In the Middle Ages, people used borage to treat heart disease and rheumatism and to reduce inflammation. Now it is making a comeback for some of the same medicinal uses: borage oil is one of the 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.
In the body, linoleic acid is converted first to GLA and then to dihomo-gamma-linolenic acid (DGLA). DGLA is essential for the production of prostaglandin E1, an important hormone-like chemical that reduces inflammation, boosts immunity, lowers blood pressure, keeps platelets from sticking together, and improves blood vessel tone.
As we age, our bodies can become less efficient at converting linoleic acid to GLA and therefore less efficient at producing the beneficial prostaglandins. 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.
In one study, 56 rheumatoid arthritis patients were randomly assigned to take 2,800mg per day of either GLA or a sunflower oil placebo for six months. Researchers found that the patients taking GLA were more than six times more likely to show significant improvement in symptoms, especially tender joints. The patients who were not taking GLA did showed no 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 test subjects received GLA, and all showed improvement in their symptoms. For those who received GLA from the outset, that improvement was progressive, and seven in this group reduced their reliance on nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or prednisone.
The only problem was that most patients who completed the study found that their swelling and joint pain returned within three months, and would have needed to continue taking GLA to suppress their symptoms.
Some doctors believe that GLA can help treat inflammatory skin disorders such as eczema. Evidence is, however, conflicting: Two large studies showed no benefit at all, but other studies saw improvement, particularly for patients with mild to moderate eczema.
One study involving 60 patients with atopic dermatitis (a chronic, recurring, inflammatory disease marked by eczema and itching) found that those taking 274mg of GLA from borage oil twice a day experienced significantly less itching, redness, oozing, and blistering after 12 weeks than 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.
GLA has also been used for the following conditions:
PMS: Monthly hormonal swings can disrupt GLA production. Studies suggest 480-960mg of GLA every day (2-4gm of borage oil) can offer relief from symptoms such as cramps, breast tenderness, water retention and irritability, and support hormonal production.
Weakened Immune System: The body's GLA production decreases with viral infection or illness. Supplementing with GLA helps safeguard immune defenses.
High Cholesterol: A reduction in Prostaglandin E1 (PGE1) wreaks havoc on cholesterol levels. Taking 250-1000mg of GLA daily has been shown to increase PGE1 levels while reducing cholesterol.
Cancer: In one study, terminally ill patients suffering from pancreatic cancer tripled their life expectancy after taking large doses of GLA. It is also believed that tumor growth and metastasis can be reduced with GLA – especially in melanoma and colon or breast cancer.
Arthritis: Mobility, morning stiffness and inflammation have all been eased by GLA supplementation, which helps suppress T-cell proliferation. One study found that patients were able to reduce their usage of potentially harmful NSAIDs while they were taking GLA supplementation. Studies have found that effective dosages are in the range of 1.4-2.8gms of GLA per day (the equivalent of 6-11gms of borage oil.)
Multiple Sclerosis: Of patients responding to GLA supplementation, around 40% were found experience the disease either remitting or stopping altogether. It took higher doses of 500-1000mg of GLA daily to achieve this benefit.
Diabetic Neuropathy: GLA has been shown in conclusive studies to halt the progression of nerve disease and help with nerve functions. Additional studies suggest GLA may even help reduce nerve deterioration at the start.
Ageing: GLA's anti-inflammatory and rejuvenating powers increase cell resilience and moisten the fatty layer beneath the skin, delivering a multitude of beautifying benefits such as:
The typical daily dosage of GLA is up to 320mg, taken after a meal. GLA must be used long-term to achieve maximum benefits. For example, many arthritis patients report that their joints feel looser after 6 weeks of supplementation – yet they continue to improve for many months when they continue supplementation.
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.