The benefits of using flaxseed oil

Supplement taken by athletes thought to build energy, stamina

October 11, 2007|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,sun reporter

Olympian Marion Jones once said she used it. And so did Tour de France winner Floyd Landis and home-run record holder Barry Bonds.

Not steroids, but plant oil.

Flaxseed seemed to be getting endorsements from every celebrity athlete on the defensive about illegal doping - perhaps because some say it shares a sensory quality with at least one substance banned in pro sports.

But when Jones recently acknowledged that she didn't tap the flowering plant from Canada in her quest for the gold, health professionals say maybe she should have.

Believers say flaxseed oil does everything from aiding blood flow and arthritis to preventing dandruff and cancer to building energy and stamina. Some claims may be unproven, but the hype is making flaxseed more mainstream and available not just as supplements in health food stores, but in power bars, cereal and even dog kibble at the supermarket.

"It really started to catch on with endurance athletes in the last five years when they discovered the benefits," said Steve Ehasz, the fitness director at the Maryland Athletic Club in Harbor East and a coach for USA Cycling. "I recommend it."

Nonplussed by some athletes' dubious claims of use, he adds it to his own yogurt and shakes; unlike some steroids, it's never injected.

Flaxseeds' benefits lie in its Omega-3 fatty acids, which are considered essential fatty acids because they are needed by the body but not made by it. Such fatty acids also are found in cold-water fish like tuna and salmon.

Ehasz said he started taking flaxseed supplements when they were newly on the market about 15 years ago after reading some studies. But little was known then about proper care. He bought a container, opened it and got a whiff of something akin to paint thinner.

He called the company and discovered that flaxseed oil has a short shelf life and goes rancid if it's not refrigerated. Some describe it as strong and slightly bitter, but closer to nuts than solvents.

Nowadays, the oil's storage needs are better known. It comes in oil form, usually stored in a dark container to shield it from light and refrigerated to protect it from heat. (GNC sells it for $19.99 for 16 ounces.) The oil also comes in gel capsules (up to $8.99 for 90 gel caps). Bags of whole flaxseeds don't have to be kept cold, but they need to be ground to release the beneficial oil and then refrigerated (up to $8.99 for 16 ounces). Flaxseeds should never be cooked.

The recommended dosage depends on who you are, but generally a tablespoon a day for every 100 pounds is a rule of thumb, said Monica Myklebust, the medical director for the University of Maryland's Center for Integrative Medicine, which melds conventional and alternative treatments.

She said Omega-3 fatty acids are considered good fat that help build and maintain cell membranes that act as gatekeepers, letting in the good elements and banning the bad ones. People should, but often don't, get more of them than Omega-6 fatty acids, or bad fat usually found in processed foods that leads to clogged arteries.

Among specific benefits to athletes, the Omega-3 fatty acids also are anti-inflammatories that aid repair of muscles broken down during workouts. Faster repair means faster buildup of muscle and less stiffness and soreness, Myklebust said.

She recommended consumers speak with a health care professional before adding straight flaxseed oil to their diets. It can come with side effects such as gas, and too much can cause excessive bleeding. It also interferes with some drugs.

She also said athletes and people in general can add Omega-3 fatty acids without taking a supplement. Cows that eat grass rather than corn have more Omega-3 fatty acids in their milk and flesh. Same goes for wild salmon that eat algae versus farm-raised fish that eat corn-based food.

"You can improve your diet and make a big difference," she said. "If you can't, a flaxseed oil supplement would be helpful."

As for getting Omega-3 fatty acids in cereal and power bars, there may not be much flaxseed in them, and if they aren't ground they don't provide much more than fiber. If they contain stabilizers, they don't need refrigeration, noted Dr. Christine Gerbstadt, a medical doctor and dietitian in Sarasota, Fla., and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

She said vegans, who don't eat fish, have helped give rise to flaxseed oil's popularity.

As for its popularity among pro athletes being under scrutiny? It may be hard to say if they know if they're taking flaxseed, the anabolic steroid known as "the clear" linked to Jones and others, or another substance banned in pro sports.

Gerbstadt said: "Flax has a stronger, slightly bitter taste and smell, and coincidentally, so does human growth hormone."

Flaxseed facts

Contains: Omega-3 fatty acids necessary for good health

Aids to athletes: decreases inflammation and increases blood flow

Dose: a tablespoon a day per 100 pounds

Comes in: gel caps, whole seeds, as well as cereal, power bars

Smells and tastes: strong, slightly bitter

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