Flaxseed, Exercise and Your Heart

The heart is a muscle, the most important one on the list. Legs that hurt from pedaling a bike all over the county or biceps that burn from curls are little more than an annoyance. A heart that hurts can mean something more. If you happen to be a cyclist, the odds are in your favor that your heart won’t hurt. If you think about cycling or other laborious exercise without actually doing it, well, that’s a different story. One of the more common bad habits we have is that we don’t pay attention to things until they make funny noises, smell like a bad catalytic converter, quit giving off light, or stop altogether. When the heart makes odd sounds or threatens to quit, “shoulda, woulda, coulda” enters the mind. Exercise undoubtedly has a profound effect on cardiac health… and the rest of the body, too, for that matter. Suppose you could boost the impact of regular exercise on cardiovascular wellness just by adding flaxseeds to your diet. This uncomplicated act offers a host of reward.

Most of us already know about flaxseed oil, a remarkable anti-inflammatory material in its own right, but with a different profile from the seeds. The oil contains the alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) component of flaxseeds without the fiber or lignan components. Therefore, the oil may demonstrate the lipid-lowering properties of the plant without the laxative or anti-cancer character. Oils high in essential fats are not good for cooking, by the way, mostly because they’ll oxidize and become degraded by the high heat. Flax oil that is extracted with heat shortchanges the consumer with a product that is virtually useless and mostly rancid. It can be added to foods after cooking, just before hitting the table. Back to the seeds…

Recent discovery using laboratory animals indicates that the constituents of flaxseeds—ALA, lignans and fiber—add a dramatic benefit to exercise when looking at cardiac markers, lipid profiles and markers of inflammation. With the first group of test animals serving as the control, the second having induced heart attack symptoms, the third having symptoms but provided with flaxseed supplementation, and the fourth like the third but with exercise included, forty lab rats were gathered for the study. Flaxseed supplementation combined with exercise produced a significant rise in HDL and an elevation of the enzyme called PON1, which is a major anti-atherosclerosis and anti-oxidant component of HDL. Simultaneously, measures of infarction—troponin and TNF-alpha—decreased, leading the scientists to infer the protective characteristic of flaxseed combined with muscular exercise against the harmful effects of ischemic heart disease (Nounou, 2012).

Canadian investigators explored the properties of flaxseed components and their influence on cardiovascular health, finding that flax lignans, especially one called secoisolariciresinol, play a significant protective role in cardiovascular disease, particularly against ischemic events (Prasad, 2009). In the last century, consideration was given to flaxseed’s influence on hypercholesterolemia and concomitant atherosclerosis, noting that flaxseeds containing 51%-55% alpha-linolenic acid (ALA—an omega-3 fatty acid) and plant lignans could reduce hypercholesterolemic atherosclerosis by as much as 46% without lowering serum lipids. But the more interesting notation was that flaxseed with a lower level of ALA—only 2%-3%--had the same effect (Prasad, 1998), leading these researchers to conclude that the lignans rather than the omega-3 fats were responsible for the result. Recall that no lignans are found in flaxseed oil unless they are replaced after extraction. Since the early 2000’s, flaxseed has earned the moniker “functional food” (Bloedon, 2004).

Ventricular fibrillation is a severely abnormal heart rhythm that can be life threatening if heartbeat is interrupted for only a few seconds. Though not entirely definitive, some evidence presents flaxseed as able to improve vascular relaxation and inhibit the incidence of ventricular fibrillation (Bassett, 2009), while working in the wings to reduce after-meal glucose absorption and to lower markers of inflammation (Bloedon, 2004). The mechanism behind flaxseed’s heroic reputation involves synergies that are under analysis, including the modulation of cardiac ion channels, attenuation of triglyceride levels, cell signaling, anti-thrombosis activity and anti-arrhythmic effect (Adkins, 2010). In rabbits, animals whose cardiovascular systems parallel humans’, ventricular fibrillation that occurred during induced ischemia was halted and reperfusion injury was attenuated (Ander, 2004).

Concern about plant lignans and hormone-related cancers may not be well-founded, as discovered in two cohort studies that examined the association (Pinder, 2002) (Keinan-Boker, 2004). Here it was intimated that no association of plant lignans to breast cancer exists in premenopausal women (Touillaud, 2006). In fact, high lignan intake may create a 15% decrease in breast cancer risk in postmenopausal women (Velentzis, 2009). Even with prostate disease there is no significant association of phytoestrogens with cancer (Strom, 1999) (Hedelin, 2006) (Travis, 2009). In fact, dietary lignans may lower risk for prostate cancer (Heald, 2007).

Since most of us have taken increased responsibility for our health, it’s likely that we participate in some kind of exercise. Walking counts, but not to the refrigerator to get a pint of Ben and Jerry’s. Adding flaxseeds to the diet isn’t that hard. You can use 3 tablespoons of flax meal to replace 1 tablespoon of fat in a recipe. You could replace one egg with 1 tblspn of flax plus 3 tblspn of water. (Don’t even think about doing this for breakfast. It just ain’t the same, bacon or not.) You could mix it into a meatloaf, stir it into soups or smoothies, throw it onto your oatmeal, or mix it with sugar and cinnamon as a substitute dessert topping. But it has to be ground to work. Whole flaxseeds will pass right through the digestive system, taking all the benefits along with it.

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Bassett CM, Rodriguez-Leyva D, Pierce GN. Experimental and clinical research findings on the cardiovascular benefits of consuming flaxseed. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2009 Oct;34(5):965-74.

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National Council on Strength and Fitness Flaxseed and Exercise Date:  Oct. 29, 2012

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Touillaud MS, Thiébaut AC, Niravong M, Boutron-Ruault MC, Clavel-Chapelon F. No association between dietary phytoestrogens and risk of premenopausal breast cancer in a French cohort study. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2006 Dec;15(12):2574-6.

Travis RC, Spencer EA, Allen NE, Appleby PN, Roddam AW, Overvad K, Johnsen NF, Olsen A, et al Plasma phyto-oestrogens and prostate cancer in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition. Br J Cancer. 2009 Jun 2;100(11):1817-23. Epub 2009 May 12.

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Ward H, Chapelais G, Kuhnle GG, Luben R, Khaw KT, Bingham S. Lack of prospective associations between plasma and urinary phytoestrogens and risk of prostate or colorectal cancer in the European Prospective into Cancer-Norfolk study. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2008 Oct;17(10):2891-4.

*These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. These products are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent any disease.