Gamma Linolenic Acid — A Little Goes a Long Way

By Mary Dinehart-Perry MS, RD, LDN and Barry Sears, PhD | Aug. 25, 2009, 12 a.m. (ET)
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are increasing popular in triathletes as a way to reduce pain and inflammation and improve recovery. Despite the widespread use of NSAIDs, most athletes are unaware of the risks associated with their use and many will take them without a prescription from their physician (1). 

A recent study found that in triathletes competing in the 2008 Brazil Ironman Triathlon, 60% of those questioned reported using NSAIDs in the past 3 months and of this group 26%, 18% and 47% had consumed NSAIDs the day before, immediately before, and during the race due to injuries or for pain prevention (1). 

Use of NSAIDs has been shown to exacerbate asthma, gastroinstestinal and renal side-effects, and hypertension (2), and is controversial with regards to whether it may be detrimental to tissue-level repair (3). This warrants the need for natural ways to control inflammation without the undesirable side effects.

What if there was a supplement that could function as a powerful anti-inflammatory agent, and simultaneously increase peak performance? Gamma linolenic acid (GLA) may be just that. However, GLA has a Jekyll-Hyde personality. In very low concentrations, it is a powerful anti-inflammatory.

In higher concentrations, it can significantly degrade athletic performance.  In low concentrations, GLA can enhance the production of eicosanoids that reduce inflammation, increase oxygen transfer, and promotes the release of growth hormone from the pituitary gland.  At higher concentrations, GLA can increase the production of arachidonic acid that decreases oxygen transfer, increases inflammation, and depresses your emotional state.  That is why in athletes we work with, GLA does not exceed 20 mg/day and is under strict dietary conditions which includes tight insulin control and at least 50-100 times more of the omega-3 fatty acid eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). It is only by controlling both insulin and providing adequate amounts of EPA that you can prevent GLA from being transformed into arachidonic acid. In other words, if you consider taking GLA as a supplement, then treat it with great care.

Mary Dinehart-Perry MS, RD, LDN is the Clinical Trials Coordinator for Zone Labs Inc.

1) Gorski T, Cadore EL, Pinto SS, da Silva EM, Correa CS, Beltrami FG, Kruel LF.  Use of Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) in triathletes: prevalence, level of awareness, and reasons for use.  Br J Sports Med. 2009 Aug 6. [Epub ahead of print]

2) Paoloni J, Milne C, Orchard J, Hamilton B.  Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) in sports medicine. Guidelines for practical but sensible use.  Br J Sports Med. 2009 Jun 21. [Epub ahead of print]

3) Alaranta A, Alaranta H, Helenius I.  Use of prescription drugs in athletes.  Sports Med. 2008;38(6):449-63. Review.