One thing about being a health blogger that drives me nuts is being asked about supplements. Mostly I don’t like it, because I never know what to do or say. According to some studies, certain supplements, have certain benefits, for certain people, but according to other studies the effects are more ambiguous.

How can I give a blanket recommendation? Even in specific cases I am wary. Some people need heavy doses and others need very little. Julia Ross says sometimes people only need to touch a pill to the tip of their tongues for the right dosage.

Ambiguous, indeed.

Another thing that I don’t like about supplements is the herbal class. Magnesium citrate — okay, yes, I know what that is and it’s specific chemical formula.

But chasteberry? Spearmint? Holy basil?

There are very few rigorous studies done on herbal supplements. This is particularly important for fertility, as just about every herb is recommended for some sort of fertility-related use, but only credible via anecdotal evidence and tradition.

The only thing I can say to people who want to try chasteberry for PCOS is “well, it’s said to have hormone balancing effects.”

Whatever the hell that means.

BUT – okay – we’re getting to the important part of the post now.

There’s one supplement I get asked about a lot, and I am always happy to answer, since its not only been shown to be fairly harmless and symptom-free, it also may in fact improve your health in a fair number of ways. It may:

  • Improve skin quality
  • Mitigate PMS symptoms like depression, breast tenderness, cramping, and weight gain
  • Lessen the severity of periods
  • Regulate hormone production
  • Improve insulin sensitivity
  • And best of all – cool systemic inflammation.

It’s  Evening Primrose Oil.

EPO is not a miracle cure — nothing is! — but there’s a lot of cool biochemical theory behind why it has its place in anecdotal cultural lore.  Knowing the biochemistry is awesome because it can help you understand the whole omega6/omega3 relationship and why their balance is good for your health.

Here’s the skinny on EPO, and why you might want to experiment with it for your hormonal and inflammatory needs.

What is Evening Primrose Oil?

A lovely night flower.

A lovely night flower.

 

Evening Primrose Oil is a pressed plant fat – much like canola oil is. It’s composed largely of omega 6 fat. If this fact raises red flags for you – that’s good. Omega 6 fats, by and large, are fats worthy of trepidation. Most of them cause inflammation in the body. But not all.

In order to understand what’s good about EPO fats, we’ve got to take a step back and look at what your body needs in order to be healthy and happy.

Just about every body process is regulated by hormones and prostaglandins

Hormones are molecules that are made in one place of the body and that typically travel through the bloodstream to act on cells in another place. LH, for example, is produced by the pituitary gland. LH then runs south to tell the ovaries what to do.

But prostaglandins?

Prostaglandins have the same bossy behavior as hormones… but they act entirely within the confines of a single cell.

Body functions that require proper prostaglandin regulation include:

  • monitoring blood pressure and viscocity
  • managing cell growth and division
  • promoting a healthy metabolic rate
  • supporting the immune system and
  • regulating secretion of hormones

Prostaglandins are synthesized out of fatty acids

So we talked a bit about omega 6s before. Omega 6 and 3 are two kinds of essential fatty acids. Your body cannot produce them. You must consume them. These polyunsaturated essential fatty acids are therefore where it all begins.

Afer you consume a fatty acid,  your body uses it to make prostaglandins.  Prostaglandins each have different effects on the body. Therefore: the different kinds of fatty acids you consume directly impact your health via prostaglandin activity.

Different prostaglandins and their cellular effects

In general, omega 6 fatty acids and omega 3 fatty acids go on to participate in production of either inflammatory or anti-inflammatory prostaglandins.

Omega 6 prostaglandins are usually “series 2 prostaglandins,” which inflame the body hard and fast. This is their job. They help with acute swelling, clotting, and dilation.

In small doses, the series 2 inflammation that comes from consuming omega 6s is a good thing. It helps heal wounds. Most of us do not just consume small doses of AA (the culprit omega 6 fatty acid), however. Estimates of American consumption of fatty acids put omega 6 fatty acid consumption, on average for Americans, between 10 and 30 times the amount it should to be.

It is worth noting at this point that saturated animal fats like eggs, butter, and lard can also contribute to series 2 prostaglandin activity.  The majority of paleo leaders, however, consider prostaglandin activity in series 2 from natural animal fats to be a perfectly appropriate part of a healthy diet, and I count myself as one of them.

Omega 3 fats like EPA and DHA cause the production of “series 3” prostalgandins, which slow down the inflammatory response. Most researchers and authors who write about these things liken series 3 prostaglandins to the “slow lane” of inflammatory activity. Series 2 are the fast lane; series 3 the slow lane.

Series 3 prostaglandins are synthesized out of EPA, which is the omega 3 oil found in fish. Now you can see why it’s so important to keep omega 6 and 3 fats in proper balance. You need your rate of inflammation to be just right. You need some inflammation, but not too much! So eat fish plentifully for its slow-healing effects.

(Do not, however, consume fish or fish oil to extremes, since it’s ideal to keep total omega 3 and 6 intake reasonably low.)

In addition to these two basic categories of prostaglandins, there is one more type. It’s called “series 1” by some thinkers. Instead of simply participating in fast or slow inflammatory processes, series 1 prostaglandins actively block the fast inflammatory processes of the omega 6 series 2 prostaglandins.

In sum: how Series 1, 2, and 3 prostaglandins interact

Series 2 prostaglandins inflame the body quickly; Series 3 prostaglandins slow the inflammation process down…

and series 1 prostaglandins put the breaks on series 2.

Series 1 prostaglandins can actively halt the hyper-inflaming, hyper-stimulating activity that comes from series 2.

(Hint: guess which series evening primrose oil supports?)

The relationship between Evening Primrose Oil and Prostaglandins

Evening Primrose Oil is composed of fatty acids.

Now, Evening Primrose Oil is mostly omega 6 fatty acid. BUT, one kind of omega 6 found in EPO is pretty special.  It’s called Gamma-Linoleic Acid. Evening Primrose Oil contains more GLA than any known substance.  GLA may comprise 75 percent  of the fatty acids in EPO (!). Other estimates put GLA in the oil at only around 30 percent, which seems a bit more reasonable. Regarldess of the variance, Evening Primrose Oil is one of the only sources of GLA around.

Other good sources of GLA include blue-green algae, hemp, and black currant oil. I am probably not going to be eating any of these any time soon.

GLA is the fatty acid most supportive of series 1 prostaglandin activity. Remember, this is the stuff that can help put a break on inflammation in the body.

GLA is anti-inflammatory and may promote healthy hormone production

Series 1 prostaglandins help prevent hormones from going into hyper-drive, since they down-regulate the frenetic activity of series 2 prostaglandins. This means that estrogen levels – if estrogen dominant – may be able to come down some, and that insulin and testosterone levels can also be brought back down into check.

Now – this is all based off of biochemical theory. No significant studies have been done regarding the effects of EPO on people’s health. Nonetheless the biochemical theory is fascinating, and it seems to support hundreds if not thousands of years of people using EPO to increase fertility, to increase lubrication in their vaginas, to reduce PMS, to clear their skin, to support uterine health, to reduce headaches and to sooth joint pain.

So therefore Evening Primrose Oil

  • has been recommended by people like Robb Wolf and Liz Wolfe (no relation, by the way, if you never knew that) to sooth acne
  • is thought to reduce PMS symptoms and heavy periods
  • may help blunt insulin resistance
  • can help the body regulate its immune response and sooth gastrointestinal inflammation
  • can boost fertility via calming insulin and testosterone production, and keeping estrogen and progeterone in better balance
  • may not do anything at all, but who knows?

 

You can check out some EPO on Amazon @ here. I’m not trying to sell you on the stuff, honest. It doesn’t matter to me. I personally don’t take it. Then again, however, I don’t take any supplements save for the occasional magnesium. It’s only that I’ve been asked about EPO a lot, so I thought I’d share my thoughts on it. I am also excited to share the fatty acid information with you, which is helpful for understanding what everybody means when they say “systemic inflammation” and advocating omega 6 and omega 3 balance – bearing in mind that there is of course a lot more to the whole story.

Featured image from wethechange.com.

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