Word Of The Day: LIGNANS

Lignans are naturally occurring chemicals widespread within

the plant and animal kingdoms. Several lignans—with intimidating names such as

secoisolariciresinol—are considered to be phytoestrogens, plant chemicals that

mimic the hormone estrogen. These are especially abundant in flaxseeds and sesame

seeds. (Although flaxseed oil

contains Omega 3, it does not contain the lignan and fiber as found in the

flaxseed. The lignans and fiber are removed during the process of making

the oil).

Bacteria in our intestines convert the naturally occurring

phytoestrogens from flaxseed into two other lignans, enterolactone and

enterodiol, which also have estrogen-like effects.

Lignans are being studied for possible use in cancer

prevention, particularly breast cancer. Like other phytoestrogens (such as soy isoflavones), they

hook onto the same spots on cells where estrogen attaches. If there is little

estrogen in the body (after menopause, for example), lignans may act like weak

estrogen; but when natural estrogen is abundant in the body, lignans may

instead reduce estrogen's effects by displacing it from cells. This

displacement of the hormone may help prevent those cancers, such as breast

cancer, that depend on estrogen to start and develop. In addition, at least one

test tube study suggests that lignans may help prevent cancer in ways that are

unrelated to estrogen.

The richest source of lignans is flaxseed (sometimes called

linseed), containing more than 100 times the amount found in other foods! Flaxseed oil,

however, does not contain appreciable amounts of lignans. Sesame seed is an

equally rich source. Other food sources are pumpkin seeds, whole grains,

cranberries, and black or green tea. Cooking flaxseed apparently does not decrease the amount of

lignans absorbed by the body.

A number of preliminary human and animal studies suggest

that lignans may be helpful for cancer

, particularly of breast and colon cancer, as well

reduction of cholesterol. Other highly preliminary research suggests that

flaxseeds or lignans may decrease menopausal symptoms and improve kidney

function in various types of kidney disease.

The most promising use for lignans is in cancer prevention.

According to observational studies, people who eat more lignan-containing foods have a lower incidence of

breast and perhaps colon cancer. This, however, does not prove that lignans are

the cause of the benefit, for other factors in these foods, or in the characteristics

of the people who consume these foods, may have been responsible.

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