An Old Plant With New Tricks

Lignan, a fiber found in flax, is the latest cancer-fighting hope.

By Patrick Dougherty

July / August 2005

Flax—the plant that gave a grateful world the classic look of linen—is a hot research property nowadays. Prized for millennia as a source of seeds and cooking oil as well as cloth, the flax plant has also been long celebrated for its medicinal properties, especially in easing coughs. But flax’s therapeutic potential really took off in the late 20th century, when scientists found that flax seed is rich in alpha linolenic acid, an inflammation-alleviating omega-3 fat.

The latest substance in the scientific spotlight: flax lignans. While many plant foods supply this unique type of fiber, flax seed is the richest possible source. Question is, what makes lignans so special?

Hormonal Shifts

Sex hormones such as estrogen and testosterone affect a lot more than just libido and reproduction; if these powerful substances go out of balance, they can actually stimulate the overgrowth of breast or prostate tissue. Lignans act as phytoestrogens. When they are ingested, the body transforms them into a form that keeps hormones from overstimulating cells, a process that helps support healthy cell growth. Lignans also interfere with enzymes that can promote cancer development.

Populations that eat lignan-rich diets enjoy lower breast cancer rates, and early research suggests that increased lignan intake may help protect breast tissue. In one study, women newly diagnosed with breast cancer who ate muffins made with 2 1/2 tablespoons of flaxseed every day experienced reduced tumor growth (Breast Cancer Research & Treatment 11/00). This may explain why some women find relief from mild menopausal miseries after taking flax lignans.

Lignans are antioxidants, substances that can keep harmful free radicals from ping-ponging through tissues; scientists think that’s why flax lignans have shown an ability to reduce cholesterol. And flax’s effects on hormones appear to include influencing those responsible for the bad effects of stress; among postmenopausal women who ate three different flax diets, the ones who got the most lignans experienced the biggest drops in both stress hormone levels and blood pressure (Journal of the American College of Nutrition 12/03).

Keeping Men Comfortable

While women certainly benefit from lignans, men enjoy flax advantages, too. Prostate cells, like breast cells, can be kicked into overdrive by hormones, and a pilot study at Duke University suggests that flax lignans, combined with a low-fat diet, may reduce cancer risk. The researchers gave finely ground flaxseed to 25 men with prostate cancer who were awaiting surgery; after a month, all had reduced hormone levels and their cholesterol levels were lowered as well. Tumor growth also slowed (Urology 7/01).

What’s more, flax’s testosterone-moderating effects appear to help reduce benign prostate enlargement, an uncomfortable predicament that vexes most men as they age. Rats fed a lignan supplement had comfortably smaller prostates then other rodents, and men scheduled for repeat prostate biopsy who took supplemental flax experienced reduced rates of benign prostatic growth (Urology 05/04). Flax may even help men save face (and hair). DHT, the form of testosterone that can harm the prostate, attacks hair follicles and spurs excess oil production in the skin, increasing the chances of pimple formation. Flax lignans interfere with DHT production.

From the tiny flax seed mighty health benefits grow. Some forms of fiber really are special!

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