Flaxseed is an ancient grain that has been part of the human diet for thousands of years. Babylonian burial chambers from 3000 B.C. contain scenes of flax cultivation and depict various ways in which flax was used. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, wrote of using flax for the relief of stomach pains in 650 B.C., and the Greek philosopher, Theophrastus, recommended the use of flax mucilage as a cough remedy.
In the 8th Century A.D. Charlemagne considered flax so important for the health of his subjects that he passed laws and regulations requiring its consumption. Flaxseed oil was also commonly used to prepare balms for inflamed skin and healing drinks for constipation. Today, nutritionists and scientists are rediscovering the tremendous health benefits of flax.
Cultivated flax (L. usitatissimum) is of two types. One is grown for the seed, and the other is used for fiber production. Flax fibers are one of the earliest plant fibers used by humans and may well be the first widely cultivated plant for the purpose of cloth production. It is known that ancient Egyptians first used the fibers to produce linen nearly 10,000 years ago. In the Northern Hemisphere, it is the oilseed varieties that are primarily produced.
Flaxseed oil (also known as linseed oil) is extracted from flax seeds. It has a delicate, nutty flavor and is an excellent source of protein, potassium, and beta-carotene. It also contains a beneficial fat, alpha-linoleic acid, which is a heart-healthy Omega-3 fat. There is some scientific data that indicates that this oil combats constipation and IBS, and preliminary studies suggest that it also guards against high cholesterol and hypertension.
Hollywood actress Hillary Swank was introduced to flaxseed by her trainer in Million Dollar Baby. She used it to gain ten pounds of muscle for her Oscar-winning role. In addition to its therapeutic properties, flaxseed oil also has many industrial uses. For example, it is an important ingredient in paints, varnishes, and linoleum.
Flaxseed oil is thick and rich and has a nutty taste. Because heat causes it to lose its beneficial properties, it is not recommended for cooking. It makes a delicious salad dressing when combined with vinegar or lemon juice. It can also be used in baking to replace less beneficial oils.
It is available at health food stores, and it comes in both liquid and soft gel forms. Flaxseed oil is kept in a refrigerated section of the store because it spoils quickly. The oil is very susceptible to damage by light, heat and oxygen, so it is generally sold in opaque or dark bottles to extend its life.