Flaxseed Oil

This entry was posted on Dec 22 2009


Greetings, and thanks for all your various notes and support for this newsletter and ‘soap-boxing’ I’m about to do.  There were too many letters to personally reply to right now, but please know I appreciate the remembrances and staying connected…

There was a fairly overwhelming, eyebrow-raising response to the comment about flaxseed oil.

“Did you know that taking flaxseed oil is actually harmful to your health and one of the biggest mistakes being made by doctors, health advisors, and nutritionists?”

I was intending to write first about memory, issues with learning, and brain function, but we’ll dive into the flax issue first off.  We should all be aware of the socialization of the delivery of information and education regarding Health foods and products. Even though the science comes first, it is the Health food industry that promotes, popularizes, and presents the latest products to us. Think of canola oil, or sweeteners – artificial or natural – for example.  Also, much of the information about the latest supplement or super-food is based on a ‘stand-alone’ kind of presentation, without regard for the rest of the ‘lifestyle’ related environment of our bodies, such as the way we eat, or the inherent imbalances of our systems. As a result, many of the ‘claimed’ Health benefits may be inappropriate or insignificant on an individual basis.  That being said, the following is my brief ‘rant’ on the humble flax seed…

Flaxseed oil is one of the more unstable essential fatty-acid oils we can take. It must be refrigerated, turns rancid effortlessly, and is easily oxidized into harmful products in the body. Thus, it is, was, necessary to use only the best quality of flaxseed oil.

Why do we take it? It is because flaxseed oil contains a very high percentage (60%) of the fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid, which the body uses to produce EPA, an essential fatty acid that is used to make the series (1 & 3) of prostaglandins that fight inflammation.  This all started when research on the prostaglandin pathways was published in the 1980’s.

Inflammation is not a good thing. We don’t easily die of it, but it is implicated with quite a laundry list of Health issues that are costly to our Health and Well-Being. For example: hair loss, hair thinning, alopecia, cancer, diabetes, depression, heart disease, arthritis, stroke, Alzheimer’s, etc. Chronic inflammation is usually asymptomatic except when the byproducts oxidize and interrupt the chemical pathways that make energy in our cells and body. We then feel tired, fatigued, and our immune system doesn’t work so well. (Anti-inflammatory diets are intrinsic to a Healthy lifestyle!)

Without going into too boring (and confusing) detail about these essential fatty acids, this is the lowdown: the BIG IDEA behind taking flaxseed oil and essential fatty acids is to get nutrients called EPA, DHA, and GLA from omega-6 and omega-3 oils.[1] This is vital for Healthy immune systems, metabolism, and brain functions.

There are three reasons why flaxseed oil is not good.

1.  Our bodies make EPA from the alpha-linolenic acid of flax oil very inefficiently. Only 5% is converted to EPA! The rest is metabolized in the liver or incorporated into different forms of cholesterol and into the cell membranes (made of phospho-lipids) of tissues and arteries, making them a high risk for free-radical oxidation damage.[2]

2.  This one is big!  In order to get the beneficial EPA, DHA, and GLA from flax oil, we must have an enzyme called delta-6 desaturase (D6D).  This enzyme is essential for turning the alpha-linolenic acid from flaxseed oil into the EPA we need.  It also converts the linoleic acid from flaxseed oil into the GLA we want.  Guess what? Recent research is showing that many people are deficient in D6D from birth!

Only young, Healthy people have enough of this enzyme to sufficiently make the EPA needed from alpha-linolenic acid. D6D is fragile, and shown to be blocked by stress, high amounts of saturated fats (and trans fats), alcohol, smoking, high levels of omega-6 fatty acids from vegetable oils and fried foods, and high levels of insulin (as in surges produced from the proverbial sweet-tooth).

D6D is less available as we age, and the genetic mutation that predisposes one to Type-2 diabetes is a change in the one chromosome that makes it possible to make D6D!

3.  Thirdly, if it’s the case that we lack the D6D mentioned above – and most likely it is – then the linoleic Acid (the other main essential fatty acid) we get in the flaxseed and other omega-6 oils is unable to be converted to GLA. This is not good since the ‘unconverted oils then favor a pathway that produces higher amounts of Arachidonic Acid, which is the main ‘feed’ into making pro-inflammatory prostaglandins (series 2).  In short, it increases inflammation in the body.

Well, if that was confusing, then here is the ultra-simplified version:

  1. EPA from flaxseed oil is made inefficiently in our bodies. The unconverted fatty acids become incorporated in cell and arterial membranes, making them vulnerable to oxidative damage.
  2. Only young, Healthy people have the necessary enzyme to make EPA and GLA from flaxseed oil.
  3. Flaxseed oil, therefore, promotes pro-inflammatory states.

Wise Health and dietary choices are aimed at reducing inflammation and pro-inflammatory products and foods ingested in our bodies. Therefore, if flaxseed oil is shown to be indirectly (from a lack of the D6D enzyme) responsible for pro-inflammatory states and all the implicated nasty things listed above, and if it gets into the membranes of cells and makes them susceptible to oxidation – thereby impairing necessary exchanges into and out of tissues – then why take it?

A better approach is to get the EPA, GLA, and DHA we need by ‘bypassing’ the missing D6D enzyme and avoiding inundation from the unstable unsaturated fatty acids in flaxseed oil (Saving our precious cells from oxidation and pro-inflammatory states).

Fish oils give us EPA and DHA without needing to be converted by D6D. Borage oil gives us GLA directly without using D6D.  So the answer is simply to add them into your diet; avoid flaxseed oil and favor essential fatty-acid oils like Borage, Hemp oil, Evening Primrose, or a blend of these and fish oils.  For vegans there is good news: a new sea algae-based source of DHA is now available (although expensive) that has the highest known ratio of DHA to EPA. (More on this in the upcoming Brain & Memory newsletter.)

A general guideline for getting quality oils in the diet:  adults should get at least three Tablespoons of high quality (expeller pressed, unrefined) oil from olive, avocado, and coconut oil. For non-vegetarians, fish oil should be included. Coconut oil is a saturated fat, as opposed to the less stable unsaturated oils mentioned above. We need saturated fats in the diet (such as raw, organic butter in small amounts). The problem with many of the ‘designer’ oils on the shelves today is that they easily become rancid and damage the body in the ways mentioned above.  Ideally add oils to food after cooking (cook with coconut oil as it does not become rancid when heated).

This information is intended to inform and help us make better choices in our pursuit of Health and Well-being.  When we have awareness and knowledge, it is often easier to be empowered to make these choices.  These ‘blurbs’ will be covering various topics toward this end.  Please feel free to respond, comment, or rebut, and discussions may grow.

In Health, Well-Being, Peace, and Love,

Robert B. Norett, D.C.

[1] For optimum health, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids should be between 1:1 and 4:1. The typical North American and Israeli diets are usually in the range of 11:1 to 30:1. This imbalance contributes to the development of long-term diseases such as heart disease, cancer, asthma, arthritis, and depression as well as, possibly, increased risk of infection.

[2] Some internally generated sources of free radicals are mitochondria, phagocytes, xanthine oxidase, reactions involving iron and other transition metals, arachidonate pathways, peroxisomes, exercise, inflammation, and ischemia.  Some externally generated sources of free radicals are cigarette smoke, environmental pollutants, radiation, ultraviolet light, certain drugs, pesticides, anaesthetics, industrial solvents, and ozone.



In response to several comments on the above:

The use of Flaxseed oil mixed with cottage cheese – ala Budwig – is commonly used as part of a protocol, originally for cancer treatment, along with other dietary protocols.  Dr. Budwig used the flaxseed oil and ground flaxseeds in a mixture of ‘quark’, a thick fermented dairy product, that we here in the US substitute cottage cheese for. The idea is to make the flaxseed oil easily absorbable by becoming water- soluble combined with the protein in the dairy.

I don’t believe that Dr. Budwig was concerned with the EPA, DHA, GLA side of the essential fatty acids usage. She was interested in restoring the polarity and functional integrity of cell membranes by using electron rich fatty acids like in flaxseed oil. It was part of her concept of dysfunctions and diseases (like cancer), being formed in correspondence with poor membrane function due to poor fats and commercially processed foods. The oil and cottage cheese apparently also had a positive effect on reducing tumors.

I would not worry about using the flaxseed oil too much with her protocols, because the rest of the diet of organic fruits and vegetables left one without offending factors to oxidize the membranes or promote inflammatory pathways (a true anti-inflammatory diet).  The D6D issues are still valid however, and I personally would substitute hempseed, or borage oils instead of the flaxseed oil. As far as I can research on this, there is nothing special about the flaxseed oil that would not be in the hempseed or borage seed oils.

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