From time to time, a particular food becomes very popular and trending. It is like magic. But magic has always a trick and when it comes to food industry, the trick is called marketing, money, guru nutritionists and misconception of information. For example, not long time ago inulin was almost out of stock in every single health store after someone described its benefits in a TV program.
A couple of years ago, it was the same with raspberry ketone, goji berries or garcinia cambogia. Most of the time these “miraculous” foods are to lose weight or to strength immunity. However, there is a cheap and affordable product that was one of the first ever considered as a healthy food: flaxseeds. Many centuries ago, the renowned physician Hippocrates wrote about using flaxseed to treat patients.
Flaxseed is one of the richest plant sources of essential omega-3 fatty acids and its high content of lignan make it especially healthy. Many plants in the plant kingdom provide lignans, but flaxseeds have around one hundred times more lignans than other plants.
What are lignans?
Lignans are phytoestrogens that can decrease the effects of the body’s own estrogen. For this reason, flaxseeds may reduce menstrual breast pain. In terms of breast cancer risk, eating about a daily tablespoonful of ground flaxseeds can extend a woman’s menstrual cycle (1) by about one day. This means that women will have fewer periods over the course of a lifetime and, therefore, presumably less estrogens exposure and reduced breast cancer risk (2).
This paragraph could sound as a contradiction, but it is not. Flaxseeds don’t contain lignans, but what flasxeeds have is only lignan precursors, which need to be activated. This task is performed by good bacteria in the gut. All clear? Flaxseeds don’t contain lignans, however it has lignan precursors.
Activation of lignans
A healthy digestive system with a powerful friendly bacteria is crucial to achieve lignans activation. It may explain why women with frequent urinary tract infections may be at a higher risk of breast cancer (3) when they are treated with a strong course of antibiotics. Antibiotics kill bad and also good bacteria indiscriminately.
Lignan intake is associated with significantly reduced breast cancer risk in postmenopausal women (4). This effect is presumed to be due to lignan’s further estrogen-dampening effects. Best sources of lignan are: berries, whole grains and dark, leafy greens.
National Cancer Institute conduced a study in 2010 with 45 women, with higher risk of breast cancer. Women ate approximately two teaspoons of ground flaxseeds every day. Needle biopsies of breast tissue were taken before and also after the yearlong study. The result: on average, women had fewer precancerous changes in their breasts after a year of flax lignans than before they started. Additionally, 80% (36 of 45) had a drop in one of the cell proliferation cancer biomarkers (5). A similar study was done with women who had already breast cancer and results were also positive (6).
More research will come in the future, but I will encourage everyone to introduce in their diet some ground flaxseeds, maybe 2 tablespoons daily or almost daily. An inexpensive product that may reduce the risk of breast cancer and it can also be used as an alternative to breast cancer drugs.