In the Middle Ages, people used borage, an herb with bright blue flowers, to treat heart disease and rheumatism and to reduce inflammation. Today, it ' s making a comeback for some of the same medicinal uses.
Borage oil is one of three major supplemental sources of gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), a polyunsaturated fat that is used to treat a number of conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis, eczema, and premenstrual syndrome (pMS).
Besides Borage oil, GLA comes from the seeds of the evening primrose plant and from black currants. The human body also manufactures its own supply of GLA from linoleic acid, which is abundant in vegetable oils and meats, according to Elson Haas, M.D., director of the preventive Medical Center of Marin in San Rafael, California, and author of Staying Healthy Shoppers Guide.
In the body, linoleic acid is converted first to GLA and then to dihomo-gamma-linolenic acid (DGLA), a chemical that does wonders for our health. DGLA is essential for the production of prostaglandin E1, an important hormonelike chemical that reduces inflammation, boosts immunity, lowers blood pressure, keeps platelets from sticking together, and improves blood vessel tone, says Michael Janson, M.D., president of the American College for Advancement in Medicine, based in Laguna Hills, California, and author of The Vitamin Revolution in Health Care.
As we age, our bodies become less efficient at converting linoleic acid to GLA and therefore less efficient at producing the beneficial prostaglandins, says Dr. Janson. Several diseases, including cancer, eczema, multiple sclerosis, and diabetes, also make the conversion less efficient.
This doesn ' t necessarily mean that supplementing with GLA will cure or prevent these diseases. In fact, some experts warn that GLA supplements have the potential to aggravate symptoms because GLA and DGLA can actually help promote inflammation.
" With GLA , an omega-6 fatty acid, the very strategy that you ' re using to help yourself might actually be putting gasoline on the fire, unless you balance it with an adequate intake of omega-3 ' s, " says William E. Lands, ph.D., a long-time researcher in the field of essential fatty acid nutrition in Bethesda, Maryland.
Aiding the Achy and Itchy
In his practice, Dr. Janson commonly prescribes GLA supplements for cardiovascular health, pMS, menstrual cramps, rheumatoid arthritis, and eczema. For the last two - rheumatoid arthritis and eczema - there are numerous scientific articles supporting the value of GLA.
In one promising study, 56 patients with rheumatoid arthritis were randomly assigned to take 2,800 milligrams a day of either GLA or a sunflower oil placebo for six months. Researchers discovered that the patients taking GLA were more than six times more likely to have significant improvement in their symptoms, especially tender joints. patients who weren ' t getting GLA did not show any significant improvement. In fact, they were more than three times more likely to have their symptoms worsen.
For another six-month period, all of the patients in the study received GLA, and all showed improvement in their symptoms. For those who received GLA throughout the study, that improvement was progressive, and seven in this group reduced their reliance on nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or prednisone.
Also known as: GLA.
May help: Heart disease, lupus, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, eczema , fingernail problems, endometriosis, menstrual cramps, premenstrual syndrome (pMS). , and sunburn.
Special instructions: Take after a meal.
Cautions and possible side effects: Do not use supplements without the supervision of a physician if you are taking aspirin or anticoagulants (blood thinners) regularly, have a seizure disorder, or are taking epilepsy medication such as phenothiazines. Do not take borage oil if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. May cause headaches, indigestion, nausea, and softening of stools.
There was just one hitch: Most patients who finished the study found that their swelling and joint pain returned within three months of its conclusion, indicating that they would have to continue to take GLA to suppress their symptoms.
Before you try GLA for yourself, keep in mind that the doses used in this study were much higher than the typical daily dosage of up to 320 milligrams.
proponents of GLA also believe the oil can help treat inflammatory skin disorders such as eczema . Research has come up with conflicting evidence: Two large studies have shown no benefit at all, but others have found improvement, particularly for patients with mild to moderate eczema.
One study involved 60 patients with atopic dermatitis, a chronic, recurring, inflammatory disease marked by eczema and itching. Researchers divided the patients into two groups. One group received 274 milligrams of GLA from borage oil twice a day, and the second group took a placebo. After 12 weeks, patients in the GLA group reported significantly less itching, redness, oozing, and blistering than patients in the placebo group. They were also able to reduce the use of drugs commonly used to treat the disease, such as antihistamines and topical steroids.
Time-Honored Cure for Monthly Woes
Evening primrose oil, an herbal supplement that ' s high in GLA, has also been examined for its healing properties. Woodson Merrell, M.D., a specialist in alternative and complementary medicine and assistant clinical professor of medicine at the Columbia University College of physicians and Surgeons in New York City, says that women he ' s treated with evening primrose oil often get relief from the symptoms of pMS. They have less breast pain, cramping, and discomfort, he says.
" In my experience, it does seem to work for some women, " he says. " I think it ' s definitely worth trying. "
Native American women apparently thought so, too. They chewed the seeds of evening primrose to combat menstrual problems. The Indians and early European settlers also used the plants to treat asthmatic coughs and stomach disorders. Beginning in the early nineteenth century, the leaves were applied as a poultice for skin conditions like ulcers and scabies.
Evening primrose is a hardy, biannual, native American flower. The plant found its way to Europe when the highly fertile seeds apparently hitched rides in the ballast tanks of ships sailing the Atlantic between the new world and the old one.
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, evening primrose gained a reputation for relieving symptoms of gout , rheumatism, and headaches. In England, it earned the nickname King ' s Cure-All because of its ability to heal skin diseases. Today, it is cultivated in more than 30 countries.
Is GLA for You
Of the three oils, evening primrose has been the most studied, primarily in England, where it is an approved medical treatment for breast pain and eczema. Borage oil is the most concentrated source of GLA, however, which means that you have to take fewer capsules to get the same therapeutic benefits, says Dr. Janson.
Borage oil can come in 1,000-milligram capsules containing 240 milligrams of GLA, which falls within the range of the standard therapeutic daily dose of 180 to 320 milligrams, according to Dr. Janson.
The next most concentrated source is black currant oil , which has about 80 milligrams of GLA in each 500-milligram capsule. Three of these capsules give you the amount of GLA in one borage-oil supplement.
Each 500-milligram capsule of evening primrose oil contains 45 milligrams of GLA, so taking five a day would give you almost the amount provided in one capsule of borage oil.
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