Fast-growing echium -- known to some gardeners as a pesky weed -- may soon prove to be one of the best plant sources of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Unlike other plant sources of essential fatty acids, such as borage and evening primrose, echium contains a significant amount of stearidonic acid. The acid, which is typically more common in fish oil than plant oils, plays an important role in fatty acid metabolism and might also fight inflammation in the body. The plant genus Echium comprises dozens of species, many of which have long histories of medicinal use. Echium lycopsis has been used as an antivenin against snake bites, for example, and Echium nervosum has been used to calm frayed nerves.
Uses: Echium supplements are sometimes taken in efforts to prevent heart disease, and the plant's oil is included in topical products to treat sunburned skin and prevent wrinkles.
Dose: Doses vary from 5 to 15 grams a day, taken in three separate doses with meals. Echium supplements come in pill form and as an oil.
Precautions: Echium plants contain pyrrolizidine alkaloids, toxic compounds that can cause severe liver damage or liver failure in large doses (doses up to 25 times larger than recommended). Omega-3 fatty acids found in echium may increase blood-clotting time, so people on blood-thinning drugs should be cautious when taking the supplements.
Research: Lab studies show that \o7Echium vulgare \f7has some antibacterial activity, and animal studies suggest \o7Echium amoenum \f7can reduce anxiety levels. In a small clinical trial published in the Journal of Nutrition last year, oil from \o7Echium plantagineum \f7lowered blood triglyceride levels in people with hypertriglyceridemia (high blood lipid levels). Scientists at the Wake Forest and Harvard Center for Botanical Lipids research center at Wake Forest University are studying echium's effects on atherosclerosis, asthma and arthritis.
Dietary supplement makers are not required by the U.S. government to demonstrate that their products are safe or effective. Ask your healthcare provider for advice on selecting a brand.
-- Elena Conis