Flaxseed is one of those foods that looks great in a handsomely produced photo shoot. A glossy mound of the rustic little seeds filling a wooden bowl in muted sunlight—mmm, flaxseed. But these demure little seeds are more than just set decoration. The flaxseed’s antioxidant properties have long made it a fave of those who grasp the importance of cellular health. Now flaxseed is increasingly interesting to oncologists in search of organic chemistry that has some measurable pushback against some forms of cancer.
It’s all about Lignans. These chemical compounds found in plant cell walls are in a class called Polyphenols, and appear in an array of plant-based foods such as seeds, whole grains, legumes, vegetables and fruit, as well as in red wine and coffee. Nothing is richer in these lignans than flaxseed.
When we eat ground flaxseed (not flaxseed oil extract, pointedly) a truly weird thing happens. The lignans in the flaxseed reach our intestine and undergo really surprising conversions, the busybody “good” bacteria down there launching themselves at the lignans and turning them into Phytoestrogens (“phyto” = “plant”). These are plant-derived hormones that walk like estrogen, talk like estrogen, and have certain estrogen-like properties. We know what you’re thinking. “Why would a plant have anything like estrogen in it?
Nature’s Mischief May Be Our Good Fortune
It would appear that nature, in her endlessly mischievous determination to give all living things a fighting chance, placed these estrogen precursors in plants in order to mess with the fertility of herbivores (plant-eating animals) and possibly reduce their number. How better to defeat your “enemy” than by dialing down their reproduction? Luckily, phytoestrogens do not affect the reproductive cycle in humans. But in studies they do exhibit some cancer-suppressing properties that have captured the attentions of cancer researchers.
The British Journal of Pharmacology, among others, reports positive effects of phytoestrogens on breast cancer, bone density, and such menopausal symptoms as hot flashes. And the drop in estrogen experienced by women in the menopausal period may also be mitigated by these phytoestrogens. Since estrogen depletion is thought to be a leading cause of cardiovascular disease in women over 50, plant-based phytoestrogens are also being studied as dietary contributors to female heart health. In men, prostate and bowel cancers have responded favorably to the measured introduction of phytoestrogens in the diet.
Phytoestrogens aren’t completely understood, and researchers point out that there is much work yet to be done. These plant-based “estrogen” hormones interact with the human cell at the same reception points as actual estrogen produced by the endocrine system. Since genuine animal estrogen interacts with other parts of the physiology and not just the reproductive machinery of the cell, researchers are looking into a controlled “trafficking” of phytoestrogens to specifically located receptors in the body, where they’ve been shown to fight arteriosclerosis, balance hormone loss during peri-menopause, and push back against gastric cancers.
The news on lignans and phytoestrogens is cautiously optimistic, and the research continues. Of course, consult with your MD or oncologist before running away with your own “phytoplan”. Estrogen in any form is a potent hormone.
But it is good to know that flax, the seed world’s photogenic rock star, may also hold the “lignan key” to pushing back against some hormone-related illnesses. The presence of these phytoestrogen precursors all across the plant kingdom just proves the old adage: “What’s good for the wildflower is good for the gut.” And if that’s not an old adage, it oughta be.
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