Flax Seed and Oil: Phytoestrogens, Phytic Acid and Pregnancy Risks

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Flax seeds and flax oil have many benefits, but that doesn’t mean that you should be consuming large amounts of it.  I recently started researching flax, chia and hemp seeds for comparison and was surprised by a few things I found out about flax. There are plenty of resources discussing the positives about flax, so I thought I would share a little about the phytoestrogens, the phytic acid content and the pregnancy risks of flax.  I welcome your thoughts and experience with flax as well.

Most of us know the common healthy attributes of flax seed. Flax seed is an excellent source of omega 3′s and a great source of fiber. Other benefits often quoted include lowering cholesterol, protecting against heart disease,cancer and diabetes, and controlling high blood pressures  For more about the positives, check out Whfood.com’s article. and this one as well.

Sounds great, right?  Flax seeds seem to have proven themselves helpful in many studies, however there are still some concerns that remain and new concerns that arise. Here are a few to consider.

Flax Contains Phytoestrogen

You’ve probably heard of the debate regarding soy and phytoestrogens. Some people think it’s a positive, a growing number of people think it’s a negative. A phytoestrogen basically acts like or mimics estrogen in our bodies. I haven’t come across of a lot of information about the phytoestrogen found in flax so far, but I know that the phytoestrogen is bad news in soy!

Kimberly Hartke recently reprinted an article about the dangers of soy. It included this section.

“The fact is that the soy bean contains numerous phytoestrogens; a descriptive name for plant chemicals having oestrogenic effects. They occur in nature to help regulate animal breeding cycles and, in synthetic form, are used in farming for the same purpose. The ubiquitous birth control pill is, of course, the human synthetic version. At high dosage or over long periods phytoestrogens become anit-oestrogenic. Much higher doses are in chemotherapy to kill cancer cells.

The class of chemical compounds called phytoestrogens contains dozens of sub-classes, such as coumestans, lignans and sterols, each of which contains further sub-classes. Soy contains many isoflavones, including the sub-classes ernistein, coumestrol and daidzein.

Scientists have known for years the isoflavones in soy products can depress thyroid. As far back as the 1950s phytoestrogens were being linked to increased cases of cancer, infertility, leukaemia and endocrine disruption.

Charlotte Gerson, of the Gerson Cancer Clinic in the USA, has published detailed research (Gerson Clinic: Cancer Research, June 1, 2001 – 61 (11) : 4325-8) proving that the phytoestrogen genistein is more carcinogenic then DES (diethylstilbestrol), a synthetic oestrogen drug that was given to millions of pregnant women primarily from 1928-1971. Few would be unaware of the death and misery that particular drug inflicted on countless women and their daughters.”

So when I found out that phtyoestrogens were in flax as well. I sat up and listened! I should say that soy and flax contain different types of phytoestrogens, so they could have very different effects. Soy’s main phytoestrogen is isoflavones. Flax’s is lignans.  I should also mention that some studies seem to point to flax being able to help fight against breast cancer (which is very exciting). Though, I remain cautious because soy is also supposedly able to fight against breast cancer (and I am not a cheerleader for soy).  I will eagerly watching for more studies about flax and it’s effects on breast cancer.

But I do think that flax can have an effect on your hormones, especially if you are taking a higher amount. For example, a few friends have used seeds to help regulate their cycle, and flax is a key part of that program. In this study, flax was used to significantly reduce hot flashes in menopausal women. I would guess this has to do with it’s estrogenic effect.

So whether you think the phytoestrogens in flax is a positive or a negative, I think that it’s important that you know that it does contain phytoestrogens which can effect your hormones. Used correctly, flax can help with many hormonal imbalances, but that doesn’t mean we all should have a free-for-all flax feast (especially if you are a male!).  This is also important to remember if you are pregnant when the right hormonal balance is very important to maintain (most of us, by the way, have too much estrogen in our body, and not enough progesterone). This leads me to my next concern.

Flax oil has the potential to cause premature labor

A recent study in Canada studied over three thousand pregnant women, asking what natural supplements they took and then seeing what effect that had on their pregnancy. They found that those who consumed flax oil quadrupled their rates of premature labor.

That’s significant.

You should note that that link was found just for those who consumed the oil, not the whole seed. You should also note that this is just one study, and there needs to be follow up studies. But remember that it wasn’t a slight risk increase, it was a very significant increase. As someone who has experienced premature labor, you better believe I am going to be avoiding flax when pregnant!

By the way, a common cause of premature labor and miscarriages is having an imbalance of too much estrogen and too little progesterone. It does make me wonder if the phytoestrogen in flax has anything to do with the increased rates of premature labor. An interesting thought.

Finally, Flax Seed Contains High Amounts of Phytic Acid

You remember phytic acid, right? It’s the anti-nutrient that binds with many of the minerals and nutrients in grains and legumes. I talked about how to reduce them in grains here.

Well, my former understanding was that flax seed had low amounts of phytic acid. It doesn’t after all. It actually has very high amounts. In fact, it’s considered one of the “best” sources of phytic acid! In the book, Flax, By Alister D. Muir, Neil D. Westcott, they state that flax contains “significant levels of phytic acid”. This website which promotes phytic acid as a positive says that wheat bran and flax seed are the “best sources.”

All to say, stop making those low carb flax muffins! However, I did notice that Navita’s Naturals has a sprouted flax flour. That would take care of the phytic acid problem.

In Conclusion

Do I think that flax has benefits? Yes, I think it does. But I think that you need to be well informed about the benefits and concerns. I noticed that while the Weston A Price foundation does recommend flax seed and oil, they don’t recommend that you take large amounts. In fact, they have voiced concern over the trend of many to overdo flax oil. In one Q & A, Sally says that 1/2 teaspoon per day should be enough.

Don’t overdo flax.

KimiHarris

I love beautiful and simple food that is nourishing to the body and the soul. I wrote Fresh: Nourishing Salads for All Seasons and Ladled: Nourishing Soups for All Seasons as another outlet of sharing this love of mine. I also love sharing practical tips on how to make a real food diet work on a real life budget. Find me online elsewhere by clicking on the icons below!

Comments

  1. Serendipity says

    1. The AICR (American Institute for Cancer Research) which is part of WHO (World Health Organization) include soy and flaxseed in their list of foods that help fight cancer.
    2. People in Asia have been consuming soy for thousands of years.
    3. AICR has a top ten list for countries with the highest rate of cancer, the United States is number seven. None of the Asian countries made the list.
    If soy is causing/ and or promoting cancer then why are the people who consume it the most, not on that list? Go to the AICR website and read what they have to say. Then go to http://www.covers.com and see who the top ten are. Finally, all food should be eaten in moderation. Too much of any food that is good for you… can be bad for you.

  2. universal roots says

    One thing that needs focus is the difference between organically grown, non GMO soy and flax, which creates different phytoestrogens. Non GMO phtytoestrogens have many beneficial effects on the body, including recycling of our own estrogen. GMO phytoestrogens are unrecognizable to the body and cells don’t know how to properly process them, leaving them “Stuck” in the cells which then increases our risk of hormonal imbalances, infertility and estrogen induced cancers. Unfortunately going and buying Organic soy or flax doesn’t necessarily mean it is GMO free. You have to really research your products before consuming them. As for the Lignans found in Flax, they have extremely beneficial anti inflammatory properties. The lignans are found in high concentration in flax meal. When grinding flax seeds into meal, the process can damage some of the fatty acids, including phytic acid, which then would decrease the risks. Using flax meal as a source of fibre, and it’s anti inflammatory benefits with lignans is a very valuable addition to anyones diet. Consuming the oil which is very carefully extracted to maintain the quality of the fatty acids, is also very beneficial in small amounts daily for it’s omega 3 properties. Flax oil contains EPA and DHA much like fish oil. For vegetarians and vegans this is their best bet to obtain these fatty acids in their diet. As with any fat of coarse, small doses. I really don’t believe that consuming flax on a daily basis is a call for alarm, even while pregnant. As for soy, if obtaining soy products from the US, I would be concerned only for the fact that there is really only one company that grows soy beans in America, and they own the rights to this bean. Crazy as it sounds, if you haven’t watched Food Inc as of yet, and you want to familiarize yourself on the dangers of large companies and our food, watch it!

    • Richard says

      You should know more about the subject before making comments. Flax seed oil does not contain EPA or DHA!
      Flax does contain ALA which is Omega-3 but does not provide the same benefits because the body converts so little
      of the ALA.

  3. christine says

    Wow! I did not know all this about flax. I found this post as a result of researching symptoms of perimenopause particular mood issues and depression. I’m 43 and just have had my first late menses and started wondering if that could be cause of depression I’ve been experiencing lately. It sounds like estrogen dominance it totally the issue and I’ve been making and eating a lot of flax seed crackers lately. Uhm, I’m trying to remember when I first started eating flax and if it could be related to the extremely heavy menstrual flow I’ve had last two years. I’m definately laying off flax (I haven’t eat soy for 3-4 years, but before that plenty) Anyone want a wonderful batch of flaxseed crackers?

  4. says

    I have problems with estrogens as they give me severe depression. I had that from taking the pill and also from drinking soy milk (when I learned that I’m allergic to milk, as an alternative because I missed milk so much – but after a few days, I threw the stuff out because I felt so weird and bad). Now, I stay away from things that contain phytoestrogens, flax included.

  5. says

    Kim,

    Thank you for the excellent article. I have seen dramatic results in the last 6 week by eliminating food “products” and eating more naturally.

    Just yesterday I decided to incorporate some flax into my diet and the result is less the optimal. I believe with the along with the nuts I have been eating I definitely have consumed too much phytic acid for my system. My wife has a similar experience.

    My experience combined + your knowledge = enlightenment..very sweet.

    Have a wonderful day and thanks again.

  6. charlotte h says

    I believe this study. I have had two full term babies (40 weeks), so when I had my latest baby at 37 weeks and possibly earlier (I didn’t believe the conception date), and my baby had an immature lung, I was curious about what might have caused it. One difference with this pregnancy was that I had supplemented with flaxseed oil (a lot). I used it on salads, added it to my smoothies, etc. per the advice of my midwife. It made me feel good, but I believe that it caused the earlier birth of my baby. I am pregnant again, and now am struggling to find an alternative. I’m hypothyroid so the seeds have a bad effect on me, the oil was nice though.

  7. Oda says

    I really do not care what anyone says, I prefer to listen to my body or other bodies for that matter :-) I used to take flax because it was recommended by my Naturopath and because it was supposed to be so good for you. I took it either as seed or oil and it would always make my breast tenderness worse. I later realized I was estrogen dominant to begin with, so that just made it worse. When I told my naturopath doctor all I got was a deer in the headlight look, because, everyone says it is supposed to be so good for you, you know! Well, if a body disagrees, I much rather believe the body :-)
    I have seen similar issues in horses as well, from ventral edema to udder swelling to more stocking up and more frazzled behavior , while the horse was getting flax. Mares were more affected than geldings.

    Now research has found that the conversion to Omega 3s from flax is in addition rather poor in humans, so what are the benefits exactly in reality?

    We also used to eat flax oil in Germany when I was young and my mom would always say that it can be eaten sometimes, but it should not be eaten too frequently as it would have negative side effects……why was this wisdom lost?!

    • Christy says

      I had the same issue with incredible breast tenderness and pain while eating one or two tablespoons of flaxseed a day. I even went to a breast doctor because of it. I have endometriosis and thought it might help, but it only had negative effects on me.

  8. Aida says

    Thank you for writing this article. I had recently purchased some flaxseed to add to my diet but now I am going to use it very sparingly or not at all. I too had a very bad experience 10 years ago using soy in the form of soy protein isolate. I consumed it in the form of energy bars, soy yogurt, soy milk, and even soy veggie patties. Within a short period of time both my husband and I felt horrible. I was extremely tired all the time and I couldn’t even process the simple things in life. Unfortunately, I did not make the connection at that time and had a couple of miscarriages. I realize that miscarriages can happen for many reasons but at that time I was consuming a lot of soy. Then, one of my good friends told me about a study that showed that soy contained phytoestrogens and that it could have adverse effects. I stopped the soy craze and gradually began to feel like myself.

  9. Margaret says

    I recently had a hysterectomy and was treated for estrogen induced uterine cancer which spread to my lymph nodes. Is it safe to take flaxseed or will it promote estrogen in my body and thereby risk the development of more cancer?

  10. Anita says

    I can completely relate to what Christine said about very heavy periods. I have been low-carbing for about 6 weeks now and have been making those quick and easy one-minute muffins out of flaxseed. I have always had fairly bad PMT, but this month was a shocker ;-( And the blood flow, I have never experienced anything like it! I have been bleeding like a tap for about 5 days. A bit graphic, I know, but I nearly passed out last night with an odd kind of excessive fatigue that is most uncharacteristic for me.

    To Margaret above, if you have estrogen issues I think you should avoid it all costs.

  11. Ana says

    What a good article. I agree with your point, not everything good is good for one, and also the large quantities also seem like we humans tend to overdo a “good” thing. After two long year, post birth of my son 4 yrs ago, I discovered that I had Estrogen dominance (progesterone very low) and ever since the birth of my son, I was plagued with nasty patches of dry skin all over my face. I eat so well, every thing cooked fresh, and organic, even my meat and eggs come from a specific source, so I did not know what this was. I changed a few things 6 months ago to fix the low progesterone levels. The patches were GONE, besides other issues I was having as a woman over 35 well into premenopause . Then the patches returned, even worse, with some patches over my eyes that were flaking and bled. I had read that flaxseeds act like estrogen making estrogen dominance worse.. So started thinking that maybe the crackers that I was consuming like crazy, a box a day, od Mary’s gone, were the culprit. They are packed I n flaxseeds. I stopped eating them, my skin is completely clear. I need to call the dermatologist now, and tell her that the skin does tell you that something is wrong in your body ( she insisted that my skin is not part of th bigger picture :)

  12. webuser says

    Flax oil does NOT contain DHA. DHA, which is important to brain and eye development in newborns and children, and is especially important to consume by pregnant women, even before they conceive is only found in Fish and Fish oil. But I read that Walnuts is the only one other than fish that contains DHA. So if you just want omegas, flax or fish would do; however, for the DHA, it’s not in Flax.

    Studies showed that children born to mothers who consumed DHA before and during pregnancy are more calm, and studious with high IQ.

  13. Hearher says

    I have actually had the opposite experience from other commentors. When I started adding ground flax seed (1Tbsp/day) several months ago, my periods became lighter, shortened to five days rather than the previous seven, and my horrible PMS completely disappeared. Another benefit: no more hypothyroid-induced constipation!

  14. Eve says

    Good article . . . I recently had a 2nd trimester loss due to PPROM. I think I took flax oil supplements once or twice. This is my second loss, but not due to PPROM. However, in my successful pregnancy I ate Enjoy Life’s Perky’s Crunchy Flax Cereal at leat 1x everyday!

  15. jackie says

    what about the anti cancer budwig protocol, which is flaxseed oil and cottage cheese? many people have reversed their cancer and other health issues with this – which involves LOTS of flaxseed oil. as i understand, there are no phytoestrogens in the oil, just in the flax seeds.
    any thoughts on this anti cancer protocol?

  16. jackie says

    also, my estrogen level is super low – i’m trying to get my period back, so i’m thinking some phyto estrogenic foods would be good for me, like flax seeds and fermented organic soy.

  17. Brook says

    Flax seeds are VERY bad if you are avoid estrogen (and you probably should) I first found this out a couple of days agi listening to this http://www.rawfoodsbible.com/index.php?page=misc/Vitalzym
    The speaker mentioned flax at the end of his talk (it auto plays when you get to this site) You can hear the crowd in shock at the connections he makes. I was too! Every plant has lignans…they are found in the fibrous parts of the plants… stems, seed hulls, bark, many leaves. There are also different types of lignans, four of which are known to increase estrogen. Little is known about the others. It is also known that lignans do not break down in our gut without bateria in our guts to do it (which brings up intrest in pro-biotics. Certain strains break it down, others don’t) When on an antibiotic the estrogen does not increase from the lignans. Low lignan foods are fruit (especially where the seeds are not crushed in smoothies-seeds have a lot of lignans) and roots and tubers -yay for sweet potatoes! The lowest nuts are pecans and peanuts, alomonds would probably do better if the brown bull is removed. Chia seeds have lignans, but A LOT less than flax, and hulled hemp has NONE!
    Why no lignans for me. Well I have been noticing that when I consume soy or flax I often have an initial happy boost, but end up quite grouchy, my skin has begun to wrinkle dry and generally age more quickly and I have had arthritis flare ups and I am only 36! I eat a predominately vegan diet, but occasionally cheat on holidays. My cholesterol is a fab 121, bmi 20, no blood sugar problems and been told I am in great health…. For the most part I agree, but lack of enzymes from most of my food being cooked, and low fat-because I have avoided all oil (I am begining to ad a few fats in the form of nuts and fish oil back in) as well as a strong reliance on organic soy yogurt (damn probiotics mixed with estrogen promoting isoflavones-bad) and an attempt to get omega 3′s from flax have led (I believe) to arthritis and signs of aging. I am learning to also beware that polyunsaturated fats promote estrogen too, yes we ‘have’ to have some… but not unlimited, purified oils, and NEVER cooked… that just makes them rancid. Hope I have help someone out there =)

  18. JB says

    Well, this is a good debate. I can speak from personal experience with flax. I’m on my 2nd pregnancy and I’m 38 weeks with no signs of contractions. My first child was 5 days late and I have ate fresh ground flax (2 tblspns) in a smoothie each morning for both pregnancies. I have a tendancy to be progesterone deficient too. Don’t know if this is beneficial information to anyone. My mom just told me that flax isn’t good for pregnant woman and I googled it and found this page. Very interesting. As for soy… I agree only non GMO sources and only fermented like tempeh or tamari. I have been eating flax for years. My question would be what are the benfits of chia compared with flax?

  19. Gina Kraft says

    I will not be taking flax seed again in the future. I too heard only of all the wonderful things it can do for you so when I got my brand new Nutribullet machine I went crazy adding 2 tablespoons of flax seed in to all my smoothies. Well – I have MS and – for the most part over the last 10 years it has been benign. After two days of drinking smoothies containing tons of flax seeds – my whole lower back went numb and I started feeling all the old tingling and MS fatigue coming back. I did not feel right. I am 49 and still getting regular periods – but this last one was all screwed up (having come right after the flaxseed mania I went on). I now know that the flax seed estrogen-like properties and should be used with caution if you have conditions that are estrogen-sensitive – such as MS OR pregnancy -

  20. Oda says

    We need to listen to how the BODY responds! Flax (organic, no matter what shape or form or quantity) ALWAYS gave me more breast tenderness (still does if I eat some)…obviously it was not agreeing with its supposed benefits.

    I have also seen behavioral changes in horses on flax and udder swellings in mares. I have a friend who was spotting EVERY day while she was drinking organic soy milk.

    And many times I have seen research taken out of context and/or misrepresented which leads to faulty conclusions.

    Listen to the body and how the body responds. It will be closer to the truth than anything else!

  21. CJ South says

    It’s worth noting that It takes approximately 3 Tablespoons of seed to equal one Tablespoon of oil. So, for those following the guidance of Weston A Price foundation, 1/2 teaspoon of oil = 1 1/2 teaspoons ground flax seed.
    Here is the fats and oil FAQ from Weston A Price:
    http://www.westonaprice.org/faq/faq-fats-and-oils
    It’s the first question.

    From Goldenflax.com
    “To calculate the amount of flax oil you receive when eating flax seed you multiply by 40% the weight of the flax seed and this will be the amount of flax oil contained in the flax seed. It takes approx 3 Tablespoons of seed to equal one Tablespoon of oil.”

  22. cas says

    I will share this, I was taking flax for quite some time with no affect on my menstrual or PMS symptoms, and my PMS symptoms were severe 2 weeks prior to my cycle and my cycle was heavy, erratic and long. I started extra virgin cold pressed hemp oil from Nutiva ANDI COULDN’T BE HAPPIER! NO Prozac, herbal , or amount of OTC. Pre menstrual med does what the hemp seed oil has. It has regulated my menstrual cycle to the T, LESSENED my PMS symptoms to a few days prior, if that, and the symptoms aren’t as bad as they used to be, they used to stop my interest in doing anything I felt so awful, it helps w my appetite, among many other benefits. Flax seed oil didn’t provide any of these benefits. I swear on Hemp seed oil, alsogreat for anyone who has asthma!

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