Q&A: Is flax oil good for health?

Q&A: Is flax oil good for health?

With all of the hype on flax seeds could you please explain your recommendations on flax seeds and flax oil?!

The consumption of flax seed and flax oil was popularized during the early 1990s in response to scientific research suggesting that the chronic inflammation that characterizes Western civilization was caused by an imbalance between the ratio two different types of “essential” fatty acids, popularly known as “omega 6” and “omega 3”. The research showed that Westerners consumed too much omega six fatty acids, primarily, from recently introduced industrial fats such as corn oil, safflower oil and soya oil. As these new fats displaced traditional saturated fats such as butter, lard and tallow, the ratio of omega 6 fatty acids relative to omega 3s in the Western diet increased dramatically. The body uses omega six fatty acids to promote inflammation, and omega 3 fatty acids are metabolized to reduce or inhibit inflammation. Inflammation is a very useful and life-saving mechanism, like fever or blood clotting, but when we eat too much omega six, it promotes a state of chronic inflammation, and this causes disease.

When the research on the omega 6/3 issue became popularized in the 1990s, the solution offered by industry and government was to include more omega 3s in the diet, to counter-balance the omega 6s fats. Scientists scavenged the lipid landscape for sources of omega 3s, and arrived at flax seed as a candidate with great potential. Like many seed oils, flax is very high in unsaturated fatty acids, but unlike oils such as corn, safflower and soya, flax has a very high ratio of omega 3s relative to omega 6s. Thus did the humble flax attain the eminent position it has today, as the perfect antidote to a diet rich in omega 6 fatty acids.

Never mind, however, that flax oil was never traditionally used as a food. Rich in unstable, poly-unsaturated fatty acids, flax oil rapidly oxidizes, essentially turning it into a kind of polymer, like plastic. Thus flax, or linseed oil, was traditionally used as a binder in paints, as a wood finish, in putty for window glazing, and was even used to make linoleum: hence the name “lino”, referring to “linseed”. All of this might sound quite amazing, and perhaps even gives one pause to consider the miraculous benefits of flax seed. Unfortunately, the very thing that makes it useful in industry as “drying” oil, makes it toxic for daily consumption.

Of course most have a sense of this, which is why we dutifully buy our flax oil in dark-colored containers stored in the refrigerator. But mostly this is for show, as very often the flax oil is not stored in optimal conditions, between the point of manufacture and the consumer’s fridge. I worked for a time for a supplement company in Florida, and they stored their rather expensive omega 3 supplements in a non-refrigerated warehouse before shipping them out. In Florida. In the summer. But when their product shipped to the retail outlet, it was stored in branded refrigerators that gave the consumer the impression of quality. The research I’ve seen, however, is that even under optimal conditions, flax oil rapidly auto-oxidizes, and essentially becomes toxic within a few short months of manufacture. Supplement companies assure us that their oil products have a long shelf life, but their assurance isn’t based on anything more than laboratory simulations, not real-time field testing. If supplement companies were concerned about these issues, they would guarantee the quality of their oils on the basis of measures such as peroxide values and p-anisidine levels. But they will never do this, because every single study shows that the peroxide values and p-anisidine levels in these oils steadily increases as the oil ages. This is why conventional polyunsaturated cooking oils like corn and canola are industrially refined, to remove the unstable constituents that lead to their degradation. Of course it doesn’t mean that they are better for being refined, as this process creates geometric isomers, i.e. “trans-fats”, that are equally toxic.

Earlier this week I posted a news story to facebook, demonstrating that our need for omega 3 fats is placing enormous pressure on the ocean’s sea life, announced with the headline: “The marketing of fish oil to consumers is a manufactured solution to a manufactured problem.” As we can see from my discussion above, the concern for dietary omega 3s has arisen because we created the problem in the first place. The supposedly rational idea of eating more unstable omega 3 fats to counter-balance a diet rich in unstable omega 6 fats is like using gasoline to put out a fire. In truth, we only need very small amounts of these “essential” fatty acids, only 1-2 grams each, per day. What should have happened when this issue was first raised in 1990s, is that we should have eliminated all the new-fangled omega 6 fats from our diet, and returned to the fats that our great-grandparents used, including traditional fats from grass-fed animals, as well as other saturated fats including coconut and (ethical) palm oil, and monounsaturated fatty acid sources such as almond and olive. What’s unique about all these fats is that they don’t contain much in the way of omega 6/3 fatty acids, which makes that a good thing when it comes to cooking, because as we have seen, omega 6/3 fatty acids are easily turned into highly toxic free radicals when exposed to heat, light or oxygen. But what small amounts they do have, and in particular the fat from grass-fed animals, is a perfectly balanced ratio of omega 6/3s. Beef tallow, for example, has a contains about 4% omega 6 fatty acids, and 1% omega 3 fatty acids, which is a ratio of 4:1. In contrast, cooking oils like corn oil have a ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acid that is about 50:1. Based on the math, you are ten times more likely to experience inflammation eating corn oil, compared to beef fat.

The reason why public health recommendations didn’t call for returning to traditional fats was manifold, but chief among the reasons, including collusion between government and industry, was the old cherry that traditional fats such as butter and beef fat contain saturated fat, and saturated fat causes heart disease. This notion has been promulgated for almost a century now, but the association between saturated fat and heart disease was never properly established, and now that some scientists have extricated themselves from this social bias, we now have a growing body of research that saturated fat has no impact upon the health of your arteries, and is not associated with heart disease at all. In fact, fats rich in saturated fatty acids are one of the best sources of essential fatty acids, because if they contain them, like butter, tallow and lard, the delicate polyunsaturated fatty acids are perfectly protected by the heat-resistant saturated fats and cholesterol. Gosh, it almost looks like it was designed that way…!

In summation, I recommend to all my patients to assiduously avoid directly consuming polyunsaturated fatty acids, including flax oil. The organic flax oil you buy from the store is good for some things: like wood finishing and seasoning cast iron pans, but not to eat. When it comes to flax seeds, however, my opinion changes slightly. I still don’t consider flax a food, but it does have some useful medicinal properties. When the whole seeds are soaked overnight in water, they absorb fluid, and can be helpful as a bulk laxative in the treatment of constipation. Some people like to freshly grind flax seed, and then add it to their food. I don’t have major issues with this, as there is much less oil in whole ground flax seed than the oil product itself, and what it does have, has been perfectly protected, enclosed within the shell of the seed, which protects the oil from oxidation. There is also some research showing that constituents in flax called lignans may have a protective effect in diseases such as breast cancer and prostate cancer, and may help lower cholesterol, but other claims such as flax being useful for hot flashes or to improve bone density have proven to be false. Flax isn’t the only source of dietary lignans, however, as they can also be found in seeds such as sesame seed, cruciferous vegetables, and fruits such as strawberry and apricot. All in all, I don’t recommend eating more than 1-2 tbsp of ground flax seed per day, on a regular basis.

Original “fire cider” for nausea

Original “fire cider” for nausea

A few weeks ago I had a visit from a family who brought their senior-aged mother to see me, complaining of a relentless nausea. No cause could be ascertained, and she had already spent a couple days in the hospital on IV, but with no respite. When I examined her, the poor lady was very pale and cold, barely coherent, and was listing in her chair, almost falling over. Her family was obviously very worried, but I was confident that I could restore her rather quickly, my optimism based on a little remedy I discovered about 15 years ago. While she and her family waited, I excused myself and made some up. I measured out a dose and diluted it in warm water, gave it to the mother, and then continued talking to the family about ways they could restore her electrolytes and digestion. Within a minute or so, the mother’s pallor changed notably, and she began to sit upright, and answer questions easily. Her eyes were clearer and brighter, and by the time she left a few minutes later, she easily walked out the door on the arm of her daughter.

I knew this remedy would likely benefit her because I have had occasion to test it many times. The first time I found this remedy was when I was searching for something I could give a young female patient that had suffered from intractable nausea for an entire year, as a complication of appendix surgery. She literally could not get out of bed, and had not attended school in the last nine months. Her mother was at her wit’s end, and told me she had tried everything: pharmaceuticals, herbal remedies, homeopathics and acupuncture – nothing had worked so far.

During this period I was also clinical director at a herbal college, and was teaching a course on Physiomedicalism, an early evolute of Western herbal medicine in North America. It was a practice derived from the techniques of a folk herbalist named Samuel Thomson, who is notable not only as the first multi-level marketer in North America, but because he introduced several herbs into the materia medica, including lobelia (Lobelia inflata) and cayenne (Capsicum spp.). For Thomson, cayenne in particular was a herb that was unmatched when it came to holding the “heat” of the stomach, synonymous with good appetite and digestion. In Ayurveda, the stomach is the primary site of kapha, or ‘phlgem’, and when the cold, heavy and congesting qualities of kapha increase, there is a commensurate decline in appetite and digestion. Think of trying to burn wet leaves: instead of heat (digestion), all we get is smoke (nausea). Thus nausea is essentially a disease of kapha, and the primary method for resolving this is to burn away the mucus and congestion by activating the digestive fire. In this way, cayenne can be used for any type of kapha issue, including viral rhinitis and influenza, where the symptoms are characterized by nausea, coldness and mucus congestion. For active fever, however, this is remedy is too heating and should be avoided in favour of gentle diaphoretics such as yarrow, catnip, or elder flower tea.

Capsicum_frutescensWhile cayenne was Thomson’s standby for digestion, I explored further and came across a specific formula in King’s American Dispensatory called “Anti-emetic drops“, comprised of apple cider vinegar, cayenne, salt and water. I decided to try it out and mixed up a batch. I gave it to this young woman and her mother, and within a day I got a report back that the nausea was gone. Cautiously optimistic, I suggested she continue, and let me know how she was doing in a few days. A week later I heard from her mother that she was back at school, hanging out with her friends, now living the life she missed out on for the last year. Although I never saw them again, I received a letter from her mother several years later, telling me that her daughter had finished university – something she said wouldn’t have been possible without my help, and of course, the help of this very useful remedy.

Here is the recipe for King’s Anti-emetic Drops (approximated, using kitchen measurements):

  • 1/2 ounce (15 g) of powdered cayenne
  • 1/4 tsp (2 g) of salt
  • 1 cup (250 mL) apple cider vinegar
  • 1 cup (250 mL) water

Dose: One tablespoon, given as often as required.

The original fire cider?

Lately there has been a bit of a furor over a company that has trademarked the name “fire cider”, which is a combination of vinegar, habanero peppers, and other herbs. Perhaps because I live in Canada, I had never heard of the term “fire cider”, although I am obviously familiar with the ingredients. It seems that some folks are irritated that the company has taken a folk remedy and claimed it as their own. As we can see, the basic formula goes back more than a century, mentioned in the 1898 edition of King’s American Dispensatory, so it is hardly unique. Patents are used to protect inventions, whereas trademarks are used to protect marketing terms, such as product names. And unlike patents, which are supposedly novel inventions, it doesn’t matter how stupid an idea is to get a trademark to protect it. You just need to be first.

While the trademark application itself seems weak and could be challenged, it’s important to point out that there is no limitation on anyone making “fire cider” and calling it such, just as long as they don’t also sell it as “fire cider”. However, I can’t see how this little company is going to be hiring big city lawyers to put small time herbalists out of business at their local farmer’s market.  Particularly if everyone does it: bring on World Wide Fire Cider Making Day!

Anyway, in the context of our free market, capitalist economy, it’s hard to fault the company: this is the way the system works, for better or for ill. It was probably a bad business decision on their part not to pick a unique name. Fortunately, herbalists are generally not proprietary folk, so regardless of the name, this and similar remedies should continue to remain part of the commons for a long time to come.

My take on E3 Live during pregnancy

My take on E3 Live during pregnancy

Several months ago a patient in her first trimester of pregnancy asked me about a new product called E3Live® BrainON®, and was wondering if this product was safe her to take. Many of her friends were taking it, and she was wondering about a convincing testimonial from an Evita Ramparte on the E3Live® website.

I went through my entire pregnancy drinking E3Live® Enhanced with BrainON, which kept my mind alert, awake and positive. I gave birth to [a] very healthy baby boy. I am breastfeeding, and I believe it is thanks to E3Live® that I have plenty of milk and no post-partum depression. We’re in good spirits and good health. Besides, I have already lost all the weight I gained in pregnancy! As a wellness journalist, I am often asked whether E3 is safe for pregnant and nursing moms. On the bottle, it’s written: ‘Consult your physician.’ Unfortunately, few physicians know about this beautiful gift of Nature. Naturally, they are afraid to recommend something they have not studied.

That’s quite an endorsement, which might allay the concern of any pregnant mom, but it’s also pre-emptive shot-across-the bow against any rational critique of this product. It’s like Ms. Ramparte is telling us that E3Live® BrainON® is something so unique and so different, that science truly cannot understand it’s virtue and benefits, that it lies beyond any kind of logical explanation. But taking a look at the ingredients, I don’t see anything heretofore unknown to science. In fact, I see something rather concerning – especially for my pregnant patient.

According to the website, E3Live® BrainON® is stated on the website to contain “Organic, liquid fresh-frozen AFA algae (Aphanizomenon flos aquae) with BrainON®, an organic AFA extract of Phenylethylamine (PEA).” Let’s examine these two ingredients in detail:

Aphanizomenon flos aquae

The first ingredient, Aphanizomenon flos aquae (AFA), is a blue-green algae or cyanobacteria, that used to be sold under the trade name “Super Blue-Green Algae®” in the early 1990s when I was training as a herbalist. I recall that it was popular among some of the students, and lots of people were talking about it: not surprising given that it was sold as part of an MLM scheme. But I felt wary of this product, just like I did with grapefruit seed extract, which was also becoming popular at the time. Among its most vociferous adherents in my class was a young woman who claimed to have stacks of research papers on SBGA® – unfortunately, she only lasted a few months before having to bow out due to sickness. It was a short time later that we learned of major problems with AFA, as detailed by John M. McPartland (DO) in the Townsend Letter for Doctors:

“A. flos-aquae also produces hepatotoxins and neurotoxins. Some of these are carcinogenic.(6b) Others are acutely lethal. The LD50 of one hepatotoxin, microcystin-LR is a mere 50 µg/kg, compared to cyanide’s LD50 of 10,000 µg/kg.(7) Neurotoxins produced by A. flos-aquae include neosaxitoxin and anatoxin.(8) Anatoxin is a chemical cousin to cocaine. Anatoxins may be the reason why people eating blue-green algae sometimes feel energized. Some people also describe being addicted to blue-green algae. Animals are known to develop a fatal attraction to mats of blue-green algae washed up on shorelines.(9) Anatoxins are neurotoxins and eventually destroy brain cells.(10) And contrary to claims by Cell Tech, toxins have been found in A. flos-aquae coming from Klamath Lake.(6,11,12) Cell Tech reportedly tests their algae for these toxins. But in 1984 batches of blue green algae distributed by Cell Tech were found to be toxic and seized by the FDA.”

While Super Blue-Green Algae® is no longer available, it has been reinvented in products such as E3Live® BrainON®, which uses the same species of cyanobacteria that Dr. McPartland refers to in his article. And while the company that makes it, Klamath Algae Products Inc., claims that it is safe, and has many testimonials to back it up, they don’t publish the actual level of these hepatotoxins and neurotoxins in their product. I contacted the company in April of 2013, and asked them for these details, because I was concerned for my pregnant patient. When I first called, the customer service representative hadn’t any clue what I was asking for, but reassured me that E3Live® BrainON® was a great product. Later, I received an email from an E3Live® rep, who forwarded me first a simple monograph, but when pressed for actual data, sent me a “certificate of analysis”:

This “certificate of analysis” isn’t helpful of course, because it is just an example. Again, I wrote E3Live® again for the actual data, but as of yet I have not heard back from the E3Live® rep. As you can see in the analysis they provided, E3Live® states that they test for microcystin, a toxic peptide that is highly toxic to the liver. The regulatory limit for microcystin established by the Oregon Health Division and the Oregon Department of Agriculture is 0.1 micrograms per gram. Microcystin levels above this limit thus represent a risk to the consumer, and the higher the levels, the greater the risk.

Most retail products containing Aphanizomenon flos aquae are sourced from Klamath Lake, in Oregon. Locals to the area are well aware of frequent public health notices, warning recreational users about the danger of algal blooms in Oregon, which is well established to cause a variety of health issues including diarrhea, cramping, vomiting, fainting, numbness, dizziness, tingling and paralysis. Under the current regulations, however, AFA has received an exemption from the Oregon Health Authority:

Aphanizomenon flos-aquae (AFA) is a species of cyanobacteria commonly found in Oregon’s fresh waters. Although some studies have shown this species to produce toxins in other parts of the world, subsequent evaluations of that work show that the species either was or likely was misidentified. For the purpose of issuing public health advisories, AFA is excluded from calculation of combined cell counts of toxigenic species.

While this seems to provide some reassurance, and perhaps reflects the influence of a powerful stakeholder, other research continues to identify problems with products containing AFA. In 2008, the Universität Konstanz in southern Germany found microcystin levels that exceeded the safety level of 1 microgram microcystin per gram in 10 out of 16 samples of AFA sourced from Klamath Lake. In a more recent study in Italy, an analysis of 17 different brands of AFA-containing products were found to be “contaminated by highly variable levels of microcystins (MC-LR and MC-LA congeners), up to 5.2 μg MC-LR equivalents per gram product”. In the WHO’s Guidelines For Drinking-water Quality (3rd ed.) (p. 280), naturally-occuring toxins in Aphanizomenon species include not just peptides like microcystins, but alkaloids such as anatoxin-A, the saxitoxins, and cylindrospermopsin, none of which are listed in the “certificate of analysis” from E3Live®. But it starts to get even worse. Although E3Live® BrainON® is supposedly safe for pregnancy, another study has showed that AFA contains high levels of retinoic acid, a well-established reproductive toxin (teratogen) that promotes birth defects of the nervous system, skeleton, heart, thymus, and urogenital system, in all types of vertebrates, including humans. And even after you remove all these toxins, in study of 259 people using a detoxified extract of Aphanizomenon flos aquae, AFA still caused an allergic reaction in 12% of the population. If you are offering advice to a pregnant woman, does any of this sound safe to you?


The product information for E3Live® BrainON® also states that it contains phenylethylamine (PEA), a monoamine alkaloid that naturally occurs in the brain, acting both as a neuromodulator and neurotransmitter. Similar to amphetamine in action, PEA is synthesized in the brain from the amino acid phenylalanine, and stimulates the release of norepinephrine and dopamine, just like cocaine and methamphetamine. In this way, PEA is a “feel-good” substance when secreted in the brain. In their marketing, the manufacturer claims that E3Live® BrainON® contains a natural-sourced PEA, and on the surface, I didn’t find this too surprising. PEA is found in a variety of plants such as cacao bean, and at one time, was a proposed as a mechanism for the mood-enhancing effects of chocolate. While I searched extensively for published research on the natural occurrence of PEA in Aphanizomenon flos-aquae, the only reference I could find was a patent filed in 2009, and a questionable wikipedia citation. The patent refers to a propriety product trademarked as Phycomin® for which no other information is given, nor can be found anywhere on the internet including PubMed, stating that it is concentrated PEA-extract derived from Aphanizomenon flos-aquae. Interestingly enough, however, this patent doesn’t call for using AFA as a source for PEA, but just pure phenylethylamine itself, which anyone can buy at a bulk nutrition shop for next to nothing compared E3Live® BrainON®.

But what about the phenylethylamine added to E3Live®, as the BrainON® component – does it do what the marketing claims? Does it “promote mood balance and enhanced focus”? Unfortunately, an oral dosage of phenylethylamine has at most a very temporary effect in normal individuals. This is due to the presence of a natural enzyme in the body called monamine oxidase (MAO-B), which rapidly breaks down any oral dose of PEA into it’s constituent components. Research pharmacologist Alexander Shulgin states that PEA taken orally in doses up to 1600 mg has no effect, but sensitive individuals may indeed experience a temporary high. Several years ago, researchers thought that phenylethylamine was responsible for the mood altering effects of chocolate, but this was eventually dismissed. To elicit any kind of sustained effect, PEA must be taken with a MAO inhibitor, such as selegiline, deprenyl or Syrian Rue (Peganum harmala), and when this happens, PEA can become a seriously addictive drug. According to the “certificate of analysis” provided above, E3Live® BrainON® contains 1 g of PEA per 100 g of the product, and thus a typical 2-4 gram daily dose of E3Live® BrainON® only contains 200-400 mg of phenylethylamine. Although the PEA in E3Live® BrainON® will have little to no stimulatory effect in healthy individuals, in those taking taking antidepressants or MAO inhibitors, as well as those suffering from schizo-affective disorders in which MAO may be diminished, it could be that a large dose of E3Live® BrainON® could be strong enough to have serious side-effects and/or cause psychosis. Unfortunately, I don’t see this warning stated anywhere on the E3Live® website.

While PEA may have been added to E3Live® BrainON® to boost the claim that it has cognitive benefits, the “rush” that consumers sometimes experience with this product could be something else altogether. As John M. McPartland noted above in his Townsend Letter article, one of the toxins found in Aphanizomenon flos-aquae not apparently tested for in E3Live® BrainON® is anatoxin, which is structurally similar to cocaine and has similar stimulatory effects upon catecholamine secretion as phenylethylamine. Unlike phenylethylamine, however, anatoxin is directly toxic to neurons, and in high doses causes respiratory failure. Unfortunately, the effect of chronic administration of anatoxin isn’t known. Thus while the PEA issue seems to me to be no more than deception, I cannot in good faith recommend to anyone that they ingest neurotoxins to get a “rush”.

The bottom line

Based on the evidence, I can’t recommend to my pregnant patient that she takes this product, and I would council all pregnant women to avoid it as well – even if we just consider the high retinoic acid content. As well, due to its potential neurotoxic effects, I also suggest that children and the elderly avoid this product as well. While I am open to the idea that AFA, like other algae such as Chlorella, might be beneficial for human consumption, I am worried that the levels of hepatotoxins and neurotoxins might be too high in E3Live® products. The only way to resolve this issue is for E3Live® BrainON® to actively publish their testing data and guarantee the safety of this product for regular human consumption.