Flaxseed oil's benefits come from its healthy, essential fatty acids. These omega fatty acids are good for your heart, brain, and immune system and can even help prevent diseases.
Flaxseed vs. Flaxseed Oil
Flaxseed, scientifically known as Linum usitassimum, comes from an herb that produces seeds with a fairly nutty flavor. You can find flaxseed ground into meal, toasted and whole, or processed into flaxseed oil pills and capsules.
Like other seeds, flaxseeds contain carbohydrates, protein and fat — specifically around 38 to 45 percent fat, 20 to 24 percent protein and 30 to 34 percent carbohydrates. This seed also contains a variety of nutrients, including minerals like calcium, iron, potassium and phosphorus, as well as vitamins like vitamin A, B-complex vitamins and vitamin E.
Once processed into oil, flaxseed loses most of its nutrients. As an oil, it is 100 percent fat. Fortunately, the fats in flaxseed are primarily healthy, unsaturated fats. There are two main types of healthy fats you can find in plant-based foods like flaxseed: monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats.
The Fats in Flaxseed Oil
While other plant-based oils, like mustard, peanut, canola and olive oils, are made up of primarily monounsaturated fats, flaxseed is unique — it is mainly made up of polyunsaturated fats. Harvard Health Publishing defines these polyunsaturated fats as essential — just like many of the vitamins and minerals you need to consume on a daily basis.
According to an April 2015 study in the Journal of Food Science and Technology, a total of 71.8 percent of the fats in flaxseed are polyunsaturated, while 18.5 percent are monounsaturated and 10 percent are saturated. In comparison, olive oil is the opposite — with 73.8 percent monounsaturated fats, 10 percent polyunsaturated fats and 15.3 percent saturated fats.
Other commonly consumed oils, like sesame oil, are halfway between the two. Sesame oil has 45.7 percent polyunsaturated fats and 40.1 percent monounsaturated fats, with 15.7 percent saturated fats. In contrast, products made from animal fat, like butter and ghee, are primarily made from saturated fats, which can be bad for your health.
Flaxseed Oil’s Benefits and Omega-3
Flaxseed oil's benefits are primarily from two specific types of unsaturated fats: linolenic acid and linoleic acid. Linolenic acid, also known as alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), is a type of omega-3 fatty acid. The National Institutes of Health recommends the daily consumption of 1.1 to 1.6 grams of ALA as part of a healthy diet.
You might be familiar with omega-3 fatty acids like docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). DHA and EPA are commonly found in fish and shellfish. However, omega-3 fatty acids can be found in fruits, vegetables and other plant-based products as ALA too. When you consume ALA, small amounts of it are converted into EPA and DHA, which makes it a precursor of these other omega-3 fatty acids.
On its own, the ALA in flaxseed oil has a variety of beneficial properties. According to a September 2015 study in the BioMed Research International Journal, ALA has:
- Neuroprotective effects
- Anti-inflammatory effects
- Antidepressant properties
- The ability to improve cardiovascular health
- The ability to protect the brain from stroke
- Cardiovascular disease
- Metabolic syndrome
- Inflammatory and autoimmune conditions
- Neurologic and neuropsychological conditions
- Renal disease
- Eye disease
Taking flaxseed oil pills isn't going to provide a miracle cure for these health issues. However, the ALA in flaxseed can definitely support good health. The National Institutes of Health lists flaxseed oil as one of the richest sources of this essential fatty acid.
Flaxseed Oil’s Benefits and Omega-6
The other beneficial fat in flaxseed oil capsules is linoleic acid, the most common omega-6 fatty acid. This type of omega fatty acid is also polyunsaturated, but is much more common than ALA and can be found in many nut, seed and vegetable oils. According to a January 2014 study in the Journal of Biochimie, most people consume about 14 grams of this fatty acid each day.
Omega-6 fatty acids are an important part of a healthy diet. They are particularly beneficial in helping lower cholesterol. In combination with omega-3 fatty acids, they can also benefit the health of your heart. Linoleic acid can help maintain the health of your skin, nerves, and immune and reproductive systems. This fatty acid also plays a variety of other roles in the body.
When ingested, omega-6 fatty acids produce eicosanoids: signaling molecules that work with the body's cardiovascular, pulmonary, immune and endocrine systems. Omega-6 derived eicosanoids can also act as mediators of inflammation and blood vessel constriction. Linoleic acid acts as a precursor to other long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, just like ALA.
While polyunsaturated fats are all considered to be better for your health compared to saturated fats and trans fats, not all polyunsaturated fats should be consumed in the same amounts. People who typically eat a Western diet actually tend to consume too many omega-6 fatty acids. Although linoleic acid is an essential fatty acid, it should be consumed in moderation.
Flaxseed oil benefits your health, as it is much higher in omega-3 fatty acids than omega-6 fatty acids. This is important because it's so easy to obtain omega-6 fatty acids from other foods, but challenging to find plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids. You should try to maintain a good balance of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids. Excessive consumption of omega-6 fatty acids may increase your chance of certain health issues, like inflammatory bowel disease and rheumatoid arthritis.
- Harvard T.H.Chan School of Public Health: "Types of Fat"
- Journal of Food Science and Technology: "Flaxseed—a Potential Functional Food Source"
- Czech Journal of Food Sciences: "Discrimination of Flax Cultivars Based on Visible Diffusion Reflectance Spectra and Colour Parameters of Whole Seeds"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "The Truth About Fats: The Good, the Bad, and the In-Between"
- American Heart Association: "Saturated Fat"
- National Institutes of Health: "Omega-3 Fatty Acids Fact Sheet for Health Professionals"
- Food and Chemical Toxicology: "α-Linolenic Acid: Nutraceutical, Pharmacological and Toxicological Evaluation"
- BioMed Research International: "Alpha-Linolenic Acid: An Omega-3 Fatty Acid With Neuroprotective Properties—Ready for Use in the Stroke Clinic?"
- European Journal of Lipid Science Technology: "Very Long Chain Omega‐3 (N‐3) Fatty Acids and Human Health"
- Biochimie: "Linoleic Acid: Between Doubts and Certainties"
- Canadian Medical Association Journal: "Omega-6 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids: Is a Broad Cholesterol-Lowering Health Claim Appropriate?"
- Functional Dietary Lipids: "Food Formulation, Consumer Issues and Innovation for Health"
- Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism: "Health Implications of High Dietary Omega-6 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids."
- Food Science and Technology: "Antioxidant Capacity and Chemical Composition in Seeds Rich in Omega-3: Chia, Flax, and Perilla"