Why Borage Oil’s Benefits May Not Be Worth the Hype

Photo: Stocksy / Jamie Grill Atlas
There are some herbs and botanicals that come backed with lots of research, like turmeric and ashwagandha. But there are other natural ingredients that have a bit less street cred, like borage oil. The supplement and skin-care ingredient is being tapped to treat a variety of problems, from hormonal (ugh, PMS) to topical (oh hey, eczema) to targeting specific chronic inflammatory conditions. But...how legit are these claims?

Borage oil is derived from the seeds of the borage plant. The herb is called the starflower or, if you’re getting all technical and want to impress your friends: Borago officinalis. It’s famous for being rich in gamma-linolenic acid, or GLA, an omega-6 fatty acid.

“GLA is thought to be associated with aging. As we get older and we have inflammation, we may become GLA-deficient,” says Amy Shah, MD, a double board certified physician and wellness expert in Paradise Valley, Arizona. Because about one-third of borage oil is made up of these GLAs, “borage oil is believed to have medicinal properties,” she says. Evening primrose oil is also used in similar ways, although borage oil contains even more GLAs.

Here’s the thing: There’s not a huge body of research backing it all up. “There’s certainly an image of take such-and-such and you’ll be all better. The real truth is that 90 percent will come from diet and lifestyle, and [things like taking these supplements] may only improve your health by a small amount,” says Dr. Shah. And the evidence with borage oil benefits remains mostly anecdotal. Here's what you should know.

What are the potential borage oil benefits?

1. It might ease symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis: This autoimmune disease causes the body to attack the joints, leading to inflammation that causes swelling and pain. A 2011 review that looked at herbal therapies for RA found that oils with GLA, including borage seed oil, “probably” lessen pain and “may” improve function without causing side effects. Because RA can be difficult to manage, you may consider asking your doctor if a supplement may help you, says Dr. Shah. However, she cautions against subbing borage oil for the right medications suggested by your doctor.

2. It could promote healthier skin. Gamma-linolenic acids are beloved by facialists and other skin experts because they can help keep skin healthy and moisturized. Oils high in GLA (like borage oil) could help reduce inflammation associated with acne and support fuller hair growth.

What can't borage oil do?

1. It probably won't help with weight management: Dr. Shah gives this a big thumbs down. Some people go as far to say that borage oil will help your body eliminate fat. One (very small) study back in 2007 concluded that taking high amounts of GLA after major weight loss could help reduce the risk of the weight regain that so often happens. This is far from conclusive, and, sorry, unlikely to be any sort of magic bullet.

2. It likely won't help with eczema: Because of the anti-inflammatory properties of GLA, some have suggested that borage oil could be good for eczema, an inflammatory skin condition where the skin overproduces cells, creating dry patches of skin. However, it has yet to pan out IRL: A 2013 review, which analyzed eight studies that tested borage oil on this skin condition found that it had no meaningful effect on symptoms.

3. Don't expect it to relieve cramps: Borage oil is said to interfere with prostaglandins, hormones that are associated with painful menstrual cramps. However, there is very little research out there to confirm these anecdotal accounts. If you’re saddled with cramps every month and are desperately looking for a fix, it’s time to talk to your gynecologist before popping a supplement. Terrible cramps can be a sign of underlying problems, like uterine fibroids, that your doctor may want to rule out. And if you’re looking for a research-backed remedy for cramps, know that light physical exercise may help you find relief.

Is borage oil safe?

Yes, it’s generally safe, says Dr. Shah. However, it does come with some potential side effects. For one, “borage seeds contain alkaloids that are toxic,” says Dr. Shah. The oil or supplements using the oil has the alkaloids removed—this is just a reminder that you want to stick with the oil and not eat the seeds themselves. Other side effects can include nausea, headache, and indigestion. “If you experience those, stop taking it,” she says.

If you're curious about taking a borage oil supplement, definitely talk to your practitioner first before popping a pill. Certain supplements can interact with prescription medications or herbs, so it's better to be safe than sorry.

The bottom line: Borage oil is certainly buzzy...but doesn't have a ton of research to back up its benefits. So while it's likely fine to try with your doctor's blessing, it's probably not worth prioritizing in your wellness routine.

Here's the lowdown on some other buzzy supplements: wormwood and medicinal mushrooms.

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