GLA: The “good” omega-6
Ann Louise Gittleman, N.D., M.S., C.N.S.
Have you caught the buzz? It’s hard to miss. All across the continent—in magazine articles, newspapers, books, on TV, and on websites—the health benefits from the right kinds of fats are making the news. Health-conscious people are consuming flaxseed 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, depression, menopausal discomforts, and immune dysfunction.
In all the hype, many people have come to believe that only omega-3 fats are good and that omega-6s are bad. Small intake of omega-6 fatty acids is essential, but some omega-6s are bad when consumed in excess—primarily linoleic acid (LA), found in various vegetable oils (corn, soy, sunflower, safflower, and cottonseed). But there is another fat in the omega-6 family that’s a powerful key to vibrant health and radiant beauty: gamma-linolenic acid (GLA). 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.
The power of GLA comes from the production of anti-inflammatory, hormonelike 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 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 is wise. But that’s not as easy as it sounds. A healthy body uses some of the LA it gets in the diet to produce GLA, but most of us don’t properly utilize LA. There are a number of dietary and lifestyle factors inhibiting the conversion of LA to GLA: sugar consumption, smoking, alcohol, chemical carcinogens, aging, and illnesses such as viral infections.
In addition, there are major metabolic roadblocks that get in the way of the conversion. The main culprits are the “bad” fats, or trans fatty acids, such as margarine and shortening (created when manufacturers add hydrogen to vegetable oils to make them solid at room temperature). These fats are totally incapable of being converted into the powerful GLA. Instead, they actually hinder the very catalyst needed for the GLA transformation, an enzyme called delta-6-desaturase and its vital co-workers—vitamin C, vitamin B6, vitamin B3, zinc and magnesium. A diet loaded with trans fats is even 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, and reddish or dry patches of skin.
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 such as borage oil, which is the richest natural source of this nutrient.
For more than 1,500 years, borage (Borago officinalis) has been used in elixirs and medicinal teas for its healing properties. Borage oil contains up to 24 percent GLA—a much higher concentration than evening primrose (with about 8 percent GLA) or black currant oil (with about 15 percent GLA).
Numerous studies have been conducted with borage oil that demonstrate the oil’s high level of effectiveness 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, 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 diet. Additional research with topical applications revealed the oil’s ability to provide the same level of improvement as it did when taken orally. According to one clinical study, even areas where borage oil wasn’t applied healed, proving its ability to penetrate the skin and deliver GLA for eicosanoid synthesis.
As you can see, adding a rich source of GLA (such as borage oil) to your daily regime is a smart health move. Here are some of its potential benefits.
PMS de-stressor. Those monthly hormonal swings can disrupt GLA production. Studies suggest 480 to 960 mg of GLA every day—2 to 4 g of borage oil—can offer relief from symptoms such as cramps, breast tenderness, water retention, and irritability.
Immune booster. GLA production decreases with viral infection or illness. Supplementing with GLA helps safeguard immune defenses.
Cholesterol reducer. A reduction in PGE1 wreaks havoc on cholesterol levels. Taking 250 to 1,000 mg of GLA daily has been shown to increase PGE1 levels while reducing cholesterol.
Arthritis reliever. Mobility, morning stiffness, and inflammation have all been eased by GLA supplementation. Studies have found that effective dosages are in the range of 1.4 to 2.8 g of GLA per day—the equivalent of 6 to 11 g of borage oil.
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 six weeks of supplementation, yet they continue to improve for many months when they continue supplementation
Ann Louise Gittleman, N.D., M.S., C.N.S., 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. She is the author of the best-selling books Eat Fat, Lose Weight (Keats, 1999) and Why Am I Always So Tired? (Harper San Francisco, 1999).
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