GLA: An Unsung Hero

All About Science

I’m always looking for the diet, yoga pose, skin-care regimen, or supplement that can make my day just a little easier. As a working, single mom, I’ll take all the help I can get! Even if you don’t share my particular challenges, I know we all could use some help with feeling our best day to day.

As a Nordic Naturals educator, you’ll most often hear me talking about the many health benefits of quality fish oil. And without question, fish oil—rich in omega-3 fats—is one of my daily dietary heroes. But I have another daily hero that doesn’t always get the recognition it rightly deserves: GLA, or gamma-linolenic acid.

GLA is a plant-derived fat that can be difficult to come by in food. Evening primrose oil, black currant seed oil, and borage oil contain the highest amounts of GLA. Oatmeal, hemp seeds, and spirulina (blue-green algae) also contain GLA.

GLA is often misunderstood because it’s an omega-6 fatty acid. Many people who appreciate the benefits of the omega-3 in fish oil understand that omega-6 fatty acids and omega-3 fatty acids compete for space in your cells’ membranes, and that we should all consume far fewer omega-6 fats—abundant in processed foods and some oils.

The average American diet contains a 20:1 ratio of omega-6 fats to omega-3 fats, while science suggests an ideal ratio of 2:1 for optimal cellular health. Achieving a healthy balance of fats is a key reason many people choose to supplement with fish oil.

Why Take GLA?

So, if we’re all consuming way too many omega-6 fats, why would anyone want to supplement with an omega-6 fatty acid? The answer is: Because GLA isn’t just any old omega-6. It doesn’t play by the same rules as other omega-6 fatty acids, especially when combined with omega-3s EPA and DHA found in fish oil.  In fact, research indicates that GLA and EPA/DHA interact with each other in ways that support the metabolism of the other. In other words, each fat helps the other work better when we consume them together.

One scientifically recognized diet-and-health association is fat. This is mainly due to the role that fats play in gene expression and immune function.* Fatty acids like EPA, DHA, and GLA produce hormone-like eicosanoids that modulate the key aspects of the immune response, suggesting that these essential fatty acids could reduce this burden.*

For many years, the conversation around GLA has been about evening primrose oil and women’s reproductive health. Evening primrose oil has a long history of traditional use for this purpose. But supporting women’s reproductive health is nowhere near the only benefit of GLA. Let’s look at some other ways GLA can support health.

Skin Health

Skin health is important not just for a healthy body but also for healthy self-esteem. Whether you’re 19 or 79, healthy skin matters. Several things can contribute to less than healthy skin including lipid imbalance, lack of a proper skin barrier, and more.  Supporting all of these functions supports healthy skin. Here are a few examples of how GLA can be a hero for your skin:

  • Studies have shown that certain people may not convert linoleic acid (LA) into GLA efficiently enough to support the skin. This would suggest that supplementing with direct GLA could be helpful to the health of the skin.*
  • The hormone-like substances created by GLA can support the skin’s barrier function.* This barrier is how skin protects itself from stress and dehydration, and GLA has been shown to play an important role in the overall health and appearance of the skin.*

Eye Health

GLA really shines when it comes to our eyes. In combination with omega-3 fatty acids, GLA may support the corneal surface, conjunctival cells, hydration, and other processes related to the eyes.*

Healthy Weight

Moving through our day is easier and more enjoyable when we aren’t carrying an extra burden.  If we’ve worked hard to lose excess weight, we don’t want to have to do it again. But re-gaining the weight is all too common. In true hero form, GLA,  research suggests, may play a role in metabolism and maintaining a healthy body weight.*

Joint Health

Speaking of moving through our day, I know from experience that healthy joints make that far easier. Supporting the fluidity of our movement helps us feel younger and more capable, and GLA steps this up through the support of the immune response and its ability to help the body resolve inflammation after exercise.*

Heart Health

Our heart is arguably our most important organ, and supporting the health of our heart is a worthwhile endeavor. GLA, with the support of omega-3, supports healthy blood lipids in service of a healthy heart.*

While you’re shopping for your fish oil (as I know you are!) remember to check out GLA. This powerhouse fatty acid may not solve all our daily problems, but it can certainly support us in feeling our daily best.


* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. 

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