Gamma-linoleic acid (GLA) is an omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid made in the body from linolenic acid, an essential fatty acid (EFA). GLA is the product of the body's first biochemical step in the transformation of a major essential fatty acid, linolenic acid (LA), into important prostaglandins. Prostaglandins are essential to the proper functioning of each cell. Every cell's structure in the human body depends on fatty acids formed from GLA.
Evening primrose oil, very high in GLA, has been used for decades to treat medical conditions. Native American women chewed evening primrose seeds to relieve menstrual problems. Evening primrose was also used by Native Americans and early American settlers from Europe to treat coughs and stomach problems. In the 1800s, the leaves of the plant were used to treat several skin conditions.
In animal studies gamma-linoleic acid has been shown to reduce certain inflammations and reduce joint tissue injury. Human studies showed similar findings in its anti-inflammatory effects.
GLA has also been used as a treatment option for a number of conditions, including alcoholism, asthma, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), high cholesterol, diabetic neuropathy, certain cancers, eczema (a skin inflammation), hypertension (high blood pressure), premenstrual syndrome (PMS), rheumatoid arthritis, and scleroderma (a skin disease.)
There is also research data that indicates GLA in combination with other measures may help in treating people with Sjögren's syndrome—a chronic inflammatory disease of the immune system that effects mostly older women.
Other animal studies suggest GLA may enhance calcium absorption, helping to reduce calcium loss and osteporosis. Osteoporosis is a disease occurring primarily in women after menopause in which the bones become very porous, break easily, and heal slowly. It may lead to curvature of the spine after vertebrae collapse.
Among the conditions GLA is most often used for are:
- Rheumatoid arthritis. GLA has been studied for many years for its possible effects in treating arthritis and other inflammatory conditions. GLA has been shown to be most promising in treating people with this crippling condition, due to its anti-inflammatory properties. At least three studies have shown GLA reduces inflammation and joint tissue injury, thereby reducing the pain associated with this condition. In one study, GLA reduced the incidence of tender jointsby 36%, and swollen joints by 28%.
- ADHD. Studies suggest that GLA may be helpful (combined with other therapies) for helping to alleviate ADHD symptoms in children.
- Diabetes. Some studies show that GLA can help improve nerve function and help reduce peripheral neuropathy, which causes numbness, tingling, pain, or burning in the feet, legs, and toes and hands, in diabetics.
- High cholesterol. Research indicates that high doses of GLA may improve blood lipid levels in people with high cholesterol. A late 1990 study showed that oral intake of 2 grams of GLA daily for six weeks lowered total cholesterol levels by 13% and triglycerides by 37%.
- Skin conditions. A number of studies have been done regarding GLA and eczema with contradicting results. Several studies showed GLA relieved the symptoms such as itching, redness, and scaling of the skin, to varying degrees. It has also been shown to be helpful in reducing the symptoms of scleroderma and skin inflammations, such as dermatitis.
- Cancer. Studies have shown GLA effectively killed 40 types of human cancer cells in vitro without damaging normal cells This sentence is very misleading and makes GLA sound like a cure for cancer. Other in vitro or test tube studies have also shown GLA has potential to suppress tumor growth and metastasis, the spreading of cancer from the original site to other parts of the body. Several studies have shown it may be helpful specifically in treating pancreatic, bladder, and colon cancer. It has shown promising results as a cancer therapy when combined with the anticancer drugs tamoxifen and paclitaxol. Research into its effects on cancer are in the earliest stages and there is no evidence that GLA prevents or cures any type of cancer.
- Hypertension. Several studies suggest GLA may help reduce blood pressure in some people with hypertension and thereby decrease the risk of heart attacks. Results of these studies are not considered conclusive.
- PMS. Studies show GLA is remarkably helpful in treating some PMS symptoms. One study showed that of the women who took the drug Efamol, which contains 9% GLA, 61% experienced complete relief from symptoms while 23% had partial relief. These symptoms included breast tenderness, depression, irritability, swelling, and bloating.
Gamma-linolenic acid, in combination with eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), in the form of borage seed and fish oils, significantly reduced the need for breathing support in patients with the lung condition acute respiratory distress syndrome. It cut the average number of days a patient is in a hospital's intensive care unit from 17.5 to 12.8, according to a study published in the August 1999 issue of Critical Care Medicine.
"The consumption of GLA may offer new strategies for treatment and prevention of certain chronic diseases. Potential candidates [such as] rheumatoid arthritis patients, will have to take GLA supplements in order to meet the beneficial dosages used in clinical studies, because GLA is not readily found in common foods," wrote Yang-Yi Fan and Robert S. Chapkin, scientists from Texas A&M University, in the September 1998 issue of The Journal of Nutrition.
Gammalinoleic acid is found naturally in fish, animal organs such as liver, and certain plant seed oils. The major sources of GLA are borage oil (18–27% GLA), black currant oil (15–20% GLA), and evening primrose oil (7–14% GLA.) GLA is not available as a pure extract, but only as an ingredient in combination formulas.
Dosage varies by condition it is used to treat:
- skin conditions: 360–750 milligrams (mg) daily
- PMS: 240–320 mg daily
- rheumatoid arthritis: 750 mg–2.8 g daily for six to 12 months
- diabetic neuropathy: 480 mg daily
- high blood pressure: 1.3 g daily
- high cholesterol: Up to 2 g daily
Patients should consult with a heathcare professional regarding the proper dosage.
Several forms of GLA supplements are available, including a concentrated form. It is also available as evening primrose oil, borage oil, and black currant seed oil. It is also available in multi-nutrient formulas that often contain any combination of fish oil, flax seed oil, omega-6 fatty acids, and essential fatty acids. The usual amount of GLA in these is from 200–400 milligrams per capsule. The cost of a bottle of 30 capsules ranges from $8 to $15. The concentrations of GLA in these oils varies and the number of capsules needed depends on the amount of GLA.
Gamma-linoleic acid should not be used by women who are pregnant or breastfeeding without consulting a physician. Hemophiliacs and people who take the blood-thinning drug warfarin (Coumadin) should consult a physician before taking GLA. It should also not be taken before surgery because it may increase bleeding. Persons with high blood pressure or heart or blood vessel conditions should consult a physician before taking GLA.
There is no evidence that GLA is toxic in daily doses of up to 2.8 grams. There have been no reports of serious side effects by people taking GLA supplements. It is generally well tolerated by most people. Possible minor side effects include upset stomach, diarrhea, soft stool, bloating, and gas. Persons who take GLA and experience difficulty breathing, chest or throat tightness, chest pain, hives, rash, or itchy or swollen skin may be allergic to it. They should stop taking it and consult a physician immediately.
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Ken R. Wells