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Flax (Linum usitatissimum) is an annual plant growing to 3ft tall. It has been cultivated by man for over 10,000 years for its fibres, which are woven into linen fabric. Dyed fibres recovered from a cave in Georgia have been dated at 30,000 years old.
Flax is mentioned both in the Talmud and in the Book of Exodus, which prohibited its blending with “impure” wool.
The Ancient Egyptians grew flax along the banks of the Nile, and wove linen for use in clothing, bedding, sails and even sheets used in the embalming of mummies.
In medieval Europe, flax was thought to bring good fortune, restore health and offer protection against witchcraft.
Flax seeds, also called linseed, are the source of linseed oil, a source of polyunsaturated fatty acids, especially alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3-fatty acid that has anti-inflammatory properties. They are an excellent source of dietary fibre and contain high levels of phyto-oestrogens known as lignans, compounds that have antioxidant as well as oestrogenic activity. Studies have shown that these compounds help protect against breast cancer and prostate cancer.
Recent research carried out at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia investigated the effects of feeding flax seeds to mice that had undergone thoracic radiation treatment, similar to that used to treat intrathoracic malignancies in humans. Complications of such treatment are pulmonary inflammation, oxidative tissue damage and irreversible lung fibrosis, all of which can affect the patient’s chances of survival. It was found that the mice fed on flax seeds had double the four-month survival rate of the control group, as well as decreased pulmonary fibrosis, inflammation and lung damage. The study concluded that dietary supplementation of flaxseed may even be useful in individuals exposed to inhaled radiation, for example as a result