Greener BeeGreen LivingWhat Are Lignans?

Lignans are a group of compounds found in plants. They are a key component behind many of the health benefits attributed to soy beans and flax seeds. Lignans are present in most plant-based foods and are easy to include in your diet.

How do lignans work?

Lignans contain phytoestrogens, which can mimic the effects of estrogen. These phytoestrogens are released when dietary lignans are broken down during digestion.

Many of your body tissues contain estrogen receptors that bind to the hormone. Your bones, liver, heart, brain and reproductive organs are all affected by estrogen. Phytoestrogens can also bind to these receptors and act like estrogen, but they can also block the effects of your body’s natural estrogen.

Both of these actions can be beneficial for your health. For instance, the estrogen-promoting action could help boost bone density. Whereas, the anti-estrogenic effect could reduce the risk of hormone-associated cancers like breast cancer.

Are lignans good for you?

This can depend on the person consuming them, due to the different ways phytoestrogens can affect your body.

The University of Maryland Medical Center recommends speaking to your doctor before increasing your phytoestrogen intake if you have any hormone-related conditions, such as ovarian cancer, uterine fibroids, endometriosis or pregnancy. Phytoestrogens have the potential to negatively affect these conditions.

On the other hand, dietary lignans and phytoestrogens have been shown to have many health benefits, including:

AnticancerVarious studies have found an association between higher intake of plant lignans and a reduced risk of breast, endometrial, ovarian and prostate cancers.

Heart health – Diets rich in plant foods have consistently been shown to help reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease. Research suggests that lignans are one of the many nutrients and phytochemicals in plants that contribute to their cardioprotective effects.

Weight control – A 2009 study of postmenopausal women showed that those who had a higher dietary lignan intake also had less body fat and lower blood sugar levels.

Which foods have lignans?

Lignans are part of most plant-based foods and are linked to dietary fiber, so any high-fiber foods are often good sources of lignans. The British Journal of Nutrition published a study that examined the lignan content of various common foods. These are some of the highlights:

Nuts and seeds – Flax seeds have the highest amount of lignans in any food. But make sure you eat the seeds themselves, flax seed oil loses most of the lignans during processing. Sesame, sunflower, pumpkin and poppy seeds are also good sources of lignans, as well as cashews and peanuts.

Whole grains and beans – Most whole grains and beans contain high amounts of lignans. This includes whole grain breads, granola and other grain products as well as grains prepared alone, like oats, rice or barley. Beans and bean products also have lignans, including tofu.

Vegetables – These are a good source of dietary lignans, especially vegetables in the cabbage family, such as kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower. Garlic, green beans, sweet peppers, zucchini and carrots also rate highly. Even some vegetable oils contain lignans, particularly olive oil.

Fruits – Many fruits also contain lignans. Apricots have the most, followed by strawberries, peaches, pears, nectarines, raisins and grapefruits.

Do you need to take a supplement?

If your diet primarily consists of unrefined, high-fiber plant foods, you’re likely getting a good amount of lignans. It’s recommended you get 23-30 grams of fiber per day to provide an optimal amount of plant lignans.

Although, very few people on a Western diet actually eat this amount of fiber. In the United States, the average daily intake of fiber is only 15 grams.

Another issue that may affect your uptake of lignans is digestive health. If your digestion is impaired for any reason, you may not be breaking down the lignans you eat well enough to convert them into phytoestrogens. Healing your gut will help with this situation.

Supplements are a good option for people who want to boost their lignan intake. Commercial supplements can be made from various plant sources, such as flax or sesame seed hulls. These would be available in your local health food store or online.

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