Flaxseed (also called linseed) is one of the oldest cultivated plants on the planet and extremely versatile.

Linen woven from the fibrous stalks of flax have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs and at sites in Switzerland dating back to 4000 BC. Its oil is used in paints while its fibre is used to make the delicate paper of Bibles.

The Greeks,Romans and Chinese have all used flaxseed for therapeutic purposes, to relieve constipation, for example, or externally as a poultice to reduce inflammation.

Before the war, the multi-talented flax was fairly common in the European diet. Now it is making a big comeback among the health conscious as the richest vegetarian source of omega3 essential fatty acids (EFAs).

Fatty acids are components of our cell membranes,affecting the flexibility and permeability of all body cells. They help to prevent loss of moisture from our skin and mucous membranes and are required for the structure and function of the brain.

The body cannot manufacture its own EFAs,so we are entirely dependent on dietary sources. There are two groups of EFAs we need to eat, one called omega-6 and the other omega-3.

For optimal health, it is important to obtain enough of both oils in the right proportions. The Omega-6s are found in nuts, seeds and most vegetable oils.

The richest source of omega-3s, however, comes from cold-water fish, flaxseed and small amounts in walnuts, wheat germ and soya oils.

Researchers are concerned that our modern diet is particularly lacking in omega-3 oils.

For vegetarians and those worried about polluted or farmed fish, flax is a welcome alternative. The tiny seeds are golden or brown in colour with a pleasant, nutty flavour.

Packed with fibre and soothing mucins which coat the digestive tract, they ease the passage of stools and aid a multitude of complaints. Just grind one tablespoon of flaxseeds in a coffee grinder and sprinkle over cereal or mix into a glass of water.

The essential fats remain its key healing components. Flaxseed oil (available in capsule or liquid form)appears to reduce the risk of heart disease and counters inflammatory reactions associated with arthritis and other conditions.

The oil should be refrigerated and never heated as essential oils are volatile and spoil quickly when exposed to heat, light or oxygen. Discard the oil if it tastes bitter or rancid.

Use a tablespoon of flaxseed oil a day instead of salad dressings or mix it into juice or yoghurt.

You can find out more about flax from your local health food store.