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The borage, or starflower, plant, produces seeds that are a rich source of an essential fatty acid called gamma-linolenic acid, or GLA. The body can convert GLA to an anti-inflammatory compound called prostaglandin E1, or PGE1. Borage oil has a reputation for alleviating symptoms of autoimmune disorders, skin disorders, premenstrual syndrome and cramps, diabetic neuropathy and other inflammatory conditions. The oil is usually taken internally in a capsule, but can also be applied topically. Of the three oils that are good sources of GLA -- borage, evening primrose and black currant seed -- borage has the highest concentration.

Some Promise for Arthritic Conditions

Of all of the autoimmune disorders that borage oil is reputed to help, studies related to rheumatoid arthritis show the most promise so far. Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic, painful inflammation of the joints often requiring the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, also known as NSAIDS, that could have side effects. The authors of a study published in the ''American Journal of Clinical Nutrition'' analyzed the data from many trials, including their own, concluding that GLA in oils such as borage could provide symptom relief and possibly reduce the need for painkillers.

More Promise for Skin Health

Atypical dermatitis, psoriasis and eczema can be stubborn disorders that are often unresponsive to prescription medications, therefore, natural remedies might be appealing. Borage oil, taken internally and used topically, has been used for soothing these and other inflammatory skin conditions. Although clinical research so far is mixed, there are several encouraging studies. The research is a little more conclusive at the moment for milder, common skin issues. For example, a study published in the ''British Journal of Nutrition'' reported good results using borage oil to treat skin dryness and irritation.

How To Use It

Borage oil, with or without the concurrent use of prescription medication, might ease symptoms of pain and inflammation. It is unlikely, given current knowledge, that borage oil will actually cure anything so it is important to consult your physician for serious conditions, or if you are pregnant. The effects of ingested borage oil are likely different for everyone. Anecdotal evidence suggests that ingesting the oil could take a few months to work. For simple conditions like dry skin, topical application might provide faster results. With regard to long-term use, and use during pregnancy, more studies demonstrating efficacy and safety are needed.

Other Cautions and Considerations

The borage plant’s leaves and stems produce natural toxins called pyrrolizidine alkaloids, or PA, which could be toxic to the liver. Small amounts are sometimes detected in the oil, but some brands claim to be PA-free. Evening primrose and black currant seed oils don’t carry the toxin, but their concentrations of GLA are substantially lower. Whichever oil you choose, make sure that it is cold-pressed, as some manufacturers use hexane as a solvent to extract the oil from the seeds. And, ensure that your borage oil is fresh, and kept tightly sealed because GLA is a polyunsaturated fatty acid and prone to oxidative damage.