The Facts on Flax – by Bruce Fife

By Bruce Fife, N.D.

exerpted from the book “Saturated Fats May Save Your Life”


Studies have shown that people who eat as little as one fish meal a week can reduce their risk of dying from cardiac arrest by fifty percent.1 Fish is without question the best source for omega-3 fatty acids, because it supplies EPA, the direct precursor to PGE3, the compound that initiates protective mechanisms against heart attack. Fish oil supplements are believed to provide the same degree of protection as eating seafood, but many nutritionists do not recommend oil from fish liver because of the possibility of contamination.

Many people nowadays are avoiding all types of meat and meat by-products, including fish. These people prefer a vegetable source for omega-3 fatty acids. Alpha-linolenic acid, which the body can convert into EPA, is found to some degree in many plants. Flaxseed contains the highest percentage of alpha-linolenic acid (57%) of any commercially grown plant. Because of its high alpha-linolenic acid content, flaxseed oil has become the leading supplemental source for this essential fatty acid.

Over the past several years we have witnessed a flaxseed revolution. A few years ago no one ever heard of flaxseed, nowadays it’s considered a new super nutrient. It’s been hailed as a panacea for many ills. No respectable health food store would be caught dead without a half dozen assorted varieties available for sale.

Both good and bad can be said about alpha-linolenic acid and flaxseed oil in general. Unfortunately, the bad is ignored in preference to promoting only the good. This has created the misconception that flaxseed oil provides great benefits with little risks. In reality, there are many risks.

Studies suggest that alpha-linolenic acid may be useful in treating numerous conditions. The most notable being: cancer, arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome, hypertension (high blood pressure), heart disease, thrombosis, dermatitis, lupus nephritis, and in lowering total cholesterol. If it can do all this, isn’t that proof that flaxseed is a useful dietary supplement? It can appear that way, but if you understand how flaxseed oil works, you would consider it a dangerous drug to be used with extreme caution just as you would other powerful drugs, rather than look at it as a harmless dietary supplement.

The best thing that can be said about alpha-linolenic acid is that it has a neutralizing or balancing effect against the overconsumption of linoleic acid found in vegetable oils. Since vegetable oil consumption can lead to numerous health problems, alpha-linolenic acid can be useful in reversing or preventing these problems. The reason why flaxseed oil has been shown to be useful for so many health problems is because vegetable oils cause so many. Flaxseed can counterbalance these effects. In so doing, however, the body must suffer the ravages of internal warfare.

So in one respect, flaxseed oil can be very useful. But as a consequence, the body must suffer with side effects that can be every bit as destructive as a prescription drug. In most cases, alpha-linolenic acid supplementation is unnecessary because there are other ways to bring the essential fatty ac­ids in our bodies into balance without causing further harm.

Since alpha-linolenic acid is extracted from flaxseed, it is considered a “natural” substance and, therefore, regu­lated as a dietary supplement. Supplements, for the most part, are relatively harmless. But because flaxseed oil is readily available to anyone, and because it is recommended for the treatment of just about every ailment from stomach ulcers to kidney disease, it is easy to take too much, and instead of suffering from an excess of omega-6, like most everyone else, you may suffer from an excess of omega-3. The effects can be just as bad, if not worse.


Heart Disease

There is a great deal of evidence on flaxseed oil which suggest that it isn’t the best thing to be eating in its concentrated, refined state.

Alpha-linolenic acid from flaxseed affects the liver’s ability to process certain nutrients. For example, it inhibits the production of enzymes necessary to synthesize cholesterol. Some people may consider this a positive effect because it lowers the body’s total cholesterol level. Others question any substance that stifles the body’s normal metabolic processes. Cholesterol which is formed in the liver is not the same as the cholesterol that clogs the arteries. So inhibiting the liver’s production of cholesterol does not affect cardiovascular health. The cholesterol that contributes to plaque in the arteries is oxidized cholesterol. Non-oxidized cholesterol does not clog arteries, but is used in cell membranes, nerve tissue, and as part of the brain, and therefore is an important and necessary component of our bodies.

Our intestines absorb fats from the foods we eat and package them together into small bundles called lipoproteins. Lipoproteins are then released into the bloodstream and transported throughout the body. As they are carried through the circulatory system, fat is dispersed and picked up by our cells.

Polyunsaturated oils, including flaxseed oil, are easily oxidized. When it oxidizes it kicks off a series of free-radical chain reactions that affects all molecules around it. Millions of molecules can be destroyed or oxidized by the generation of a single free radical. Cholesterol that is in close proximity to a polyunsaturated oil that is becoming oxidized, as is the case in lipoproteins, will also become oxidized. These oxidized, free-radical damaged oils are absorbed into the lining of the artery walls and contribute to the formation of plaque. Non-oxidized fats are incorporated into the cells as they should be, and do not end up as plaque deposits. Here is the warning: even though alpha-linolenic acid may lower total cholesterol, it actually contributes to atherosclerosis and all forms of cardiovascular disease. It does this by causing the oxidization of cholesterol and other fats, both of which are components to arterial plaque.2

All polyunsaturated oils provide a source of free radicals which can damage arterial walls which initiates the plaque-building process. PGE2 derived from vegetable oils constricts blood vessels and increases platelet stickiness, which raises blood pressure and causes further damage to arterial walls. When injury occurs to the artery in this type of environment, oxidized fat is attracted to and incorporated into the injury site. Because platelets become sticky, blood clots easily form on injured artery walls. These clots can grow big enough to block an artery or break off and float down and lodge into a smaller artery. When an artery is clogged, cells are deprived of much needed oxygen, causing tissue death. In the heart it can cause a heart attack; in the brain it can cause a stroke. Studies show that lipid per­oxides (oxidized vegetable oils) are associated with coronary heart disease, caused by enhanced free-radical formation.3

It is interesting to note that the countries that consume the most vegetable oils are also the ones that have the highest death rate from heart attack and stroke.

The effects of free-radical damage and plaque build-up are partially offset by the fact that PGE3 from the alpha-linolenic acid in flaxseed oil makes platelets in the blood less sticky and diminishes vasoconstriction (widens artery passageways), so positive results could be deducted. The stickiness of the blood and widening of the artery passageways are temporary benefits that occur only as long as PGE3 is in the blood. PGE3 has a short life so must be replenished continually to retain benefits. Plaque, on the other hand, represents long-term damage that won’t just go away once the cause has been removed. In brief, what I’m saying here is that flaxseed oil can have short-term benefits, but because it is highly susceptible to free-radical generation, in the long run it can actually contribute to cardiovascular disease. It’s ironic that a substance recommended to help prevent heart disease can actually contribute to it!

This may be difficult for some people to believe because many people who are at high risk of having a heart attack have been able to reduce their symptoms (such as lower blood cholesterol and blood pressure) after taking flaxseed oil. One well-known nutritionist (name of this person, with whom I am personally acquainted, is not included so as to protect privacy) who promoted the use and benefits of omega-3 fatty acids as healthy for the cardiovascular system and even wrote a popular book about it, suffered a heart attack himself. He was considered an expert on the health benefits of flaxseed oil. He ate very little meat, avoided saturated fat like the plague, and faith­fully took flaxseed oil supplements every day for many years. But it didn’t work. Flaxseed oil helped to keep his cholesterol level and blood pressure within normal ranges, but he still developed cardiovascular disease and suffered a heart attack. The flaxseed oil only masked the symptoms it did not prevent the disease. It is interesting to note that he ate a heart-healthy diet full of fresh fruits and vegetables and low in animal fats. But he continued to supplement his diet with vegetable oils, particularly flaxseed oil. If it didn’t protect him, how can we expect it to help us?

Keep in mind that I am referring primarily to oxidized flaxseed oil, the type that is usually sold as a dietary supplement and not fresh oil. Some brands of flaxseed oil are preserved with natural antioxidants such as vitamin E which will prolong their shelf life. But even they will oxidize if too old or not stored or handled properly.

The oil industry tries to downplay the danger of free-radical damage that can be caused by flaxseed and other polyunsaturated oils. They admit that oxidation of their products poses a potential problem, but stress the benefits outweigh the risks. They have done a great deal of research and have accumulated a long list of health conditions for which flaxseed and other oils have shown to be of benefit. Many of these degenerative conditions, as you have seen, are a re­sult of too much linoleic acid from vegetable oils rather than from a deficiency in alpha-linolenic acid. Just simply reducing the intake of vegetable oils is all that is needed to re-establish the body’s balance.

A Safe and Natural Product?

One of the loudest claims we hear for the use of flax-seed oil is for its cancer-fighting ability. Cancer is the second leading cause of death in Western countries. If alpha-linolenic acid from flaxseed oil can prevent or cure cancer it would be a very valuable remedy. Many studies have been undertaken which show alpha-linolenic acid has potent anticancer properties. There is no question in this regard, the studies are clear. Because alpha-linolenic acid comes from flaxseed oil, which is considered a “natural” product, the health food industry and natural health care practitioners have embraced it as a miracle worker

There are some problems, however. Flaxseed oil can hardly be classified as a “natural” product. It is highly processed and refined, making it no more natural than white sugar (or even aspirin which originally came from the bark of the white willow tree). Many of the synergistic elements of the whole plant are removed to obtain a pure oil, just as all the phytochemicals, vitamins, and minerals are removed from sugar beets to make sugar (or the willow plant to refine aspirin, although nowadays aspirin is synthetically manufactured). The oil resembles a drug more than a food. Depending on your viewpoint of medicine, this isn’t necessarily bad, but it certainly can’t be considered natural.

I classify flaxseed oil as a drug, because that is how it works against cancer. Most people who hear that flaxseed oil has anticancer properties assume it to be a safe natural product without harmful side effects that will protect them from cancer. Many start taking it regularly just as a precaution. What they don’t know, and what the oil industry doesn’t publicize, is that the anticancer properties of flax-seed oil are a result of free-radical damage to cancerous tissues and not to any healthful properties of the oil itself!

Flaxseed oil and other polyunsaturated oils create so many destructive free radicals in the body that they can actually kill cancer cells.4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11

The theory behind this process is that cancer cells are diseased and, therefore, weakened. Free-radical reactions will further weaken and kill these cells. Although free radicals affect the entire body, including healthy cells, the weakest cells will die off first. This is the same type of process that happens in chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy drugs are highly toxic and affect the entire body. The cancer cells, being abnormal, are less capable of resisting these drugs, are the first to die. The entire body is poisoned in the process, but normal cells are better able to withstand and recover from the drugs. Flax-seed oil is used in exactly the same manner and is, therefore, no different than chemotherapy drugs.

The most obvious drawback to chemotherapy are the side effects. While chemotherapy drugs attack the entire body, the strongest effects take place where cells grow the fastest such as the bone marrow, the intestinal lining, the hair follicles, and the mouth, sometimes causing a variety of severe side effects. The side effects from flaxseed therapy can be just as damaging. This is not a harmless nor a natural remedy for cancer.

The effects of free-radical damage from flaxseed oil are not immediately evident. Your hair doesn’t fall out after a couple of months of treatment like it might with che­motherapy. The damage caused by free radicals may not surface for several years. By this time, the effects of degen­eration may be attributed to any number of factors and thus divert the blame away from the real cause.

Researchers know that it’s the free-radical chain reac­tions that kill the cancer because when antioxidants, such as vitamin E, are given at the same time, flaxseed oil has no anticancer effects. The vitamin E stops the oxidation of the oil within the body and thus prevents the formation of free radicals. Without free radicals roaming around inside the body tearing up the cells, the cancer remains unharmed.12,13

It’s interesting to note that vitamin E is also known to have anticancer properties. But it works in a totally different way, supporting the body’s natural healing mechanisms rather than poisoning it.14 Our cells naturally contain antioxidants to protect them against renegade free radicals, but if free-radical exposure is excessively high, as it can be when large amounts of vegetable oils are consumed, they will exhaust the cells antioxidant reserves and cause cellular damage.15

While polyunsaturated oils can be used to fight cancer, they have also been shown to cause it as well. Studies have shown that oils rich in linoleic acid (omega-6) promote the growth of cancer cells while fish oils can depress or stimulate tumor growth depending on the dose.16 Too many omega-6 derived prostaglandins (PGE2) encourage breast cancer.17,18

Free-Radical Cures

The concept of using free radicals from polyunsatu­rated oils to fight cancer has been applied to other pathologic conditions. Flaxseed oil has been used successfully to kill the microscopic parasites which cause malaria. It has been noted that individuals who have low antioxidant reserves, for one reason or another, are known to be more resistant to malaria. Exposure to substances that produce free radi­cals provides ammunition to attack and kill the parasites. While having an antioxidant deficiency is not desirable be­cause it allows free radicals to damage cells, it also allows those same free radicals to destroy troublesome microorgan­isms. In people who do not have an antioxidant deficiency, flaxseed oil can generate enough free radicals to overcome the body’s reserves and kill the parasites which cause malaria.19

Polyunsaturated fat-induced free radicals have also been shown to be toxic to other microorganisms. Researchers have shown it to inhibit the growth of Helicobactor py­lori bacteria which is credited with causing 90 percent of all stomach ulcers.20

Take a moment and consider this: if free radicals can kill rapidly growing cancer cells and microorganisms roaming around our bodies, what do they do to our own cells? It is assumed that normal cells are not affected by free radicals because they contain antioxidant bodyguards. But these reserves can be quickly depleted by repeated free-radical attack. It is assumed that cancer cells lack adequate antioxidant defenders and so are more susceptible to the destructive action of free radicals. The lack of antioxidants in diseased cells, however, may have been one of the reasons why cancer developed in the first place. Free radicals can interrupt the cell’s ability to function normally, causing it to become cancerous. This may be one reason why linoleic acid from vegetable oil promotes cancer (see references above). Flooding the body with more free radicals to treat any illness seems crazy. It may provide some help immediately, but in the long run it could cause serious physical degen­eration and illness.

Inflammatory Disease

Flaxseed oil has also been recommended as an aid in treating a variety of inflammatory diseases. Since PGE3, which is synthesized in the body from flaxseed oil, has an anti-inflammatory effect, it makes sense that it would also help reduce inflammation caused by inflammatory illnesses. Some of the inflammatory conditions that flaxseed oil has been recommended for include arthritis, allergies, psoriasis, chronic bronchitis, and colitis.

Inflammation in itself is not a disease; it is a natural and essential process in the body’s effort to fight disease and speed healing. The inflammatory process is an important part of our body’s system of healing itself. Normally, inflammation speeds healing.

Chronic inflammation is caused by a chronic health problem. Inflammation is the body’s healing response to that problem. Inflammation, however, promotes swelling and the build-up of pressure which increases pain. Reducing inflammation reduces the pain, but it also hampers the body’s ability to heal itself. Anti-inflammatory medications do nothing to heal the condition, they only lesson the pain. It’s nice to reduce pain, since most of us don’t like it, but in doing so you also reduce the body’s ability to heal itself. Also, since pain is removed there is a tendency to overuse the in­jured tissues causing further damage and encouraging more inflammation. More anti-inflammatory medications are needed and the cycle continues with the diseased or injured tissues getting worse and worse. The reason anti-inflammatory medications are used is because there isn’t anything else medically that can be done to relieve the symptoms. So it’s a catch-22 situation.

The production of PGE3 is only part of the reason why flaxseed oil reduces inflammation. A far stronger anti-inflammatory mechanism is actually at work here. The effectiveness of flaxseed in suppressing the body’s inflammatory response mechanism is related to the destructive action of free radicals.21,22

Yes, free radicals again. Much like its effect on cancer, free radicals attacking the cells will suppress the body’s ability to respond to injury and disease, thus reducing inflammation. Contrary to popular opinion, researchers have shown time and time again that flaxseed oil and other poly-unsaturated oils depress the immune system and hamper the body’s ability to heal.23,24,25,26,27

Flaxseed oil and other polyunsaturated oils (i.e., linoleic acid, gamma-linolenic acid, DGLA, AA, EPA, and DHA) suppress the production and activity of our white blood cells—the work force of our immune system. In fact, these oils can even kill them.28 These are the cells that attack and clean out invading microorganisms, cancer cells, toxins, and other harmful substances from our bodies. They are vital to our health and must be present in large enough numbers to repel attack from viruses and bacteria. When we get an infection, the body’s inflammatory response kicks in, stimulating the increased production of white blood cells to fight the invaders. The more white blood cells we have surging through our veins, the stronger will be our defense and the quicker our recovery. Vegetable oils, therefore, slow our recovery from both acute infectious illness as well as from chronic disease. Inflammation is reduced, not by PGE3, but primarily by this destructive action of free-radical stress on the immune system. It suppresses the body’s ability to heal itself and in so doing, inflammation response is reduced.

Depressed Immunity

Oil manufacturers and the health care providers who believe their propaganda claim that flaxseed oil and other polyunsaturated oils will stimulate the immune system. They may even be able to cite studies to prove their position. Sounds good, but it’s only partly true.

Polyunsaturated oils have both a stimulatory and depressive effect on the immune system. We never hear about the depressive effects—that doesn’t sell products. The stimulatory effects aren’t that wonderful either, and can be misrepresented as being beneficial. Let me explain.

Studies show (see references above) that essential fatty acids interfere with the normal production of certain substances produced by the white blood cells in the process of fighting an illness. It’s like a prankster turning the water hose off while firemen are spraying down a raging fire. These oils hamper the normal function of the white blood cells. In this respect they depress the immune system’s ability to function at the level for which it was designed.

At the same time these oils also act as a stimulant, the same as any toxin or disease-causing germ might. The body recognizes a harmful substance and is stimulated into feverish activity to protect itself. This is how polyunsaturated fatty acids “stimulate” our immune system. They are not strengthening the immune system, they are stressing it! Why would the white blood cells start producing substances to protect the body when they encounter polyunsaturated oil? Think about it. What causes the immune system to kick into high gear? It does so in response to a threat to health. When the body senses a threat from any toxic substance it signals the immune system into increased activity. To say flaxseed oil is good for you because it stimulates the immune system is like saying small pox and bubonic plague are good for you because they, too stimulate the immune system.

When we consume polyunsaturated oils, it is like eating a group of arsonists who run around our bodies lighting little fires (starting free-radical chain reactions). The fire department, or our immune system, is called into action to douse these potentially lethal fires. The firemen (the white blood cells) are stimulated into action, but if their hoses are turned off by free-radical pranksters, they are ineffective in accomplishing their mission.

To credit flaxseed oil for stimulating the immune system is like crediting arsonists for calling out the fire depart­ment and then sabotaging their water hoses. The overall ef­fect of eating any polyunsaturated oil is to burden and depress the immune system.

The immunosuppressive effects of vegetable oils have been known for many years. Ray Peat, Ph.D., explains that “Vegetable oil is recognized as a drug for knocking out the immune system.”29 At one time “vegetable oil emulsions were used to nourish cancer patients, but it was discovered that the unsaturated oils were suppressing their immune systems. The same products, in which vegetable oil is emulsi­fied with water for intravenous injection, are now marketed specifically for the purpose of suppressing immunity in pa­tients who have had organ transplants. Using the oils in foods has the same harmful effect on the immune system.”30 Unsaturated fats not only suppress the immune system but can even kill white blood cells.31

You have to be very careful when someone tells you some substance “stimulates” the immune system. Does it stimulate it like bubonic plague or small pox or does it support it like vitamin C? There is a world of difference. The first stimulates it into action to defend itself while the second does not “stimulate” it but strengthens it, making it work more effectively.

Vitamin E Deficiency

Another threat that can result from the overconsumption of flaxseed oil and as well as other polyunsaturated vegetable oils is vitamin E deficiency.32 Polyunsaturated oils, because they are extremely vulnerable to oxidation and free-radical formation, quickly devour our vitamin E reserves. Vitamin E acts as an antioxidant that stops free-radical chain reactions. In the process, vitamin E is consumed. The most obvious consequence of depleted vitamin E reserves is that we lose our most important bodyguard against free-radical destruction. Without sufficient vitamin E reserves, free-radical chain reactions and damage can wreak havoc on our bodies, allowing free-radical wrecking crews to roam through our bodies with little restraint. Since free radicals are involved in numerous degenerative conditions and accelerated aging, this can have a pronounced effect on overall health and put a heavy burden on the immune system.

When the body loses vitamin E, it causes the breakdown and destruction of red blood cells, producing anemia. People who are anemic may believe their condition is due to lack of iron when it is really caused by a lack of vitamin E resulting from the consumption of too much flaxseed or vegetable oil. Very few people are actually deficient in iron, especially nowadays with vitamins readily available and so many foods being fortified with this mineral.

Vitamin E is necessary for healthy nerves and muscles. A lack of the vitamin can cause degeneration and weakness which can make walking difficult, even causing severe pain in calf muscles and a loss of coordination.

Breast lumps and cancer can also result in the depletion of vitamin E reserves.33 The most common cause of breast lumps is fibrocystic breast disease. In recent decades, fibrocystic breast disease has become a very common affliction among women in Western countries. Although the majority of these tumorous masses are benign, as much as 20% may be malignant.

Some manufacturers add vitamin E to their oil supplements. They don’t do this to help you prevent deficiency necessarily, they do it to preserve the oil because they know it is oxidizing while it is sitting in the warehouse and on the store shelves. By the time you eat it, the vitamin E has been used up so it provides you no nutritive value from this vitamin.


True blue flaxseed fans will find the statements made in this chapter hard to accept because they have heard over and over again how good flaxseed is for us. Of course you hear this; it comes from the people selling the product and from people brainwashed by marketing propaganda. I didn’t make up these facts. The research has proven it. You never hear about the negative aspects of these oils because the dissemination of research information is done by the food and supplement industry. They are naturally biased in the mate­rial they publicize. Nobody is going to spend money publicizing negative information, because there is no profit in it. You can’t make money by not selling a product. So all you ever hear are the positive things. You hear flaxseed is good against cancer and inflammatory disease, but you never hear why it is. We just assume that because flaxseed is a so-called “natural” product, it must be good for us.

I must clarify one point. Flaxseed can be useful just as any drug can be for certain conditions. But like other drugs, it has serious side effects. The damage caused by vegetable oils works slowly so the effects may not manifest themselves for years. By that time the physical deterioration caused by free-radical damage will be credited to age, genetics, or some other cause. If you believe in using drugs, then go ahead and use flaxseed oil. If you want to avoid drugs and prefer to use natural, harmless, remedies, you don’t want flaxseed or any other polyunsaturated oil supplements. Flaxseed oil supplements can be useful like any other drug, but they are not natural and they are not harmless!

While I’ve focused on flaxseed oil in the above discussion, when I refer to vegetable oils I am referring to all vegetable oils, both those used in cooking and those sold as supplements. You hear a lot about evening primrose, black currant, and borage oils. These oils are predominantly composed of linoleic acid (omega-6) and affect the body in the same way as cooking oils do. Since most of us consume far too much linoleic acid as it is, taking this oil in supplemental form just compounds the problem. Like flaxseed oil, they generate free radicals, suppress the immune system, etc. Researchers have expressed caution in their use.34,35,36,37

If someone recommends that you take flaxseed oil, evening primrose oil, or any other oil supplement, ask them why? What will it do for you? They may say it lowers cholesterol, reduces inflammation, or whatever. Then ask them how it works? Ask them what is the mechanism that makes the oil do what it is supposed to do? Listen to their answer. Chances are, they don’t know. Most people, including health care practitioners, don’t have any idea how the oils work. They just take it on faith from what they have heard or read somewhere. Many health care practitioners get their information from marketing materials distributed by drug and supplement companies. Many authors who write health books and magazine articles get their knowledge from the same sources. These aren’t reliable resources! They’re advertisements and, therefore, very biased, and at times, misleading. After all, their purpose is not to educate, but to sell a product.

Will you take these oils to reduce inflammation even if you know free radicals are the primary reason they work and that they are destroying cells throughout your body at the same time? Will you take them to reduce cholesterol even though you know they inhibit normal liver function and may cause liver stress or even damage? That is the decision you must make. If you had a sliver in your finger, would you chop off your finger to prevent infection? No, there are simpler, safer methods of dealing with the problem.

The fact that omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids can be detrimental to your health goes contrary to most of the things you hear about these oils. Again, this is because the food and drug industry has brainwashed us into believing this.

In writing this book I’ve avoided company propaganda and gathered all my facts directly from scientific and medical journals and from first-hand observation and clinical studies. This book was written to awaken the public to the plain facts on oils and health.


Despite the health hazards of flaxseed oil, there may be incidences where it can be useful for a limited amount of time under the supervision of a knowledgeable health care professional. For example, if your blood pressure is dangerously high, it can help to lower it quickly. But it should be used only as a temporary measure while other, safer but slower methods, such as diet and lifestyle changes, have time to take effect.

Like linoleic acid (omega-6) from vegetable oil, alpha-linolenic acid (omega-3) from flaxseed oil is polyunsaturated. What this means is that it readily oxidizes to form destructive free-radical chain reactions. In this respect, alpha-linolenic acid is worse than linoleic acid because it is even more polyunsaturated and, therefore, more susceptible to oxidative damage. Linoleic acid has two carbon double bonds—the sites where free-radical reactions occur. Alpha-linolenic acid has three carbon double bonds. While linoleic acid is twice as likely to be degraded by oxidation as oleic acid (a monounsaturated acid like olive oil), alpha-linolenic acid is three times more susceptible to oxidation.

Because flaxseed oil oxidizes very easily you must keep it tightly closed and stored in the refrigerator. Never buy flaxseed oil that is not refrigerated or not stored in a dark bottle. Oxygen, heat (even room temperature), and light break down flaxseed oil very quickly. Flaxseed oil should be used within a month or so after purchasing. It should not taste like turpentine or household paint, but have a mild, pleasant taste. If it tastes bad, it’s far too oxidized and you are doing more harm to your health than good by eating it. The biggest problem with many flaxseed oil supplements is that they are too old, even before you buy them. After they are manufactured and bottled, they sit in warehouses, trucks, and store shelves for who knows how long. Most flaxseed oil is rancid, even those in capsule form.

The flaxseed itself, rather than the oil, would be a better source for alpha-linolenic acid because the oil in the seed remains fresh, for the most part, until the seed is broken (ground) or heated, and retains all the natural antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals found in the seed.


Because flaxseed oil supplements are often degraded by oxidation, they become a health hazard. Some of the alpha-linolenic acid will still be converted into PGE3, but a lot will just cause destructive free-radical chain reactions. A much safer source for alpha-linolenic acid from flax is through the seed itself.

The seed eaten whole or ground into a meal provides health benefits unrelated to its oil content. Many of the health claims you hear attributed to flaxseed oil are not really a product of the oil, but of the fiber in the seed.

Flaxseed is high in fiber, particularly lignans. This fiber helps to move digested food particles through the digestive tract, increasing bowel movements, pulling toxins and cholesterol out with it, and thus promoting intestinal health. Because of its ability to remove carcinogenic substances, it is useful in the prevention of colon cancer.38

Flaxseed ground into a meal and added to flour and then baked into muffins has shown to lower total cholesterol. This is due to the ability of the fiber to bind with cho­lesterol-rich bile acid and carry it out of the body.39

Lignans have antioxidant effects that help to keep the oil in the seed from oxidizing before and after it’s been eaten and helps to support the antioxidant processes in our bodies.

Intestinal bacteria convert some of the lignans into hormone-like compounds called phytoestrogens. These phytoestrogens, or plant estrogens, bind to estrogen recep­tors in the cells and produce estrogen-like effects which influence hormone production, metabolism, and biological activity. This process provides protection against some types of cancer, particularly breast, colon, and prostate cancer.40,41,42

These phytoestrogens also exert some degree of protection against the loss of calcium and so have been considered of possible benefit in treating osteoporosis.43

The greatest degree of protection comes to those who have a healthy digestive tract because the type of flora present will affect the production of the phytochemicals.

Keep in mind that it’s the fiber content in the flaxseed that produces these benefits and not the oil. In fact, flax-seed oil in some cases can have the opposite effects. Some studies show that too much of the oil can contribute to cal­cium loss in bones.44

In order to get the most benefit from the lignans and other fibers in flaxseed, as well as the oil, flaxseed must be ground before eating. Whole flaxseed can be eaten, but it simply goes through the body without doing much. Flax-seed should be eaten as soon as possible after is has been ground into a meal. Once the seed has been broken, it is exposed to oxygen, and the enzymes and antioxidants that have kept the oils fresh now rapidly disintegrate. The longer the meal sits before it’s eaten, the more oxidation or free-radical damage occurs. It’s just like an apple. The inside will stay fresh and white for weeks, but after it is cut and ex­posed to oxygen in the air, it takes only a few minutes to turn brown. The brown is caused by oxidation just as oxi­dation affects the exposed oils in the flaxseed.

Fresh flaxseed contains antioxidants such as vitamin E. The antioxidants are necessary for the stability of the oil both in the seed and in the body. When oil is extracted and refined, the natural antioxidants disintegrate rapidly. The oil loses its protection and quickly becomes rancid.

Flaxseed meal can be added to any baked or cook dish—breads, muffins, pancakes, casseroles, etc. You should not eat it raw! Raw flaxseed contains a toxin called thio-cyanate—a cyanide-like compound. This toxin can be found in the blood after eating raw flaxseed. Cooking neutralizes this compound, making it harmless.45,46 By far the best way to eat flaxseed oil is in its natural state by grinding the seed into meal and adding it to a cooked dish.

©1999 by Bruce Fife. Reprinted with permission of author and publisher.


1. Albers, C. M., et al. 1998. Fish consumption and risk of sudden cardiac death. JAMA 279(1 ):23

2. Nestel, P.J., et al. 1997. Arterial compliance in obese subjects is improved with dietary plant n-3 fatty acid from flaxseed oil despite increased LDLoxidizability. Arterioscler. Thromb. Vase. Biol. 17:6

3. Vijay Kumar, K. and Das. U.N. 1994. Lipid peroxides and essential fatty acids in patients with doronary heart disease. J. Nutr. Med. 4(1):33

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