Flaxseed for Constipation and IBS

Bowl of flaxseed.
Photo: Bill Noll/Getty Images

Flaxseed, also known as linseed, are the tiny seeds from the flax plant. Because of their nutritional make-up flaxseed has been investigated as a way to address the symptoms of many health conditions, including constipation. Here you will learn about flaxseed so that you can make an informed decision as to whether it would be a good thing to add to your diet to ease your symptoms of constipation of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

What is Flaxseed?

The flaxseed plant has a long history of being used for by humans for a wide variety of uses. The leaves, stems, and seeds of the flax plant have been used for clothing, in cooking, and for medicinal purposes, as well as in the manufacture of many worldwide goods. Flaxseeds are the tiny, sesame seed-size seeds from the plant. Although flaxseed can be eaten whole, grinding the seeds allows the body to fully benefit from flaxseed’s many nutritional benefits.

    Nutritional Benefits of Flaxseed

    When eaten in a ground form, flaxseed offers a wealth of healthful nutrients. It is considered a good source of the following:

    Research on animals in laboratories and some preliminary studies with humans who have certain diseases, have found some evidence that flaxseed my improve heart health, lower cholesterol levels, reduce the risk of certain cancers (breast, colon, prostate) and ease the symptoms of menopause.

    Clearly larger studies need to be conducted before any firm conclusions can be made about the helpfulness of flaxseed for these health problems.

      Flaxseed for Constipation

      Of all of the health conditions for which flaxseed has been studied, constipation appears to have the most research. Small studies have been conducted with both humans and laboratory animals.

      The results of these studies indicate that flaxseed may be effective in speeding up intestinal movement, resulting in an increased frequency of bowel movements.

      Flaxseed for IBS

      Although most studies have been done with laboratory animals, one small, preliminary study on people who have IBS found that flaxseed may not only help to ease constipation, but may also help to reduce bloating and abdominal pain.

      Preliminary animal studies suggest that flaxseed may not only ease the symptoms of constipation, but may also help to ease diarrhea due to its effect on stool formation. That being said, if you have diarrhea-predominant IBS, (IBS-D) and you decide to give flaxseed a try, you may want to start with very small doses to allow your body time to adjust. 

      Although there is no research on the subject, it is possible that flaxseed might be a nice option for you if you have alternating type IBS (IBS-A) as the increase in fiber might theoretically help to stabilize the make-up of the stool.

      In any case, more research is needed to better understand the role of flaxseed as a way to ease IBS symptoms.

      Who Should Not Use Flaxseed?

      Before using any new substance on a regular basis, you should get clearance from your doctor.

      Individuals who suffer from diverticulosis, a condition in which a person has small pockets in their intestine lining, need to be extremely cautious not to have seed fragments become trapped in those pockets and, thus should only use finely ground flaxseed or flaxseed oil.

      Things to Keep in Mind When Using Flaxseed

      It is important to consider shelf-life requirements when deciding which form of flaxseed to use. Whole flaxseed has a shelf life of up to one year. Ground flaxseed should be refrigerated and used within a few months. Flaxseed oil must be refrigerated to keep it from going rancid and should be used within a few weeks.

      It is also important to bear in mind that flaxseed oil lacks fiber and some of the other major-nutritional benefits of flaxseed in its seed form.

        How To Use Flaxseed

        You have the option to buy flaxseed pre-ground or to use a small coffee grinder to grind your own. Flaxseed has a pleasant nutty taste. If you decide to introduce flaxseed into your diet, do so gradually and then work your way up to 2 tbsp. per day. Make sure to drink lots of water when consuming flaxseed. Here are some ways to incorporate it into your daily diet:

        • Sprinkle ground flaxseed on cereal or yogurt
        • Add ground flaxseed to baked goods
        • Add ground flaxseed into smoothies
        • Fold ground flaxseed into your favorite meatloaf or sauce recipes

        Sources:

        Cockerell KM, Watkins AS, Reeves LB, Goddard L, Lomer MC. Effects of linseeds on the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome: a pilot randomised controlled trial. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics 2012 Oct;25(5):435-43.

        "Flaxseed" University of Maryland Medical Center.

        Tarpila, S.; Tarpila, A.; Gr..hn, T.; Silvennonoinen, T.; and Lindberg, L. Efficacy of ground flaxseed on constipation in patients with irritable bowel syndrome Current Topics in Nutraceutical Research 2004 2:119-125.

        Xu J, Zhou X, Chen C, Deng Q, Huang Q, Yang J, Yang N, Huang F. "Laxative effects of partially defatted flaxseed meal on normal and experimental constipated mice." BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine 2012 12:14.

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