Recently, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.