The human condition: From rash to riches

Anna Maxted investigates claims that borage extract can not only 'cure' eczema but can also aid the recovery of cancer patients
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Indy Lifestyle Online
AFTER YEARS of steroid treatment for eczema, Rose Laing decided that the drugs were doing her more harm than good. Being a student of Tibetan herbal medicine, a natural remedy seemed an obvious alternative. She did not expect to find it in her side salad. But a lotion she made with borage - one of those leafy greens parents force on children - cleared her severe skin condition in a week. She developed a borage-based cream and oil. Local healthfood shops were initially reluctant to stock it, but customers were so happy that Holland & Barrett agreed to try them. Laing's "Aru herbal Products" are now among its bestsellers.

Laing, 45, who lives with her husband in the Scottish Borders, explains how it started: "I was working in a Tibetan monastery in the Borders learning about medicine. When I asked a Tibetan doctor what to do about my eczema, he said: 'You know enough to find out yourself.' It wasn't a very nice thing to hear at the time. But according to Tibetan medicine there's always a plant that will help. I tried herbs with cooling qualities like dandelion and parsley, even dock leaves. After four years, I came across borage. It's got itchy leaves and I thought I could treat like with like. I strained the juices into an oil. It worked. I couldn't believe it."

Many wouldn't. But Laing conducted her own trials on five people with eczema. The results were "absolutely beautiful". When she advertised in the Glasgow Evening Times, the newspaper decided to test the cream itself. "They interviewed me, then took away five pots of it. The next week the editor rang me back to say all test cases had cleared. He gave me a full spread in the paper and we boomed."

Last year she won the John Logie-Baird award for innovation. The key to the apparently stupendous power of borage - also used to flavour cheese spreads and drinks - is its high content of gamma-linenic acid (GLA), which promotes healthy skin.

The National Eczema Society is cautious. Its information officer, Julie Braithe- waite, says: "Anything that helps people with eczema is great. But what works for one person won't necessarily work for another. There have been no clinically controlled trials of Aru products, only anecdotal evidence suggesting they are good emollients for dry skin.

"As with any new product, we'd advise trying it out on a small patch of skin before using it on the whole body to make sure that it doesn't prompt an adverse reaction.

"If a person has eczema they're always searching for that cure and it can take a lot of trial and error before they find something that's right."

Holland & Barrett cannot promote borage seed oil as a cure for eczema. However, the store is delighted with the concoction, which is applied to the skin. (Another form of the product can be taken internally.) "We stock it nationwide and it is one of our biggest sellers in the skincare range," a spokesman said. "It is popular with eczema and psoriasis sufferers, and anyone with skin irritation. The product is not so much a healer as a soother, which relieves the symptoms. Many customers have had a great deal of relief from it."

Talking to Laing, you feel that even she is overwhelmed at her success. She speaks in awed tones about letters of thanks, like the one from a mother "who didn't know what colour hair her own daughter had because she was wrapped in bandages. Then she used the oil and now she has a little beautiful girl with yellow hair running about free."

It's all very Brothers Grimm. But if you're hard pushed to believe a vegetable oil can transform anyone with painful cracked and bleeding skin into a smooth-cheeked Pear's baby, you ain't heard nothing yet. According to Laing, borage seed oil can aid convalescence from cancer.

"In America," she says, "they're treating people with liver and breast cancer with borage seed oil." But then again, in America they barmitzvah labradors. You may scoff, but the Imperial Cancer Research Fund doesn't. A spokesperson says: "We couldn't rule it out. I have discussed this with one of our scientists. He is aware of borage seed oil, and he can't come up with any papers that show it being used as a cancer treatment. But it does contain GLA, also found in Evening Primrose Oil, which is used to treat breast pain.

"We use it at Guys hospital and it is also used to treat chronic conditions like eczema. I imagine that the basis for using borage seed oil is that it contains GLA. We are also involved in a Europe-wide study of the diets of cancer patients and one of our Spanish collaborators suggests borage oil may have a protective effect against stomach cancer."

There is much suggestion, less proof. But borage is making its mark. The oil is being used to help treat Chernobyl cancer victims. Chrissy McCathry of Bel-Aid, a charity set up to help these people, cares for eight-year-old Marina Grablevskaya who has leukaemia.

In addition to her chemo- therapy, Marina takes two spoonfuls of borage seed oil twice daily in a glass of Ribena. McCathry says: "She's been taking it for three weeks and so far so good. She seems a lot better than she was. "I don't think the oil is a cure, but it boosts the immune system and helps cancer victims to fight the illness. I'm hoping to take borage oil to Minsk to help other sufferers."

Others see limitations. According to Dr Richard Firn, a biologist at York University: "Plants are thought to produce at least 100,000 different chemicals, and if you're looking to kill cancer cells then you're bound to find something that has an effect. But the chances of it succeeding as a cure are pretty slim because it may contain another property with harmful side effects."

Yet Laing remains "convinced" of the borage seed oil's power, and is a little hurt by the National Eczema Society's scepticism. She says tartly: "Certain types of people think it's an hysterical phenomena. I could understand that if it was hypnosis or something - but not this."

She is so convinced, it seems unfair to question the might of borage. Anyhow, it's a great reason to get your children to eat their greens.

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