Borage, whose botanical name is Borago officinalis, is an annual herb in the Boraginaceae family. There are as many as 2,500 species in this family of plants. The specific designation officinalis indicates the herb's inclusion in official listings of medicinal plants. Borage is a wild-growing, hardy native of the Mediterranean region, cultivated and naturalized throughout Great Britain and North America. Traditionally associated with courage, borage was used to flavor the wine for soldiers preparing for battle. The English word "borage" may be derived from the word borrach, a Celtic word meaning "a person of courage." In folk tradition throughout its long history of recorded use, borage was believed to dispel melancholy and ease grief and sadness. According to the ancient Greek physician Dioscorides, borage can "cheer the heart and lift the depressed spirits." Common names for the herb include burrage, common bugloss, star flower, tailwort, or beebread. Borage self-seeds freely and flourishes in rich, well-drained soil in full sun. It is a good companion herb in the cottage garden, attracting honey bees and imparting strength and insect resistance to nearby plants, particularly strawberry and tomato.
Borage's silvery-green, oblong to ovate, textured leaves form a basal rosette, then grow alternately up a succulent hollow round stem containing a clear mucilage. The leaves and sprawling branches are covered in bristly white hairs that impart a silvery sheen to the herb and are irritating to the skin on contact. Borage can reach a height of 2 ft (0.6 m), with leaves as long as 5 in (13 cm). The five-petaled star-shaped blue flowers, each with five black anthers, grow in loose, downward-turning clusters at the apex of the stems. Borage may bloom continuously from early spring until frost. The large, brownish-black seeds are three-sided. They may be viable for as long as eight years. The roots are shallow and spreading.
Borage seed oil
In contrast to borage's centuries of use as a herb, borage seed oil has been used only for the last 10 years. Borage oil, extracted from the seeds by cold pressing, contains omega-6 essential fatty acids , with as much as a 25–30% concentration of gamma linolenic acid (GLA). GLA is a derivative of the omega-6 fatty acids . It is an essential fatty acid used by the body to produce prostaglandins, the hormone-like substances in the body that may be out of balance in premenstrual syndrome (PMS) or during menopause . GLA also appears to reduce the adherence of plaque (abnormal patches of hardened deposits) to artery walls, thus lowering the risk of coronary heart disease . GLA helps to relieve PMS, regulate the menstrual cycle, and ease the hot flashes and mood swings of menopause.
At present, borage seed oil is best known for its antiinflammatory properties. The oil has been shown in clinical studies with human subjects to be useful in treating the following conditions:
- rheumatoid arthritis
- atopic eczema
- infantile seborrheic dermatitis
- Raynaud's phenomenon
- Sjögren's syndrome
- juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (JRA)
In addition, the GLA in borage seed oil prevents the formation of blood clots , helps to keep cell membranes flexible, and supports the body's immune function.
Other claims for borage seed oil that have not been tested in clinical studies include its use as a remedy for hangovers, as an anti-aging preparation, and as a wrinkle reducer. Various borage oil products that make these claims, however, are readily available over the Internet.
Culinary and medicinal uses
Borage's culinary and medicinal uses have been known for at least 2000 years. Borage is a cooling, cleansing, and refreshing herb with adaptogenic, demulcent, diuretic, expectorant, and anti-inflammatory properties. The entire plant contains mucilage, tannin, essential oil, potassium, calcium , pyrrolizioline alkaloids, saponins, and vitamin C , as well as a high amount of mineral salts. The leaves have been used as an adrenal tonic to balance and restore the health of the adrenal glands following periods of stress . A tea made from the leaves and blossoms will also promote lactation, relieve fevers, and promote sweating, The soothing mucilage in borage makes it a beneficial treatment for dry cough and throat irritation. Borage tea is also a good remedy to use with such digestive disturbances as gastritis and irritable bowel syndrome . European herbalists use borage tea to restore strength during convalescence. It may be of particular benefit during recovery from surgery or following steroid treatment. Borage tea is also helpful in clearing up such skin problems as boils and rashes , and has been used as an eyewash.
About a dozen clinical tests of the medicinal applications of borage in human subjects have been conducted since 1989. In addition, some researchers are now testing the effects of borage on skin cells in animal studies.
The leaves, flowers, and seeds of borage have nutritive and medicinal properties. Harvest borage leaves on a dry day, just as the plant begins to blossom. Strip the leaves from the stems and spread out on a tray. The plant has a high water content and the leaves may discolor if dried in direct heat. Place the drying trays in a warm, airy room out of direct sun. When thoroughly dry, store the leaves in dark, tightly-sealed containers. Borage flowers can be collected by gently pulling on the stamen tips to separate the blossom from the green backing attached to the stem. The blossoms may be used fresh, or frozen individually in ice-cube trays for later use.
Infusion: Place 2 oz (56 g) of fresh borage leaves in a warmed glass container. Bring 2.5 cups (590 ml) of fresh, nonchlorinated water to the boiling point, add it to the herbs. Cover. Allow the tea to steep for 10 minutes, strain, and drink warm. The prepared tea can be stored for two days in the refrigerator. Borage tea may be enjoyed by the cupful up to three times a day. Some herbalists suggest combining borage with hawthorn berries (Crataegus oxyacantha ) as a heart tonic.
Poultice: Chop fresh borage leaves and stems in sufficient quantity to cover the area being treated. Cover the herb with a strip of cotton gauze to hold the poultice in place. The poultice may be soothing and healing to skin inflammations, though the prickly hairs may be irritating.
Culinary: Borage leaves, eaten fresh, have a crisp, cool taste, reminiscent of cucumber but with a somewhat prickly texture. Borage blossoms are sometimes used as a garnish on salads or crystallized and used to decorate cakes.
Borage oil is available commercially as bottled oil and in capsule form. One manufacturer offers a package containing 90 capsules for $20. The usual recommended doses of GLA range from 100–300 mg daily (1 tbsp of bottled oil or 1–3 capsules). The dosage and duration of use, however, are best determined by a qualified herbal practitioner.
Borage oil has been shown to contain small amounts of such pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs) as lycopsamine, amabiline, and thesinine. Some pyrrolizidine alkaloids, particularly unsaturated ones, may be toxic to the liver even in small amounts. Some herbalists stress that use of borage oil should be avoided unless the preparations are certified to be free of these potentially harmful, unsaturated pyrrolizidine alkaloids. In addition, borage oil should be refrigerated after opening to keep it stable, as GLA is damaged in the presence of oxidation. Blending small amounts of vitamin E or vitamin C into the oil will also help to slow down the process of oxidation.
The long-term use of herbal borage in medicinal preparations is not recommended.
Some minor side effects have been reported when borage preparations are taken internally, even when taken in appropriate forms and in therapeutic dosages. These side effects include bloating, nausea, indigestion , and headache . External contact with fresh borage leaves may cause skin rashes in sensitive persons. Any adverse reactions to borage preparations (or any other herbal products used as dietary supplements) should be reported to the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN), listed under Resources below.
- Raynaud's phenomenon
- —A vascular disorder in which the patient's fingers ache and tingle after exposure to cold or emotional stress, with characteristic color changes from white to blue to red. Raynaud's phenomenon may be seen in scleroderma and systemic lupus erythematosus.
Adverse interactions have been reported between borage and three types of prescription medications: anticoagulants (blood thinners), anticonvulsants (drugs to prevent seizures), and anxiolytics (tranquilizers). Borage may prolong bleeding time if taken together with anticoagulant medications. Borage has also been reported to lower the seizure threshold if taken together with anticonvulsant medications. Lastly, borage has been reported to increase the degree of sedation when taken with anxiolytics.
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Herb Research Foundation. 1007 Pearl St., Suite 200, Boulder, CO 80302. (303) 449-2265. <www.herbs.org>.
Rebecca J. Frey, PhD