A new study suggests that the addition of a simple food to a man’s diet has the potential to lower cholesterol by 10 percent–curiously, it had no effect on the cholesterol level in women. The study from Iowa State University’s Nutrition and Wellness Research Center (NWRC) was led by Suzanne Hendrich, an ISU professor in food science and human nutrition. The study looked at the effects of flaxseed lignan in people with high cholesterol. The results showed that eating at least 150 milligrams of flaxseed lignans per day (about three tablespoons) lowered cholesterol in men by about 10 percent over the three months that they were given the flaxseed.
Although cholesterol-lowering drugs can decrease cholesterol by more–between 10 and 20 percent–flaxseed may be a promising option for those looking for a natural remedy. “Because there are people who can’t take something like Lipitor, this could at least give you some of that cholesterol-lowering benefit,” Hendrich said. “The other thing is, there are certainly some people who would prefer to not use a drug, but rather use foods to try to maintain their health. So this potentially would be something to consider.”
It’s the flaxseed lignans–a group of chemical compounds found in plants that are known for their protective health effects–that may help lower cholesterol, according to Hendrich. The study subjects were given the flaxseed lignans in tablet form. Hendrich notes the flaxseed lignan tablets used in this study are not currently available in the U.S., but she says flaxseed can also be sprinkled on cereal, or added in a muffin mix or bread, although whole seeds are not very digestible. Ground flaxseed meal can also provide the desired cholesterol-lowering lignans, according to Hendrich, but it will oxidize over time and may affect the flavor of the foods that it’s in. She also reports that the oxidation will also diminish the flaxseed’s omega-3 fatty acids, which can prevent heart attacks, so freshness is key in the product’s impact. But flaxseed whole, which stays fresh longer, and grind it in a spice mill when you’re ready to use it.
Why the lignans didn’t have a significant impact on women’s cholesterol levels remains a mystery. “We’re really puzzled about that because we were looking at post menopausal women and these lignans are known as plant estrogens, so they have a very weak but measurable estrogen effect,” Hendrich said. “So potentially, they would have a mild effect for substituting some estrogens in women. It’s really hard to know why [there was no effect in women] and whether these substances are counteracting, possibly, some testosterone in men, which of course women don’t have.”
Aside from the study, flaxseed has been proven to be such a beneficial food–regardless of the cholesterol effect for men, women are encouraged to add it to their diet as well. Why?
- Those lignans! They have both plant estrogen and antioxidant qualities. Flaxseed contains 75- 800 times more lignans than other plant foods
- Omega-3 essential fatty acids–the “good” fats that have been shown to have heart-healthy effects. Each tablespoon of ground flaxseed contains about 1.8 grams of plant omega-3s.
- Flaxseed contains significant amounts of both soluble and insoluble fiber.
According to a collection of studies and research, flaxseed may:
- Have a protective effect against cancer, particularly breast cancer, prostate cancer, and colon cancer.
- Help the cardiovascular system via several different mechanisms, including anti-inflammatory action and normalizing the heartbeat.
- Modestly improve blood sugar (as measured by hemoglobin A1c blood tests in adults with type 2 diabetes).
- Reduce the inflammation that accompanies certain illnesses (such as Parkinson’s disease and asthma) by helping to block the release of certain pro-inflammatory agents.
- Reduce menopausal women’s hot flashes in half: 2 tablespoons of ground flaxseed, taken twice a day.
Until more is known–pregnant women and possibly breastfeeding mothers should not supplement their diets with ground flaxseed.
For more information about flaxseed, see How to Increase Omega 3s in Your Diet.