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Author: Ann Louise Gittleman, MS, CNS
Source: Total Health for Longevity Magazine, September 2000

If You’ve Been Focusing Only On Omega-3 Sources Of Good Fats You Could Be Overlooking A Giant Among Nutrients 

Have you caught the buzz? It’s hard to miss. All across the continent – in magazine articles, newpapers, books, on TV and in websites – the health benefits from the right kind of fats are making the news. Health-conscious people across the country are consuming flaxseed, pumpkin seed, fatty fish, and fish oils in record amounts to get the benefits of “omega-3” essential fatty acids. Indeed, these good fats can have an amazing impact on health: the omega-3s have taken center stage for their beneficial effects on cardiovascular health, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), depression, menopausal discomforts, immune system dysfunction and cancer.

In all the hype, many people have come to believe that “omega-6” fats are “bad” and that only omega-3s are good. Yes, some omega-6s are bad when consumed in excess – primarily linoleic acid, found in many vegetable oils, grains and seeds. But there is another fat in the omega-6 family which is a powerful key to vibrant health and radiant beauty: GLA, or gamma linolenic acid. In fact, your body needs the right balance of omega-3s as well as GLA from the omega-6 family, much like it needs the proper combination of vitamins and minerals for smooth – running metabolic functions. So if you’ve been primarily focusing on the omega-3 sources of good fats, you could very well be overlooking an amazing giant among nutrients.

GLA-The Good Omega-6

The power of GLA comes from the production of anti-inflammatory, hormone-like substances called eicosanoids. This powerful family of compounds includes prostaglandins, short-lived elements that regulate metabolic processes down to the cellular level. The specific prostaglandin, PGE1 is responsible for the numerous health and beauty benefits associated with fatty acids such as the ability to soothe skin, promote healing and regulate water loss. Thanks to their anti-inflammatory properties, GLA-regulated prostaglandins help to distend blood vessels so the bloodstream can move smoothly. They also aid in restraining blood clotting as well as abating the swelling, pain and redness caused by bodily injuries.

With GLA being so vital to the system, making sure your body has sufficient amounts of it would be a wise step. But that’s not as easy as it sounds. A healthy body can use some of the linoleic acid it gets in the diet to produce GLA. The truth is most of us don’t properly utilize linoleic acid. There are a number of dietary and lifestyle factors inhibiting the conversion of linoleic acid to GLA: sugar consumption, smoking, alcohol, chemical carcinogens, aging and illnesses (viral infections, cancer, diabetes, hypothyroidism, cardiovascular disease, cholesterol, and hormonal fluctuations).

In addition, there are major metabolic roadblocks which get in the way of the conversion. The main culprits are the “bad” fats: trans-fatty acids from margarine, vegetable shortening and commercially processed vegetable oils. These are biologically inferior fats, totally incapable of being converted into the powerful GLA. Instead, they actually hinder the very catalyst needed for the GLA transformation, a special enzyme called D6D (Delta-6-Desaturase) and its vital co-workers-vitamin C, vitamin B6, vitamin B3, zinc and magnesium.

So if you thought your diet already had far too many omega-6s-think again. What you more than likely have is a diet loaded with commercially processed vegetable oil, shortening and margarine – all of which are nutritionally worthless and capable of triggering an essential fatty acid deficiency. And that leads to an imbalance in prostaglandin levels, resulting in skin problems such as itching, eczema, reddish or dry patches of skin, particularly on the face, arms, legs and buttocks. Adding insult to injury, your hair could discolor and thin, and your nails could crack and break.

What’s the answer? Supplementation with a good source of GLA can go a long way to restoring the balance of fats our bodies were meant to have.

You can readily boost your GLA levels by supplementing with botanicals like borage oil, which is the richest natural source of this beautifying nutrient.

Borage Oil: A Proven GLA Power Source

For more than 1500 years, the blue, star-shaped flowers of the borage plant have been used in elixirs and medicinal teas because of its healing properties. Borage oil, or “starflower”, as the botanical is known, contains up to 24% GLA-a much higher concentration than evening primrose (with about 8% GLA) or black currant oil (with about 15% GLA).

Numerous studies have been conducted with borage oil, which ultimately demonstrate the oil’s high-level efficacy when used either orally or topically. Current research with oral supplements has shown borage oil’s ability to augment eicosanoid levels and thereby relieve chronic inflammation. In a variety of other studies-on animals and humans-skin disorders associated with essential fatty acid deficiencies proved to have a marked amelioration in both the skin’s appearance and overall health when borage oil was included in the dietary regimen. Additional research with topical applications revealed the oil’s ability to provide the same level of improvement as it did when taken orally. Even environmentally damaged and habitually dry skin received renewed moisture and smoothness. That was also the case with 48 infants having cradle cap (dry crusts typically occurring on the scalp, face, armpits, chest and groin area). According to one clinical study, even areas where borage oil wasn’t applied were healed, proving its ability to penetrate the skin and deliver GLA for eicosanoid synthesis. As a matter of fact, the GLA properties contained in borage oil are so notable in enhancing skin that both the Journal of American Academy of Dermatology and the British Journal of Dermatology recognize its benefits.

Borage oil also has a long-standing reputation in Europe, particularly in England where the starflower is used as a symbol for the country’s largest cancer fund-raising campaign. Starflower oil-as it is called overseas-has even made a big splash with the Land Down Under, particularly with PMS-sufferers. Fluctuating hormones can interfere with the conversion of linoleic acid to GLA, resulting in a GLA deficiency as well as breast pain, irritability, depression and water retention. Which is why many Australian women turn to the natural healing oil for relief of irritating menstrual symptoms.

And since borage oil contains the highest GLA concentration of any oil available, it is fast becoming the most convenient and economical GLA source here in North America. Consumers are discovering they need fewer capsules overall to achieve the recommended one to two gram daily GLA dosage.

GLA-The Remarkable Rewards

As you probably are beginning to see, adding a rich source of GLA (like borage oil) to your daily regime is a smart health move. It does, after all, help fight eczema, psoriasis, and heart problems (like atherosclerosis), among many other conditions. You could say that GLA wears a variety of health-promoting hats:

  • PMS De-Stressor. Those monthly hormonal swings can disrupt GLA production. Studies suggest 480 to 960 mg of GLA every day – that’s two to four grams of borage oil – can offer relief from those irritating symptoms (such as cramps, breast tenderness, water retention and irritability) and give hormonal production support.
  • Immune Booster. GLA production decreases with viral infection or illness. Supplementing with GLA helps safeguard immune defenses. In fact, when GLA (with EPA) was given to chronic fatigue sufferers, their symptoms improved dramatically.
  • Cholesterol Reducer. A reduction in PGE1 wreaks havoc on cholesterol levels. Taking 250 to 1000 mg of GLA daily has been shown to increase PGE1 levels while reducing cholesterol.
  • Cancer Fighter. In one study, terminally ill patients suffering from pancreatic cancer tripled their life expectancy after taking extensive doses of GLA. It is also believed that tumor growth and metastasis can be quelled with GLA-especially in melanoma and colon or breast cancer.
  • Arthritis Reliever. Mobility, morning stiffness and inflammation have all been eased by GLA supplementation, which helps suppress T-cell proliferation. One study also 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 to 2.8 grams of GLA per day – the equivalent of 6 to 11 grams of borage oil daily.
  • MS Halter. Of the patients responding to GLA supplementation, around 40% experience the disease either retarding or stopping. It took higher doses of 500-1000 mg of GLA to achieve the benefit.
  • Diabetic Stopper. GLA has been shown in conclusive studies to stop the progression of nerve disease and help with nerve functions. Additional studies suggest GLA may even be a catalyst in hindering nerve deterioration at the start.

In all cases, 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.

GLA is not only the gatekeeper to our health, but to our appearance as well. Beauty-wise, this incredible nutrient really goes all out, flaunting its anti-inflammatory and rejuvenating prowess. It actually increases cell resilience and moistens the fatty layer beneath the skin, delivering a multitude of beautifying benefits such as:

  • producing a dewy complexion
  • aiding collagen loss
  • soothing dry, scaly skin
  • combating wrinkles
  • nourishing straw-like hair
  • strengthening brittle nails
  • helping to prevent dandruff

GLA . . . health promoter, beautifier, hormone balancer. Now that’s what I call one giant of a nutrient!

About Ann Louise Gittleman, MS, CNS – Ann Louise Gittleman, MS, CNS, is one of the foremost nutritionists in the United States. The former Nutritional Director at the Pritikin Longevity Center, she currently consults with a broad spectrum of professional organizations and is the author of the best-selling books Eat Fat, Lose Weight, Super Nutrition for Women, Super Nutrition for Menopause, The 40/30/30 phenomenon, and Why Am I Always So Tired?

Selected References

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Bahiner, F.A. and Schafer, J. 1992. Treatment of atopic dermatitis with Borage oil (Glandol) – A time series analysis study. Aktuel. Dermatol. 18:385.

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Melnick, B and Plewig, G. 1991. Atopic dermatitis and disturbances in essential fatty acid and prostaglandin E metabolism. J. Amer. Acad. Dermatol. 25:859. Pullman-Mooar S., Laposata, M., Lem, D., Holman, R.J., Leventhal, I.J., DeMarco, D. and Zurier, R.B. 1990. Alteration of the cellular fatty acid profile and the production of eicosanoids in human monocytes by gamma-linolenic acid. Arthritis and Rheumatism. 33:1526-33.

Tate, G., Mandell, B.F., Laposata, D., Ohilger, D., Baker, D.G., Schumacher, H.T. and Zurier, RB. 1989. Suppression of acute and chronic inflammation by dietary gamma linolenic acid. J. Rheumatol. 16:729.

Tolleson, A., and Frithz. A. 1993. Borage oil: an effective new treatment for infantile seborrheic dermatitis. Brit. J. Dermatol. 129:95.

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Zurier, R. B., DeLuca, P. and Rothman, D. 1996. Gamma-linolenic acid, inflammation, immune responses and Rheumatoid Arthritis. In: Gamma-linolenic acid: Metabolism and its roles in nutrition and medicine. Huang Y-S and Mills, D.E., Eds., AOCS Press, Champaign, Illinois. pp. 129-136.