GLA: The Missing Link

Why dietary supplementation with Gamma Linolenic Acid (GLA) is necessary for the average North American

Author: Artur Klimaszewski, MD

Essential Fatty Acids, or “EFAs”, are essential nutrients that your body can’t produce itself. The only way you can get these nutrients is through your diet.

EFAs are polyunsaturated fats, which are considered “good” fats. EFAs contribute to the healthy functioning of cell membranes, and are also critical for the synthesis of eicosanoids, a family of hormone-like substances that help in cell maintenance on a minute-to-minute basis.

There are two families of EFAs, which the body needs equally.  The first is the Omega-3 family, which has received a lot of attention recently in the form of Fish Oils (containing EPA and DHA) and Flax Oils (containing Alpha Linolenic Acid, or ALA).  In addition to dietary benefits, recent research has focused on the beneficial effects of EPA and DHA in heart disease, bipolar disorder (manic depression), learning disorders, and Attention Deficit Disorder.  The positive effects of ALA have been documented in areas including: high blood cholesterol, high blood pressure, immune system function, and cancer.

On the other side of the equation is the Omega-6 family, which includes Linoleic Acid, Arachidonic Acid, and Gamma Linolenic Acid. The average North American consumes a high amount of Linoleic Acid in processed foods, margarine, and vegetable oils. As well, the typical North American diet contains a lot of Arachidonic Acid in meat, eggs, and some fish.

On the surface it would therefore seem as if most North Americans get enough Omega-6 and should focus on supplementing with Omega-3.  However, the real story is a little more complex.

There are two complicating factors:

1.  The body often has difficulty utilizing Linoleic Acid; and

2.  Excess Arachidonic Acid actually causes ill effects.

The difficulty with Linoleic Acid

Over the last 30 years, researchers have found that many people have difficulty utilizing Omega-6 found in the form of Linoleic Acid due an impairment in a critical enzyme – Delta-6-Desaturase, or “D6D”. The D6D enzyme is essential for converting Linoleic Acid into hormone-like compounds called eicosanoids, which are essential for cellular function on a minute-to-minute basis.

D6D function is impaired in many people partially due to the excessively high consumption of Linoleic Acid and partially due to other lifestyle factors such as smoking, drinking alcohol, stress, vitamin deficiencies, and high levels of saturated fat and trans-fatty acids in the diet.  Some disease states, such as diabetes, are also associated with impaired D6D function.

If a person consumes lots of Omega-6 as Linoleic Acid, but the activity of the D6D enzyme is impaired, then the body is not able to use the Omega-6 it’s getting to produce those beneficial eicosanoids.

The ill effects of excess Arachidonic Acid

In the meantime researchers have also discovered that the body uses Arachidonic Acid to produce a class of eicosanoids that are strongly proinflammatory, constrict our blood vessels, and increase the possibility of blood clotting.  These compounds are very useful when you accidently cut your skin while peeling potatoes – without them, you would bleed to death.  But once you have an excessive amount of these eicosanoids, the blood can clot in places you don’t really want it to – for example the coronary artery.  In other words, it can cause heart attacks.  We are literally dying from the effects of excess Arachidonic Acid.

The GLA Solution

So… what can a person do to address these difficulties?  The answer lies in the third source of Omega-6 – Gamma Linolenic Acid, or “GLA”.  GLA, found in Borage Oil, Evening Primrose Oil, and Black Currant Oil, does not require that impaired D6D enzyme for breakdown by the body.  And, it produces a class of eicosanoids that are highly anti-inflammatory, dilate blood vessels, and reduce blood clotting.  These effects are useful for the treatment and prevention of a wide range of diseases:

  • The anti-inflammatory effects are useful for the prevention and treatment of arthritis, allergies, and skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis;
  • The dilation of blood vessels helps prevent high blood pressure; and
  • Reduced blood clotting helps prevent heart attacks and other associated cardiovascular diseases such as strokes.

The bottom line is that the body definitely needs GLA – and most North Americans are likely not getting enough of it.

In fact, the body needs a balance of each Essential Fat within the Omega-3 and Omega-6 families.  For this reason, I prefer not to think in terms of “families”, but simply about the importance of each Essential Fat – like vitamins, the body needs all of them for good health. The best way to ensure that you’re getting your “daily essentials” is to supplement the diet with a combination of Flax Oil (for ALA), Fish Oil (for EPA and DHA) and Borage Oil or Evening Primrose Oil (for GLA).

All of these oils are sold in softgel capsules that are easy to swallow and keep the oil fresh.  Many manufacturers also produce “combination” products, which contain a ready-made blend of Flax Oil, Fish Oil, and Borage Oil.