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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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September 21, 2017

Should I Take a GLA Supplement?

By Mark Sisson
7 Comments

Inline_GLA_09.21.17Recently, a reader inquired about gamma linolenic acid (GLA) and inflammation. Is GLA everything it’s made out to be? Is it something all of us should add to our diets? Can we obtain it through real foods, or do we need to rely on supplements? There’s certainly a lot of hype about GLA’s ability to heal chronic inflammation and even to facilitate an easier transition into menopause (something I’ll cover more in a follow-up post). For today, let’s take a closer look at GLA and the role it may play in anti-inflammatory nutrition.

Quick review of inflammation here… Inflammation might seem like the root of all peril, and for many of us struggling with inflammatory conditions, it’s hard to think otherwise. However, we also recall that it exists to protect us. A little acute inflammation helps the body to heal from injury. It brings blood flow to the area of injury or pain as a protective mechanism. The blood vessels become more permeable, thus allowing the plasma and leukocytes to flow through the vessel walls, and into the injured area where they help the body to heal. The area becomes warm, swollen and painful. This is all necessary in order for the body to repair itself.

However, like any extreme response, inflammation can become chronic and harmful. These days many people are struggling with chronic inflammation in some capacity. It’s all part of the stress overload, the typical American diet, the lack of sleep, a lack of outdoor time, poor gut health, insufficient vitamin D, rampant overtraining—or (alternatively) being too sedentary, working too hard, feeding fatty acid imbalances, absorbing environmental toxins, etc., etc. This kind of chronic inflammation can lead to serious health conditions like painful arthritis, heart disease, troublesome skin conditions, irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s, and so forth.

There are many ways to fight chronic inflammation, including promoting antioxidant intake and fatty acid balance. I’ve written about foods and supplements to fight inflammation before. But today I thought I’d explore GLA in particular.

What Exactly is GLA?

GLA is an omega-6 fatty acid that’s both converted in the body (in a series of LA to GLA to AA) and is found in dietary sources—most notably borage oil, black currant seed oil, and evening primrose oil (and a genetically-modified version of safflower oil). It’s also found in whole foods like hemp seeds and spirulina, organ meats, and human milk.

Dietary GLA is associated with higher blood levels of dihomo GLA (DGLA), the elongation product of GLA and a potent anti-inflammatory fatty acid in its own right. Although it can be part of  a complicated picture, DGLA’s own eicosanoids (signaling lipids) can often out-compete AA’s generally pro-inflammatory eicosanoids. (PDF)

What Does Science Say about GLA?

The science surrounding GLA benefits is a bit contradictory (like we haven’t heard that before). Research reveals both benefits and non-benefits, as well as some contraindications and side effects. Here are some of the issues I took a look at with regard to GLA use.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

In this recent study, adding evening primrose oil with a fish oil decreased inflammation and resulted in significant clinical improvement with rheumatoid arthritis symptoms. (Would it have been effective without the fish oil?) In a review of 22 studies, GLA reduced pain, reduced intensity, and improved disability associated with RA. Apparently dosage makes a difference as well. GLA doses equal to or higher than 1400 mg/day showed benefit in the alleviation of rheumatic complaints, whereas lower doses (approximately 500mg) were ineffective. When using GLA for RA symptoms, it can apparently take several months to feel the benefits.

Immunomodulation

GLA has been studied for its immunomodulatory properties as well. GLA improved overall sciatic nerve function following a crush injury in lab rats. GLA also showed 1,000 times stronger immunomodulating activity than muramyldipeptide (a a common immunomodulator). On the contrary, in a study done on patients with acute lung injury, twice daily GLA supplementation did not improve any clinical outcomes.

Skin Conditions

GLA has been shown to help with skin conditions such as eczema and keratosis pilaris, and even acne. These researchers found that small and large does of evening primrose oil helped improve atopic dermatitis in children.

However, I found research surrounding this to be contradictory. Some studies show no changes in eczema with the use of GLA containing oils. Investigators reviewed 27 studies and concluded that borage oil and evening primrose oil didn’t have a substantial effect on eczema. Improvements experienced were similar to placebo. So there you have it—more mixed results.

Hormonal Health

Finally, GLA is often taken for women’s hormonal health issues and for labor and delivery purposes—including breast tenderness, cyclical acne, depression, menopausal and premenstrual cramping, cervical ripening, and labor inducing.

However, there hasn’t been significant science to back  up these claims. Anecdotally, GLA (particularly in the form of evening primrose oil) has been used for female reproductive health for centuries. The symptoms that seem to improve the best from GLA use are breast tenderness, depression, irritability, swelling, and bloating from fluid retention.

A Few Words of Caution…

With regard to evening primrose and borage oil, gastrointestinal issues can occur during short-term use. During long term use, there was a potential risk of inflammation, thrombosis, immunosuppression, as well as increased bleeding when on blood thinners or Phenothiazines. Those with seizure disorders should avoid GLA supplementation, as should pregnant women. These are some serious implications that I would keep in mind, but I’d also discuss GLA supplementation with your doctor if you’re on any kind of pharmaceutical medication, as a number of drug interactions may be possible.

Reported side effects include headaches, abdominal pain, nausea, and loose bowels. In animal studies, GLA was reported to decrease blood pressure. More than 3000 mg has been shown to be pro-inflammatory, so be careful on the dosing, and don’t take more than you need.

Finally, many experts particularly caution against borage oil, which may contain pyrrolizidine alkaloids that are toxic to the liver.

Should I Buy a Supplement?

Although GLA is anti-inflammatory in nature and necessary for the body, upping anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acid consumption from wild caught fish or a quality fish oil supplement is still of utmost importance. Some research indicates that intake of omega-3s can encourage the conversation of supplementary GLA to DGLA.

I would increase consumption of wild fish and organ meats in preference to purchasing a seed oil—or at least make sure I did both if I was going to add a GLA supplement. If you do decide to go that route, I can’t stress quality enough—cold-pressed, hexane-free, dark-bottled varieties are available and worth the added cost. Try it out, see if you notice a benefit, and make your own assessment.

That’s it for me, folks. I’d love to hear your experiences with GLA supplementation for inflammatory conditions, and I’ll be back with more on GLA sources for women’s health in the coming weeks. Thanks for stopping by today.

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7 Comments on "Should I Take a GLA Supplement?"

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HealthyHombre
HealthyHombre
8 months 3 days ago
I eat two big primal meals 8 hours apart and in between that I have a collagen protein shake and a few nuts or one of Mark’s collagen protein bars. In the shake I throw in a spoonful or two of greens, coconut oil, olive oil, d-ribose, l-glutamine, aloe vera juice, ACV, pomegranate extract and … a tablespoon of a high quality, cold pressed, ground flax seed (needs to be ground). Studies indicate it may help to bring down PSA numbers because of the lignans. However the flaxseed oil does not have lignans and could increase PSA levels, so as… Read more »
NaturalGirl
NaturalGirl
8 months 3 days ago

Great suggestions HealthyHombre. I haven’t had any experience with inflammation yet. And I am hoping to maintain it when I’m older by keeping a good routine of diet and exercise.

Elizabeth Resnick
8 months 3 days ago

Years ago I tried taking evening primrose oil to help with my cystic acne. I pretty much tried everything under the sun. I was also dealing with some PMS symptoms (sorry if this is TMI for everyone!) that had me pretty miserable. No recollection of what the dose is, although I know I was taking a high quality brand. Saw no improvement in either of those issues and finally stopped taking it. Ultimately cutting out grains and dairy and adding animal fat/protein to my diet completely cleared both issues.

HealthyHombre
HealthyHombre
8 months 3 days ago

Elizabeth if I can post about PSA you should be able to post about PMS … fair is fair! – George

reamika
8 months 2 days ago
Thanks for discussing Mark, I look forward to future articles on women’s health. I’ve been suffering with really bad menstrual cramps for the first 1-2 days of my cycle for the past few years, and have heard many times about evening primrose oil helping, so I finally bought a bottle of cold pressed oil which still hasn’t arrived. I have been better at taking cod liver oil supplements the past month prior to my menses, and my cramps were significantly improved. I will add on evening primrose oil to my omega 3’s and see if that makes even more of… Read more »
AnnaBanana
AnnaBanana
7 months 19 days ago

I was taking Borage oil (Starflower oil) on doctors suggestion when suffering with very painful breasts in my mid 30s and found it very effective, when I stopped the pain came back so continued taking it.
However after having estrogen positive breast cancer I was advised to not take it anymore as it may simulate estrogen and encourage tumour groth again.
Better safe than sorry and as I take estrogen suppressants and have now entered early menopause the breast pain no longer seem to be an issue.

Becky Sodon
Becky Sodon
6 months 27 days ago

Do you know anything about Designs for Health GLA supplements? They are made with borage oil, I know. Should that be safer? the same?

I do know that with taking progesterone and other hormone help (under doctor’s directions), when I stopped the GLA supplements, my period ended up being horrendous, including cramps, and when I added it, it returned to near normal and no cramps. But all along, worsening of digestive issues, hopefully not related to the GLA, since it’s a help in one area.

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