Every so often we hear about so-called superfoods, a term I’d define as whole foods that provide significant, multi-faceted health benefits and that may have a trail of clinical and experimental legitimacy behind them.

These foods have been eaten for thousands of years, so our bodies are well-accustomed to digesting and absorbing their nutrients with minimal difficulty and no adverse reactions.

Flaxseeds fit the above definition.

They are a superfood with another notable benefit — they’re very inexpensive (under a buck a pound) — and widely found in local stores.

Studies show that reproductive malignancies such as breast, endometrial and prostate cancer may be slowed by consuming 2-3 tablespoons daily of ground flaxseeds. Flaxseeds contain valuable fat and fiber, but for slowing tumor growth, lignans (estrogen-like compounds in flaxseeds) may reign supreme. Also known as phytoestrogens, lignans help the body modulate signaling by the hormone estrogen.

For women with breast cancer, flax consumption has been shown to slow cancer’s spread to other organs.

My clients often ask about consuming flax oil. High-lignan flaxseed oils are available, but they’re sensitive to spoilage if not used quickly and must be refrigerated.

The oil is more expensive, and while it’s a great source of Omega-3 fatty acids, so are the seeds (since they’re the original oil source anyway). We can easily grind flaxseeds in a coffee grinder and keep them in the fridge. If we don’t grind them, we can’t easily digest them, and those that we haven’t chewed will pass through us unused.

A recent study showed that when 28 menopausal women consumed 4 tablespoons of ground flaxseeds daily, after six weeks their hot flashes dropped, on average, from 7.3 to 3.6 a day, and the intensity lessened.

“Lignans in flax offer a ‘natural,’ less-potent estrogen effect on hot flashes than synthetic hormone therapy,” according to the study’s author, Sandhya Pruthi of the Mayo Clinic.

The Omega-3 fatty acids and lignans in flaxseeds offer a one-two punch for chronic disease risk reduction and treatment. Flaxseeds are high in fiber, and studies show they may be effective against colorectal cancers and chronic constipation. Flax contains approximately 2.5 grams of fiber per tablespoon, a significant amount for the average American who is sorely lacking in fiber consumption. One can simply add the ground flaxseed meal to yogurt, cereal, fruit, salads, applesauce or smoothies.

I recommend 1 to 2 tablespoons of ground flaxseeds per day, dividing dosages of more than 2 tablespoons into 2 servings. If you’re trying to treat a serious health concern such as cancer, discuss flax consumption with your doctor.

In a country where high-tech medicine is sending costs through the roof, it’s refreshing to see a simple superfood play so valiant a role in our health. 

Michael Altman, a nutritionist at Ventana Wellness in Medford and the Centre for Natural Healing in Ashland, teaches at Southern Oregon University and College of the Siskiyous. E-mail him at altmanm@sou.edu.