Learn about Evening Primrose Oil (EPO)
It’s April in the Southern Hemisphere, and recently while driving across a bridge in the countryside I saw below me in a dry rocky river bed a myriad of Evening Primrose plants standing erect – flowers emblazoned yellow in the early evening. I wondered how many people realised that the EPO that comes in soft gelatine capsules was extracted from this ubiquitous plant or even that it grew so close at hand.
Most people know EPO for its premenstrual-tension alleviating action, but it also has a number of other health benefits associated with it.
Evening Primrose grows wild throughout North America. The North American Indians pulped it for meal and poultices, yet did not seem to ascribe any great healing properties to it. The seeds were accidentally taken from America after colonisation and spread around the world where it quickly flourished and established itself with ease. One of the reasons for its ability to adapt to different world environments (including New Zealand), is due to the large amount of hardy seeds it produces that seem to thrive in poor soils.
In the 1970’s David Horrobin researched many of EPOs benefits and is generally credited as being the researcher who brought its healing properties to the world’s attention.
What’s EPO used for?
EPO has found a use in skin disorders8,9,10,11,12, inflammation4, arthritis13,14,15,16, joint pain, menstrual pain & menstrual issues5,6,7, cholesterol issues, stress management, blood clotting1, Reynaud’s Disease2, Breast Cancer3, brain function and concentration.
What’s in Evening Primrose Oil that is mainly responsible for its health benefits?
EPO contains a specific type of omega 6 essential fatty acid known as gamma linoleic acid or GLA for short.
What is an essential fatty acid?
An essential fatty acid or EFA for short is a vital type of oil that humans need and cannot make in the body, therefore it must come from dietary intake, as it is needed for many body processes. It helps make cell walls of all body tissues stay flexible enough to function properly.
The inclusion of GLA into body cell walls is one of the main reasons for EPO’s health benefits.
What is so special about GLA?
GLA is a type of omega 6 EFA that bypasses a lot of the problems associated with diets high in omega 6 or low in EFAs
What is so bad about a diet high in Omega 6 or low in EFAs?
According to researchers, for the first time in history, dietary levels of omega 6 EFAs are higher than dietary levels of omega 3 EFAs, or, worse, they may be lacking in either of the EFAs. This is due in part to a high consumption of processed, carbohydrate rich foods, and low consumption of fresh fruit, veggies and nuts and seeds.
As will be discussed below both low levels of EFAs or uneven ratios tend to create bad local tissue hormones.
How does GLA overcome this?
GLA is a special type of Omega 6 that has none of the problems of ordinary omega 6 associated with it. It is absorbed into the cell wall and is available for local tissue hormone production.
What are local tissue hormones and why are they so important?
Local tissue hormones are produced from cell walls in response to injury and inflammation, pain, stress and have a vital role in the way nerves communicate in the brain and are needed for youthful skin.
Without GLA, local tissue hormones are still created, but of a lesser quality and create pain and inflammation. They lower the body’s ability to respond to stress, and the nerve signals become jaded.
An interesting fact to note is that under stress (especially severe stress) the body uses its store of EFAs quicker than normal. This suggests that supplementing with EPO during times of stress is beneficial.
The natural sources of EFAs are green leafy vegetables, flax seeds, certain types of seaweed, fish and nuts and seeds. It is thought that as far back as the Palaeolithic age (about 20,000 years) our diets were more balanced than today in terms of EFAs.
Palaeolithic diets are thought to have been abundant in unprocessed nuts and seeds, fruits, berries, roots, green leafy veggies and fish & game. Notably they did not eat grains (wheat, rye, barley) nor had much processing of their foods. Note that those civilisations that eventually grew grains to eat, normally consumed whole sprouted or weakly milled grains (bashed around with a mortar and pestle).
White processed flour is a modern advent.
Diagnosing GLA Levels in the Body
There are no reliable tests to diagnosis your tissue levels of GLA, however a good case history, taking into account your diet, lifestyle, stresses, past illnesses and health status gives a really good indication of GLA levels.
Essentially if you have any of the conditions listed above in the “What’s it used for?” section, then chances are you are either low in GLA or need more of it.
As a rough guide if you eat very little green leafy veggies, nuts, seeds, oily fish and consume packaged foods, processed food, fast foods, lots of heavy meats, sugar, white flour goods (pies, pastries, breads etc), and excessively cooked foods (heat destroys GLA), then chances are you are low in GLA.
How Much EPO to Take
This area is debatable at best. Most bottles of EPO suggest a dose of one a day for maintenance and up to 6 a day for supporting various conditions.
Most capsules contain 1000 – 1300mg of EPO. One teaspoon is about 4000 - 5000mg of EPO.
Some conditions may require up to 20,000mg per day for a short term burst to up the level of GLA, especially if dealing with inflammation. Most conditions though should get by with 6 to 10 day trailing off to a maintenance dose of 4 to 6 per day.
It is best to see a suitably qualified natural health practitioner to get your individual needs assessed.
The main contraindication is blood thinners and epilepsy.
Some writers suggest that breastfeeding and pregnancy are contraindicated as well – but this is only because of the trend toward erring on the side of caution. As there is no safety data on EPO they say don’t take it – yet GLA and the other oils in EPO are naturally occurring substances found within nature and within a healthy body. They would also help foetal tissue development and the more GLA in breast milk the more a breastfeeding baby will thrive.
There is no known toxicity of EPO. High doses of it very rarely bring on loose bowel motions.
How Long Before Seeing Benefits
This is the million dollar question and here it really depends on the individual person. At a conservative guess. I would expect to see a significant improvement within 4 – 6 weeks, but some have reported sooner results.
Evening Primrose Oil offers a cheap plant source of GLA, a type of Omega 6 fatty acid that helps the body create the right type of local tissue hormones to help deal with pain, inflammation, skin, stress, period issues and confers a range of health benefits on its users.
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- Rothman, D., et al. Botanical lipids: Effects on inflammation, immune responses, and rheumatoid arthritis. Seminars in Arthritis and Rheumatism. 25(2):87-96, 1995.