What Is It?
From its bristly stems to its blue star-shaped flowers, virtually all parts of the borage plant (Borago officinalis) have been used over the centuries for their healing properties and as a flavoring for foods. As early as the 1600s, Europeans mixed borage leaves and flowers into a wine that was renown for relieving boredom and dispelling melancholy.
While modern science has found little evidence that the herb itself has any therapeutic effects, its seed oil does appear to help in treating a number of conditions, from rheumatoid arthritis to menstrual problems. Research has shown that borage oil’s medicinal effects can be traced to its rich stores of a therapeutic fat called gamma linolenic acid (GLA).
Like evening primrose oil and black currant seed oil, borage oil owes its healing power to the presence of essential fatty acids, the most important of which is GLA, an omega-6 fatty acid. (While borage oil is often used interchangeably with evening primrose oil, ounce for ounce, borage oil boasts more than twice as much GLA.) Once processed by the body, GLA is converted into hormonelike substances that can either block inflammation or promote it. In borage oil, the GLA seems to calm inflammation overall, making it an attractive treatment option for arthritis and other inflammatory conditions.
Complicating matters, however, is the presence in borage oil of other fatty acids that may interfere with GLA absorption. In addition, borage leaves and flowers contain potentially toxic substances (pyrrolizidine alkaloids, or PAs) which could, in theory, cause harm if ingested over long enough periods of time. Borage seed oil may also contain minute amounts of PAs. Adverse reactions to the PAs are not widespread, but based on these concerns, borage oil often rates second to evening primrose oil as the GLA supplement of choice. On the other hand, borage oil is cheaper, and in many cases you can use a lower dose of borage oil to produce a therapeutic effect.
Specifically, borage oil may help to:
Reduce the aches and pains of rheumatoid arthritis. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania found that high doses of borage oil (1.4 grams a day) led to a significant reduction in pain and swelling in arthritic joints when compared with cottonseed oil, which has no GLA. In a separate study, patients with active rheumatoid arthritis demonstrated fewer clinical signs of inflammation after taking GLA-rich capsules for several months, compared to those who took a placebo. Other researchers reported reduced damage to joint tissues–and less joint pain and swelling–in those rheumatoid arthritis sufferers given very high GLA doses in the form of borage oil.
Relieve the discomforts of PMS, endometriosis, and fibrocystic breasts. By interfering with the production of inflammatory substances called prostaglandins which are released during menstruation, the GLA in borage oil may help ease related cramping and pain. Borage oil may also reduce some of the breast tenderness that women feel before their periods and calm endometriosis-associated inflammation. Many PMS sufferers are found to have unusually low levels of GLA in their systems, which is why supplements may help so much. In women with fibrocystic breasts, the oil’s essential fatty acids can minimize breast inflammation and promote the absorption of iodine, a mineral often found in abnormally low levels in those with this condition. While various studies suggest that GLA-dense oils can effectively treat PMS discomforts, more recent research has cast some doubt on these claims.
Reduce the symptoms of eczema and psoriasis. In some cases, skin disorders develop when the body has problems converting dietary fats into GLA. Getting supplemental GLA from borage oil may therefore be helpful. GLA and other essential fatty acids also revitalize the skin by quieting inflammation and causing blood vessels to contract. People who suffer from the redness, itching, and other discomforts of eczema may even tolerate reduced doses of steroid creams and drugs–many of which cause unpleasant side effects–if they also take GLA. Not all studies point to such benefits, however, and many conventional doctors remain skeptical.
Clear up acne and rosacea. By working to dilute sebum, a thick oily substance that is oversecreted in some people with acne, the essential fatty acids in borage oil may reduce the risk of pores becoming clogged and lesions developing. The oil’s essential fatty acids help treat rosacea by reducing inflammation, controlling the cells’ use of nutrients, and by producing prostaglandins, which stimulate the contraction of blood vessels. Astringent substances in borage called tannins may also help by tightening skin.
Alleviate inflammation associated with lupus. Inflammation in the kidneys, joints, skin, and other areas of the body caused by this condition may subside as a result of borage oil’s anti-inflammatory actions.
Prevent nerve damage (neuropathy) due to diabetes. People with diabetes are more likely to lose feeling in their sensory nerves, which can lead to tingling and numbness in the arms and legs. An inability to convert GLA may be one reason for this. When diabetes patients are given GLA-rich evening primrose oil, nerve damage (neuropathy) symptoms improve. For reasons that remain unclear, borage oil has not proven as effective for this condition as evening primrose oil despite its higher concentrations of GLA.
Combat damage from multiple sclerosis. The abundant supply of essential fatty acids in borage oil may be valuable in minimizing the inflammation associated with this progressive nerve disorder. The fatty acids may also contribute to healthy nerve development when taken over time. It is important to begin taking borage oil as soon as possible after diagnosis.
Ease cough and soothe throat disorders. Borage oil has long been used in folk medicine to treat respiratory conditions, including coughs and sore throats. Besides GLA, borage oil also contains mucilage, a gummy, gel-like substance that soothes mucous membranes often irritated by a cough. Mucilage also works as an expectorant, making it easier to cough up mucus. According to a recent study from Ohio State University, patients with acute breathing problems needed fewer days on ventilation and spent less time in the hospital after taking fish oil and borage oil than those who went without these supplements.
Treat Alzheimer’s-related memory deficiencies. By boosting the transmission of nerve impulses, borage oil may be valuable in treating this progressive brain disorder.
Reduce stress and high blood pressure. Research on animals suggests that borage oil may protect against high blood pressure (hypertension). Less is known about whether it affects blood pressure in humans, but in a study of 10 men who underwent stressful situations, borage oil limited stress-related jumps in blood pressure and heart rate. By relieving tension, borage oil also made it easier for men to perform normal tasks.
Nourish nails, scalp, and hair. The rich stores of essential fatty acids in borage oil not only prevent nails from cracking but also help to keep them generally healthy. In addition, the essential fatty acids nourish the scalp, making the supplement potentially valuable in treating a variety of hair problems.
Treat gout. Borage oil’s anti-inflammatory actions–largely a function of its GLA stores–make it potentially valuable in protecting against the sudden and severe joint pain caused by uric acid buildup, which is known as gout.
Counter impotence and female infertility. By promoting blood flow, the GLA in borage oil can help treat a primary cause of male impotence–compromised circulation leading to impaired penile blood flow. In addition, when the oil is taken long term, GLA can help prevent blood vessel narrowing, often a consequence of plaque buildup from high cholesterol. By improving uterine function, GLA may also help women who are unable to conceive. Note: Borage oil has also been found to be useful for a number of other disorders. For information on these additional ailments, see our Dosage Recommendations Chart for Borage Oil.
For the majority of ailments mentioned: Take 1,000 to 1,300 mg of borage oil daily. This provides 240 to 300 mg of GLA (respectively), the main healing ingredient. Nearly equivalent doses of GLA can be found in 3,000 mg of evening primrose oil or 1,500 mg of black currant seed oil.
While research studies tend to use relatively high dosages of borage oil, it’s important to stick to standard, recommended dosages because the potential health hazards associated with excessive or prolonged use of borage seed oil are still unproved. Be sure to check out our Dosage Recommendations Chart for Borage Oil, which lists therapeutic dosages for specific ailments at a glance.
Guidelines for Use
Taking borage oil with food may boost GLA absorption and minimize unpleasant side effects.
If you take an anticoagulant (blood-thinning) medication, check with your doctor before trying borage oil.
The are no other known drug or nutrient interactions associated with borage oil. For information on interactions with specific generic drugs, see our WholeHealth Chicago Drug/Nutrient Interactions Chart.
Possible Side Effects
Borage oil may cause loose stools and minor stomach problems.
One of the PAs identified in borage seed oil–the unsaturated PA, amabiline–has been shown in very high doses to damage the liver. It may have cancer-causing properties as well. Just how much of this toxic substance is present in borage seed oil–if any at all (it’s measured in parts per billion)–remains unclear.
Although a possible alternative to evening primrose oil, far less information is available on the safety and effectiveness of borage oil.
Because of the still-unproved but theoretical risk for liver damage posed by the PAs in borage oil, people with liver problems may want to use evening primrose oil instead.
Only use borage oil in high doses or over a number of months if you’re under a doctor’s supervision. Periodic liver function tests would be a wise precaution.
Because of its unproved but potential health risks, a number of countries disapprove of the use of borage (the oil and herb) as a medical treatment. Others, including Germany, have established standards for the maximum amount of PAs allowed in borage products.
Largely because the risks of using borage oil are still unknown, pregnant or nursing women should avoid this herb.
The stems and leaves of borage herbs are tasty, but they contain relatively high concentrations of toxic PAs; therefore don’t consume them in large amounts. And don’t rub the herb directly on open cuts or irritated skin.
Acne 1,000 mg a day
Alzheimer’s Disease 1,000 mg a day
Cough 1,000 mg a day
Diabetes 1,000 mg a day (contains 300 mg gamma-linoleic acid)
Eczema 1,000 mg a day
Endometriosis 1,000 mg a day
Hair Problems 1,000 mg a day
High Blood Pressure 1,000 mg a day
Lupus 1,000 mg a day
Perimenopause 1,000 mg a day; use as alternative to evening primrose oil PMS 1,000 mg a day
Psoriasis 1,000 mg a day
Raynaud’s disease Apply oil to the affected portion of skin every day
Sore Throat 1,000 mg a day
Stress 1,000 mg a day
David Edelberg, M.D.
Extracted from the seeds of the hardy borage plant (Borago officinalis), borage oil boasts a valuable compound: gamma linolenic acid (GLA). This therapeutic fat–technically an omega-6 essential fatty acid–acts as a natural anti-inflammatory in the body, where it’s converted into hormonelike compounds called prostagladins. Borage oil has shown promise in clinical studies for controlling the aches and pains of rheumatoid arthritis, the discomforts of PMS, and the symptoms of myriad disorders.
HOW IT HELPS PERIMENOPAUSE
Menstrual discomforts such as breast tenderness, irritability, bloating, and cramping are common in women entering perimenopause. Add to that unusually heavy or unexpected menstrual flow, and the desire to bring perimenopausal symptoms under control can be strong indeed. Borage oil may be worth a try in such cases. In addition to its high concentration of inflammation-fighting compounds, the herb may also help to stabilize abrupt hormonal shifts, relieving you from the common discomforts associated with this often difficult transition phase of your life.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
To be sure, borage oil is not the only source of healing GLAs. But ounce for ounce, it boasts more than twice as much GLA as evening primrose oil, for example, another leading source.
Check the label carefully–you want to make sure that you’re buying the oil extracted from the seeds and not the fresh (or dried) herb. The GLA content should be indicated on the label.
Softgel capsules containing the seed oil tend to be reasonably priced and offer a high percentage (20% to 26%) of GLA. In other words, a 1,000 mg capsule with 22% GLA contains 220 mg of GLA. Taking two or three of these capsules a day will likely bring your GLA levels up to normal. Fresh herb, tea, and other forms made from the leaves, stems, or other parts of the borage plant should not be used and actually may be dangerous to your health. The oil from the seeds however is perfectly safe. Shopping tip: When selecting a brand of borage oil, just work with a company you’ve relied on in the past. Make sure the product you choose contains a little vitamin E in each capsule to prevent spoilage. Borage oil is sometimes sold under the name of starflower oil.
To avoid the minor stomach upset that might occur with borage oil, take the supplement with food. This will also boost its absorption.
Borage oil may contain minute amounts of substances toxic to the liver called (unsaturated) pyrrolizidine alkaloids, or PAs. So be sure to always look for products labeled “pyrrolizidine alklaloid free.”
For product recommendations and orders from the Natural Apothecary click here or call 773-296-6700, ext. 2001.
David Edelberg, MD