Borage seed oil may help lower inflammation in people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), which may reduce symptoms such as pain or swelling. But more research is necessary to prove that it works effectively.

Borage seed oil is available over the counter as a dietary supplement, often in the form of a soft gel capsule. It may be safe to take orally, but some supplements can contain a substance that is toxic to the liver. It is important to discuss the potential benefits and safety of any supplement with a doctor before trying it.

In this article, we will look at borage seed oil for RA, including what the research says, whether it is safe, and other supplements that may help.

Close-up of a foil tray of borage seed oil capsules.Share on Pinterest
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Borage is an annual herb and flowering plant native to the Mediterranean. Its seeds contain an omega-6 fatty acid known as gamma-linolenic acid (GLA). The GLA content of borage seed oil is between 15–22%, making it one of the richest dietary sources available, according to research from 2013.

Some other names for borage include:

  • bee plant
  • bee bread
  • ox’s tongue
  • starflower

In supplements, borage seed oil generally comes in the form of a soft gel capsule.

Borage seed oil may be able to help with RA due to its GLA content. GLA is anti-inflammatory and may have the ability to regulate the immune system. As RA is an inflammatory autoimmune disease, GLA may have a positive effect on RA’s symptoms.

The body converts GLA into a type of hormone known as a prostaglandin. Prostaglandins are responsible for controlling inflammation. The body usually releases prostaglandins when tissue becomes damaged, such as through an injury.

But with inflammatory forms of arthritis such as RA, the body remains in a chronic state of inflammation. Some believe that GLA may counteract this.

Borage seed oil may also boost GLA levels in situations where the body cannot make enough on its own. Several factors can interfere with GLA production, such as:

  • aging
  • some nutritional deficiencies
  • viral infection
  • certain diseases

Although borage seed oil may have properties that could benefit people with RA, there are few high-quality studies that prove it is an effective supplement.

A small, double-blind clinical trial from 1993 found that 24 weeks of borage seed oil supplementation significantly reduced RA symptoms in 37 people. Participants reported a 36% reduction in the number of tender joints and a 45% reduction in tenderness scores. By comparison, the participants taking a placebo saw no improvements.

Another small study from 1996 with 56 participants observed similar improvements, but this time in pure GLA. Of those who took GLA, 64% had a reduction in joint tenderness and morning stiffness, compared with around 20% who took a placebo.

These studies have a number of drawbacks. Both involved a small number of people, which makes it difficult to know if these benefits would remain consistent across a large population. Additionally, the 1996 study used GLA in far higher doses than a person might find in a plant oil, such as borage seed oil.

As with all dietary supplements, borage seed oil may cause side effects or adverse reactions in some people. Most of these are minor.

Some of the potential side effects of borage seed oil include:

If someone is mildly allergic to borage seed oil, they may also develop a rash, hives, or itching. More serious allergic reactions may involve swelling of the airways and difficulty breathing. If a person reacts this way, call 911 or the number of the nearest emergency department straight away.

Some people should not take borage seed oil. This includes people who:

  • are pregnant or breastfeeding, as borage may cause complications
  • take blood-thinning medications, such as Warfarin
  • have liver disease, or who take drugs that can harm the liver, such as anabolic steroids or ketoconazole

Borage plants naturally contain pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs), a type of chemical that some plants produce to protect against insects. PAs are damaging to the liver, and may be present in some borage seed oil supplements. For this reason, it is essential to look for products that are certified as being free of PAs.

Regularly taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin or ibuprofen, may make borage seed oil less effective. Always check with a doctor before taking a new supplement, and do not give borage seed oil to children.

If a person cannot take borage seed oil or they are concerned about the PA content, they may prefer to try an alternative source of GLA. Two other prominent sources are blackcurrant seed oil (BCSO) and evening primrose oil (EPO).

Limited evidence suggests that BSCO and EPO may have similar benefits to borage seed oil. In one study, participants took 10.5 grams (g) of BSCO daily over 24 weeks. They experienced significant reductions in their symptoms compared with a group taking a placebo.

An older study from 1988 found that compared with a placebo, in 16 participants EPO lowered the need for them to take NSAIDs. Again, though, more up-to-date and large-scale studies are necessary to better understand the benefits of these supplements for RA.

Other complementary approaches that may help people with RA include:

  • Fish oil: Fish oils contain omega-3, which is another type of essential fatty acid. Some studies suggest that fish oil may be anti-inflammatory and help ease arthritis symptoms.
  • Dietary changes: A diet high in fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein may help RA by reducing inflammation. Some research suggests that a vegan diet, or the Mediterranean diet, may be especially beneficial. An anti-inflammatory diet that contains antioxidant-rich foods may also help.
  • Elimination diet: An elimination diet involves removing and then re-testing individual foods to see if they could be triggering symptoms of a medical condition. If a person with RA has food allergies they are not aware of, eating those foods may worsen their symptoms. A dietician can help someone perform an elimination diet to test for this.

Borage seed oil contains an omega-6 fatty acid that may lower inflammation in people with RA. A few small studies suggest that it can reduce pain, although the evidence is not high quality.

People who wish to try borage seed oil should first speak with a doctor to ensure the product they want to use will be safe for them. If minor side effects occur, people may wish to consider EPO or BCSO as an alternative.

Discontinue use and seek emergency help if serious side effects develop after taking borage seed oil.