Sprinkling a little ground flaxseed on your cereal every day may help protect you against high blood pressure that could lead to a brain-damaging stroke, according to recent research. This finding adds to a number of other brain benefits ascribed to the tiny golden seed.
In a study designed to assess the cardiovascular effects of flaxseed on patients with peripheral arterial disease (PAD) and hypertension (high blood pressure). daily flaxseed consumption was linked to “the largest decrease in blood pressure ever shown by any dietary intervention,” according to a report presented at the American Heart Association Scientific Sessions on Nov. 5, 2012. The effects of a daily diet containing flaxseed was comparable to the effects of antihypertensive drugs and lifestyle changes such as low-salt diets and weight loss,, the researchers said.
“Flaxseed is a rich source of the plant-based omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA),” explains David Mischoulon, MD, Director of Research and Alternative Remedy Studies at MGH’s Depression Clinical and Research Program. “Omega-3s are thought to reduce the danger of clot formation and stroke, suppress inflammation, boost immune function, and stabilize the cell membranes of neurons. This study suggests that ALA, possibly in combination with other compounds contained in flaxseed, may make the seed especially effective at lowering blood pressure levels.”
Half of the 110 study participants received 30 grams of milled flaxseed each day incorporated into baked goods; the other half received placebo. After six months, systolic blood pressure levels in hypertensive participants in the flaxseed group had dropped about 10 mm Hg, and diastolic blood pressure had decreased about 7 mm Hg, without major side effects. The blood pressure changes could be predicted to result in a 50 percent decrease in the incidence of strokes and a 30 percent decrease in the incidence of heart attack, the researchers said. In contrast, hypertensive participants in the placebo group experienced a slight rise in blood pressure. The study authors credited the combined, synergistic effects of ALA, fiber and lignans, (compounds with plant estrogen and antioxidant properties) contained in the flaxseed for its powerful antihypertensive action.
People with high blood pressure may want to discuss with their medical care providers the benefits of adding the seeds to their diet, Dr. Mischoulon says, “But even people who do not have hypertension should consider including flaxseed in their diets, since the seeds are an especially good source of plant-based omega-3s. Other, less potent, sources of ALA include pumpkin and mustard seeds, tofu and other forms of soy beans, nuts, walnut and canola oil, fortified eggs, lean meat from grass-fed animals, and green vegetables.”
Knowledge of how to buy, store and prepare flaxseed is necessary to get maximum benefit from the seed. Most experts recommend consuming the actual seeds, with their combination of healthful components, rather than flaxseed oil alone.
Ground or milled seeds are preferable to whole seeds, which may pass through the body undigested. However, because ground flaxseed tends to oxidize and lose nutritional potency over time, it is best to buy flaxseed whole and grind it in small quantities in a coffee grinder. Ground flaxseed should be stored in the freezer. Whole flaxseed can be stored in a cool, dark place for up to a year without losing its potency.
One to two tablespoons of ground flaxseed a day is considered optimal. Since flaxseed is very high in fiber, be sure to drink plenty of fluids. Try the recipe in the What You Can Do section on this page, or experiment with the following suggestions for incorporating flaxseed into your diet:
• Add 1 tbsp. of flaxseed to yogurt, fruit smoothies, cereals, and drinks such as chocolate milk or orange juice.
• Mix it into batters for pancakes, waffles, muffins, buns, breads, cookies, and similar baked goods before cooking. (Replace about ¼ to 1/2 cup flour with ground flaxseed in recipes calling for two or more cups of flour, and add slightly more liquid.)
• Sprinkle it over salads, or mix into vegetable dips.
• Mix 1 tsp. of flaxseed into mustard or mayonnaise to use on sandwiches.
• Add to peanut butter for a healthy sandwich spread.
• Add 2 to 4 tsps. to four servings of dark, saucy dishes such as enchiladas, beef stew, chili or meatballs.