation 13.
Flaxseed is a great source of oleic acid and linoleic acid, for anti-aging and smoothing of wrinkles. The Cosmetic Regulation of the European Union has approved Linum usitassimum for cosmetics and personal care products. It functions as a skin-conditioning, cleansing, emollient and perfuming agent 14.
It is also a popular carrier oil for use with essential oils.
Flax is used in a variety of products and may be found whole, milled, golden, sprouted, fermented, defatted and as a functional food 8. In recent years, there have been numerous nutraceutical products developed which have purported to decrease inflammation, balance hormones and manage weight.
Flax is increasingly being used in baked goods and defatted flaxseed meal may be used as a gluten replacement for people who need to follow a gluten-free diet 8.
Herbal medicine for animals is a growing market and animals, like humans, need essential fatty acids for development and maintenance. Essential fatty acids can be given to animals in the form of a flax supplement or added to feed in the form of ground seeds or oil 15.
The oil is used in the making of linoleum and linseed oil has traditionally been used in varnishes.
Flax fibre is still used to make traditional Irish linen.
Contaminants & adulterants:
Flax should be grown on weed-free fields. It does not have many registered weed control options and weed seed is a common contaminant 8.
Flax was shown to have anti-inflammatory and wound-healing benefits in two 2015 studies 16, 17.
Flax has proven effective against diarrhoea causing pathogens 18.
Flaxseed is not advised during pregnancy or lactation because its hormonal effects may cause teratogenicity or spontaneous abortion if in concentrated form. Patients with prostate cancer should also avoid. The immature seedpods are poisonous and all parts of the plant contain cyanogenic nitrates and glucosides, particularly linamarin 11.
Summary / Conclusion
Flax is one of the oldest and most useful of crops. Flaxseed is the most abundant source of plant lignans, which have antioxidant activity in humans. The seed and the oil contain between 30 and 45% of beneficial unsaturated fatty acids which has led to the oil being the primary commercial product over the past few decades 8. However, in the past two decades, consumer awareness of the importance of omega-3-fatty acids, lignans and dietary fibre has led to a diverse range of products being developed by food and nutraceutical companies to address this growing market demand and a considerable number of patents have been filed globally in relation to food, animal feed, nutraceutical and pharmaceutical products containing flax.
European imports of flaxseed have been increasing over the past few years and in 2015, Europe imported 912,000 tons (€458 million). Canada had been the largest importer, but the discovery of GMO seed in 2009 imports resulted in a major decline, which was then filled by Russia and Kazakhstan. Demand for linseed in Europe is increasing while at the same time production is decreasing. The market for organic linseed is currently in short supply (Germany imports 95% of its organic linseed), and organic linseed products are being sold at a 40% premium 19.
Increasing demand in Europe, especially for organic produce, presents an ideal opportunity for Irish growers.
(1) Kvavadze, E. et al. "30,000-Year-Old Wild Flax Fibers". Science 325.5946 (2009): 1359-1359.
(2) Goyal, A., Sharma, V., Upadhyay, N., Gill, S. and Sihag, M. (2014). Flax and flaxseed oil: an ancient medicine & modern functional food. Journal of Food Science and Technology, 51(9), pp.1633-1653.
(3) Barber, E. J. W. Prehistoric Textiles. 1st ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992. Print.
(4) Breverton, T. and Culpeper, N. (2011). Breverton's complete herbal. 1st ed. Guilford, Conn.: Lyons Press
(5) Grieve, M., (1931). A Modern Herbal. [Online] Available at: http://botanical.com [Accessed 15 05 2]
(6) European Medicines Agency (EMA) (2015). Committee on Herbal Medicinal Products (HMPC). Assessment report on Linum usitatissimum L., semen. London, UK.
(7) Tarpila, S., Aro, A., Salminen, I., Tarpila, A., Kleemola, P., Akkila, J. and Adlercreutz, H. (2002). The effect of flaxseed supplementation in processed foods on serum fatty acids and enterolactone. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 56(2), pp.157-165.
(8) Shim, Youn Young et al. "Flaxseed (Linum Usitatissimum L.) Oil Processing And Selected Products". Trends in Food Science & Technology 43.2 (2015): 162-177.
(9) Ingram D, Sanders K, Kolybaba M, et al. 1997. Case-control study of phyto-estrogens and breast cancer. Lancet 1997;350(9083):990–4.
(10) Simopoulos A (1991). Omega-3 fatty acids in health and disease and in growth and development. Am J Clin Nutr 1991;54:438–63.
(11) Fetrow, Charles H., and Avila, Juan R. Professional's Handbook of Complementary & Alternative Medicines (3). Philadelphia, US: Wolters Kluwer Health, 2003.
(12) European Medicines Agency (EMA) (2015). Committee on Herbal Medicinal Products (HMPC). European Union herbal monograph on Linum usitatissimum L., semen. London, UK.
(13) Blumenthal M, Goldberg A, Brinckmann J (eds.). Herbal Medicine – Expanded Commission E Monographs. Newton, MA: Integrative Medicine Communications; 2000;201–4.
(14) Ec.europa.eu. (n.d.). CosIng - Cosmetics - GROWTH - European Commission. [online] Available at: http://ec.europa.eu/growth/toolsdatabases/cosing/index.cfm
(15) Bauman H., (2016). Flax for Fido and Seaweed for Spot: The Growing Market for Herbal Pet Care in the United States. American Botanical Council. Issue: 109 Page: 65-68
(16) Styrczewska, M., Kostyn, A., Kulma, A., Majkowska-Skrobek, G., Augustyniak, D., Prescha, A., Czuj, T. and Szopa, J. (2015). Flax Fiber Hydrophobic Extract Inhibits Human Skin Cells Inflammation and Causes Remodeling of Extracellular Matrix and Wound Closure Activation. BioMed Research International, 2015, pp.1-15.
(17) Draganescu, D., Ibanescu, C., Tamba, B., Andritoiu, C., Dodi, G. and Popa, M. (2015). Flaxseed lignan wound healing formulation: Characterization and in vivo therapeutic evaluation. International Journal of Biological Macromolecules, 72, pp.614-623.
(18) Palla, A., Khan, N., Bashir, S., ur-Rehman, N., Iqbal, J. and Gilani, A. (2015). Pharmacological basis for the medicinal use of Linum usitatissimum (Flaxseed) in infectious and non-infectious diarrhea. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 160, pp.61-68.
(19) Cbi.eu (2016). CBI Product Factsheet: Linseeds in Europe. [online] Available at: https://www.cbi.eu/sites/default/files/market_information/researches/2016_oilseeds_factsheet_linseeds_in_europe_-_final.pdf