I’ve been running with the topic of flaxseed (also called linseed) for three weeks now. First I examined Dr. Duncan’s comments about flaxseed in The New Edinburgh Dispensatory of 1803. Next, I reviewed the health benefits of flaxseed oil. Last week I discussed some uses of flaxseed oil by Regency-era doctors and surgeons. In this blog I describe how milled flaxseed was used in making infusions and poultices during Jane Austen’s day.
Infusions of Flaxseed for Various Complaints
Infusions are prepared by pouring a hot or cold liquid upon a substance such as flaxseed, horseradish, mint or orange peel in order to extract its desired medicinal qualities. A surgeon, for example, might use an infusion to introduce medicines into his patient’s veins by means of an instrument called an infusor.1 Doctors used flaxseed infusions for patients who were having difficulty making water (we would say “urinating”) and in patients with a cough or a complaint of the breast. Here’s Dr. Buchan’s recipe for making a flaxseed infusion:2
Take of linseed, two spoonsful; licorice root, sliced, half an ounce; boiling water, three pints. Let them stand to infuse by the fire for some hours, and then strain off the liquor.
Basically, Dr. Buchan made a pot of well-cooked flaxseed tea spiced with licorice root. The medicinal quality of flaxseed sought here was its mucilage. Flaxseed mucilage gums sit right on the surface of the seed coat. When whole flax seeds sit in a liquid for an hour or two, the mucilage gums float off into the liquid, making it viscous or gummy. (A Regency-era recipe for making flaxseed tea can be found in footnote # 2 here.)
Mucilage gums are a type of soluble dietary fiber. Soluble dietary fiber promotes laxation by attracting water, which helps soften stools. Soluble dietary fiber also reduces blood cholesterol and helps regulate blood glucose. Recent studies have shown that flaxseed mucilage gums act as antioxidants and they improve insulin sensitivity in people with obesity. All good reasons to add a little flaxseed mucilage to your diet!
Flaxseed Emollient Poultice
Poultices or cataplasms are pastes designed to cover injured surfaces. The emollient poultice is made of mild, non-irritating substances such as bread and milk or water, bran and water, and ground flaxseed or flaxseed meal. According to Dr. Henry Smith of Philadelphia, the latter makes “decidedly the best poultice, not only as regards its properties, but also its economy.”3 The emollient flaxseed poultice is made by pouring hot water on meal and stirring the mixture until it reaches the proper consistency, being neither too thick nor too thin.
Mr. Robert Keate (1777-1857) was a surgeon and a contemporary of Jane Austen. (Austen lived between 1775 and 1817.) Despite being something of a Scottish terrier in personality, Keate was said to “make a linseed poultice to perfection.”
Milled Flaxseed Helps with Wound Healing
Milled flax is good for the skin! Horses fed milled flaxseed in their diet showed good recovery from “sweet itch,” a seasonal skin condition characterized by itchy lesions. Sweet itch is believed to occur in horses that are sensitive to the bite of midges. Flaxseed was chosen for this study because it is rich in the anti-inflammatory fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). After eating milled flaxseed, horses sensitive to midge bites showed decreased allergic responses to this allergen compared with when they ate a control diet without flaxseed.4
Actually, it is truth universally acknowledged (but not widely reported in the scientific literature) that adding a little flaxseed to a pet’s or show animal’s diet will produce a glossy coat of fur and healthy skin. Anecdotal evidence to support this claim can be found online (for example: k9instinct.com, yourolddog.com, and other sites.)
1Dunglison, Robley. Medical Lexicon: A New Dictionary of Medical Science. (Philadelphia: Lea & Blanchard, 1842), p. 379 (PDF p. 386).
2Buchan, William. Domestic Medicine: Or, a Treatise on the Prevention and Cure of Diseases, by Regimen and Simple Medicines. (Boston: Joseph Bumstead, 1811), p. 452.
3Smith, Henry H. Minor Surgery; or, Hints on the Every-day Duties of the Surgeon. (Philadelphia: Ed. Barrington & Geo. D. Haswell, 1843), pp. 32-33 (PDF pp. 43-44).
4O’Neill, Wendy, et al. Flaxseed (Linum usitatissimum) supplement associated with reduced skin test regional area in horses with Culicoides hypersensitivity. Canadian Journal of Veterinary Research. 2002;66:272-277.