Borage oil/starflower oil
What is borage oil?
Borage oil is made from the seeds of borage plants. Borage is a herb with bright blue flowers. It is native to the Mediterranean but grown in other regions, including the UK and Canada. It is also commonly known as star flower oil.
It's rich in gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), an essential fatty acid also found in evening primrose and blackcurrant seed oil. GLA can be converted by our bodies to substances that reduce inflammation.
What is it borage oil used for?
A number of health benefits are attributed to borage seed oil and demand for it is on the increase despite the fact there's little science to back up its use, and borage does not have any EFSA approved health claims. Some research has suggested it may be beneficial in the following circumstances, however more research is needed before firm conclusions can be drawn:
- In a medical study of critically ill ventilated patients being artificially fed, swapping sunflower oil in the formula for one rich in monounsaturates, fish oils and borage oil reduced the number of days spent on ventilation and also in intensive care.
- Infant formula supplemented with fatty acids from borage oil and fish oils seems to improve growth and development of the nervous system in infants born early, especially boys.
- There is some evidence that taking borage seed oil in combination with conventional painkilling or anti-inflammatory medications might help decrease symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis - the number and severity of tender and swollen joints.
- One study found supplementing with borage oil helped reduce the amount of weight regained by obese people who had previously shed pounds.
Borage seed oil is often mentioned alongside eczema. Anecdotally it may provide relief from itching for some people but research on borage oil supplements has shown no benefit in the treatment of adult or childhood eczema.
It's worth noting that most clinical trials looking at the benefits of GLA use primrose and not borage oil.
Does borage oil have side effects?
Just because borage is 'natural' it does not necessarily mean it is safe.
Borage seed oil is 'possibly safe' when taken by mouth or applied appropriately to the skin but parts of the borage plant, including the seeds, contain dangerous chemicals called pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs) which can damage the liver, especially when used in high doses or for a long time. The use of parts of the borage plant in traditional Chinese medicine are likely to contain PAs, but this risk has not been qualified.
However, commercially available borage seed oil for consumption is PA-free and presents no risk of PA toxicity.
Minor side effects from borage oil use can include bloating, nausea, indigestion and headaches. The severe effects of PA toxicity include extreme abdominal pain and liver failure.
If you are pregnant or breast feeding, avoid borage products due to the small but potential risk of PA contaminants.
If you have a bleeding disorder, use borage with caution. There is some concern it might prolong bleeding time and increase the risk of bruising and bleeding. Consequently you should stop taking borage at least 2 weeks before a scheduled operation because it might increase the risk of bleeding during and after surgery.
If you are taking medication or are under medical supervision you should consult your GP or medical professional before taking supplements.
Dietitian reviewed by Catherine Collins RD