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Evening Primrose Oil: Health Benefits, Uses and Interactions

Evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) is a medicinal herb which is usually taken as oil. The oil is rich in omega-6 fatty acids, especially linoleic acid and gamma-linolenic acid. There is a long list of medicinal claims associated with evening primrose oil. It has been used for years to treat a variety of health conditions ranging from gastrointestinal problems and neuralgia to asthma and whooping cough.

Today, evening primrose oil is mainly used for skin problems including eczema, psoriasis and acne, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic fatigue syndrome, menopausal complaints, premenstrual syndrome, breast pain (mastalgia), chronic headache, bronchitis, obesity, high cholesterol and heart disease, osteoporosis, male impotence, dry eyes, allergies, lupus, alcohol dependence, schizophrenia and multiple sclerosis. Some experts also recommend it for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Although there is no clear scientific proof that this medicinal herb improves any of the aforementioned conditions, there is reasonable evidence to suggest that it does help patients with diabetic nerve damage.

Health Effects of Evening Primrose Oil

Evening primrose oil contains several fatty acids including linoleic acid and gamma-linolenic acid (GLA). The body needs GLA to make a hormone-like substance called prostaglandin E1, which is believed to reduce inflammation. In addition, evening primrose oil is a rich source of an amino acid called phenylalanine, a natural pain killer.

Linoleic acid, commonly found in nuts, seeds and most vegetable oils, is normally converted by the body into gamma-linolenic acid, and then into prostaglandin. However, high age, poor diet, deficiencies of vitamin C and certain minerals as well as medical conditions such as diabetes or heart disease can interfere with this process. In such cases, evening primrose oil can deliver necessary (or extra needed) GLA to people who may find it hard to make their own. GLA has been shown to help restore the damaged integrity of the peripheral nerves.

In fact, people with the above mentioned deficiencies and conditions as well as those with eczema, psoriasis and premenstrual syndrome have been found to have a deficiency of prostaglandin E1.

Potential Health Risks Associated with Evening Primrose Oil

Evening primrose is generally considered to be safe to use if taken for up to one year. However, patients who have mania, epilepsy or are taking anti-inflammatory drugs, anticoagulants, beta-blockers, corticosteroids, antipsychotic drugs or anti-epileptic drugs should not take it because of potential herb-drug interactions. Pregnant and breast-feeding women should not use evening primrose oil either due to unknown risks.

Side effects of evening primrose oil are rare and usually mild. They include nausea, stomach problems and headaches. In most cases, side effects clear up within a matter of days when the patient stops taking evening primrose.

How to Take Evening Primrose Oil

Evening primrose oil usually comes in the form of capsules and quality can vary. The oil has been taken from the seeds of the plant and then put in a capsule. The dosage largely depends on the condition treated but, generally, it is between 3 and 8 grams of evening primrose oil (containing 8% of gamma-linolenic acid) per day, long term (up to one year). In most cases, it takes about three months for evening primrose to have any effect. It is recommended to see an herbalist or nutritionist for treatment that is tailored to the patient’s exact needs.