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Flaxseed and flaxseed oil (Linum usitatissimum [Latin]), also called linseed oil, comes from the flax plant, which has been cultivated for domestic use since prehistoric times. Flaxseed is an excellent source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid that has been linked to a reduced risk of breast and colon cancer. Enzymes in your body convert the linolenic acid in flaxseed into docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)—the same fatty acids found in fish oil, which have been found to help prevent cardiovascular disease.

Both flaxseed and flaxseed oil offer substantial cardiovascular protection to the body. Diets rich in alpha-linolenic acid have been shown to help lower both total cholesterol and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels. Alpha-linolenic acid has also been shown to reduce the amount of triglycerides in the body. Eating flaxseed may also help lower blood pressure and blood sugar levels.

Whole or ground flaxseed (not the oil) contains substances called lignans that help block the estrogen supply needed to sustain breast cancer tumors. The phytoestrogens in whole flaxseed may help ease menopausal symptoms by acting as a sort of natural estrogen replacement therapy. The fiber found in flaxseed acts as a laxative and helps promote normal digestion; as the flaxseed fiber is digested in the intestine it forms mucilage, a sticky substance that helps coat the stomach and ease symptoms gastritis, constipation, and irritable bowel syndrome. Eating flaxseed regularly may help prevent colon cancer.

Flaxseed can be purchased whole or ground in health food stores and many grocery stores; flaxseed oil is sold bottled or in capsules. The usual dosage is 1 tablespoon of flaxseed (whole or ground) three times a day, or 1,300 milligrams of flaxseed oil capsules once each day. Make sure you drink plenty of water with this supplement, since it promotes frequent bowel movements and can cause dehydration or electrolyte imbalance in high doses.

Do not take flaxseed if you have a painful bowel condition or if you suspect you may have a bowel obstruction. There is some evidence that alpha-linolenic acid may increase the risk of prostate cancer, so en should avoid this supplement if they have prostate cancer or know they are at risk for developing it. Flaxseed may interact with anticoagulant drugs, and very high doses could cause symptoms of cyanide poisoning.

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