Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis) is a yellow wildflower native to North America. It’s not actually related to the primrose family, although the flowers appear similar. The root and leaf were traditionally used by Native Americans as both food and medicine. Oil extracted from the seeds of Evening Primrose for dietary supplement manufacture is a rich source of fatty acids, including some Omega 6 linoleic acid and high concentrations of gamma linolenic acid (GLA).
How does GLA relate to Essential Fatty Acids?
Essential fatty acids (also called Vitamin F or polyunsaturated fatty acids) are compounds our bodies require for optimum health, but can’t synthesise. We need to provide our bodies with essential fatty acids (EFAs) from dietary sources. The two main categories of EFA are Omega 3 and Omega 6, which we need in an optimum ratio of between 1:1 and 1:4. The Omega 6 EFA linoleic acid (LA) is converted in the body to GLA, however an inefficient conversion process can cause a GLA deficiency. While this is more likely with aging, poor diet and certain disease states, many activities common to our modern lifestyle compromise our internal GLA production. The conversion pathway of LA to GLA by our bodies can be blocked by factors such as aging, stress, disease and degenerative disorders, poor blood sugar regulation, alcohol, high dietary intake of saturated fats or hydrogenated oils, high cholesterol, viruses, carcinogens, radiation, and deficiencies in magnesium, zinc, vitamins C, B3 and B6. In such cases GLA becomes one of the essential fatty acids we need to obtain from an external source. GLA supplementation is therefore sometimes needed to maintain optimal levels in the body. Besides Evening Primrose oil, GLA is also found in spirulina and the oils extracted from borage, hemp and blackcurrant seeds.
What is the function of GLA in the body?
Our body converts GLA into E1 series prostaglandins, hormone like substances which are important to most of the body’s life sustaining systems. These include mitochondrial reactions, hormonal balance, immune response, circulation, joint function and skin health. These prostaglandins help to reduce inflammation and prevent blood clotting. GLA derived prostaglandins’ anti-inflammatory action is important in counteracting the pro-inflammatory action of excess unconverted LA and AA (arachidonic acid) fatty acids. GLA and other EFAs contribute to our cellular membrane integrity and form the myelin sheath around nerve cells that ensures the transmission of information to vital organs. They are also essential to cellular energy production. Research indicates gamma linolenic acid not only has anti inflammatory properties, it can suppress tumour growth and metastasis.
What are the health indicators for Evening Primrose Oil supplementation?
The following conditions are indications for EPO supplementation, based on established efficacy from both clinical research outcomes and empirical evidence.
- Heart disease, hypertension, elevated cholesterol, obesity, asthma, diabetes and related nerve damage
- Inflammatory and auto-immune conditions such as rheumatism, rheumatoid arthritis, neurodermatitis, lupus, multiple sclerosis (MS), scleroderma, alopecia, psoriasis, allergies and chronic fatigue syndrome
- Other degenerative diseases including breast cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, alcoholism, schizophrenia and osteoporosis
- Women’s health issues such as PMS, preeclampsia, breast pain (mastalgia), fibrocystic breast disease, endometriosis and menopausal symptoms e.g. hot flushes
- Gastrointestinal disorders including ulcerative colitis, IBS and peptic ulcers
- Skin disorders including eczema, acne and hives
- Learning and behavioural disorders including dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADHD
- Connective tissue disorders e.g. Raynaud’s syndrome, Sjogren’s syndrome
- Whooping cough
- Male infertility
- Female preconception
- Tremors from lithium use in bipolar disorder
- Male pattern baldness
While Evening Primrose oil provides a rich source of GLA, taking it in combination with an Omega 3 supplement may provide the most benefit in these and other conditions. We need the right ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 EFAs (including GLA) in order for vital processes in brain function and normal growth and development to occur. Evening Primrose oil can help maintain this balance and contribute to healthy generation of skin and hair, bone strength, healthy metabolism and reproductive function. In addition to taking an Evening Primrose supplement internally, it can be applied topically to localised areas of dry or scaly skin.
What is the recommended daily dosage?
Because our bodies can naturally synthesise adequate amounts of GLA when we have a healthy functioning metabolism, it follows that any need for supplementation is due to some level of dysfunction or nutritional imbalance. Evening Primrose Oil (EPO) dosages are therefore usually in the therapeutic range rather than simply a low dose nutritional supplement. Most EPO supplements come in 1000 mg capsules, and there are some available in 500 mg units. The usual recommended therapeutic dosage range for adults is 2000 mg to 4000 mg daily, taken in divided doses. Effective dosages may vary between 1.5 gm (1500 mg) and 8 gm (8000 mg) per day according to the individual and the condition. In some cases even higher dosages may be prescribed. Being a fatty acid, it is best taken with meals to enhance digestion and absorption.
Is it safe during pregnancy and breastfeeding?
While not indicated throughout pregnancy, EPO can be taken during the preconception stage to enhance the cervical mucus, which increases the survival rate of sperm thereby aiding conception. It is then safe to resume EPO supplementation near the end of a pregnancy (from the 36th week) to help soften the cervix for delivery. During breastfeeding EPO is considered a safe supplement, as breast milk also contains linoleic acid and gamma linolenic acid. For more detailed information check out the Nutrient Needs for Pregnancy and Breastfeeding health article. Are there any contraindications or adverse effects reported? Within the recommended dosage range EPO is a safe supplement with very few adverse effects reported. Nausea, stomach pain and headache can occur if taken on an empty stomach and diarrhoea may occur at high dosages, indicating the need to reduce intake. EPO is contraindicated for anyone with epilepsy because GLA increases the body’s prostaglandin levels. Increased levels of prostaglandins lower the threshold for seizures. Anyone taking blood thinning drugs such as warfarin or aspirin should not take EPO, due to the anti-clotting action of prostaglandins. If you take any type of medical drug it’s important to consult your health practitioner about possible drug interactions before supplementing with EPO.
Importance of sustainable harvesting and pollution free sources
About 90% of the world’s supply of Evening Primrose Oil is produced in China. The extraction and preparation system typically uses chemicals as part of the processing methods. Evening primrose oil supplements made from organic sources using a cold pressed oil extraction method provide the purest and safest form of supplementation. Some EPO supplements contain a small proportion of vitamin E to enhance the stability of the fatty acids, which tend to oxidise quickly. It’s important to store these supplements in a cool, dry place to maintain their efficacy.
By Carolyn Simon, Naturopath
Univ Maryland Medical Centre – Indications, dosages, research articles http://www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/evening-primrose-000242.htm
Evening Primrose Oil – Pharmacology, research articles http://www.evening-primrose-oil.com/pharmacology.html
Vitamin UK – Botanical & general info http://www.vitaminuk.com/pages/articles/eveningprimroseoil.htm
Medline Plus – Uses http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/natural/1006.html
Peter Lapinskas – Commercial production http://www.lapinskas.com/publications/3586.html#comm
Hub Pages – GLA inhibitors, indications http://hubpages.com/hub/Evening-Primrose-Oil-Omega-6-And-Gamma-Linolenic-Acid-GLA
A J Richardson – Learning & behavioural disorders http://www.apraxia-kids.org/atf/cf/%7B145BA46F-29A0-4D12-8214-8327DCBAF0A4%7D/richardson.pdf
RxMed – Indications, dosages http://www.rxmed.com/b.main/b2.pharmaceutical/b2.1.monographs/CPS-%20Monographs/CPS-%20%28General%20Monographs-%20E%29/EVENING%20PRIMROSE%20OIL.html
Pregnant Health – Pregnancy http://www.pregnanthealth.com/evening-primrose-oil/