Taking the herbal supplement ginkgo biloba may delay the onset of cognitive impairment in elderly adults. However, the study also showed a higher incidence of strokes and "mini-strokes" in ginkgo users.
In a three-year study of more than 100 people age 85 and older with no memory problems, half took ginkgo biloba extract three times a day, and half took a placebo.
During the course of the study, 14 of those who took the placebo developed memory problems, but only 7 of those who took the ginkgo extract did. When the researchers took into account whether people followed directions in taking the study pills, they found that people who reliably took ginkgo had a 68 percent lower risk of developing memory problems.
Seven people taking ginkgo had strokes, while none of those taking placebo did.
Ginkgo biloba is believed to be one of the oldest trees in the world. It can be traced back some 250 million years, which is why it’s often referred to as a living fossil.
What Can Ginkgo Biloba do For You?
Ginkgo is commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) for ailments related to poor blood circulation to your brain, such as dizziness, tinnitus and memory loss.
Ginkgo biloba causes blood vessel dilation and has a blood thinning effect, which increases your cerebral blood flow and appears to be able to protect your brain from degeneration over time.
It also has some antioxidant effects, which help protect nerve cells against oxidation -- the biological equivalent of rusting -- which also suggests it might slow down the degenerative process. It is also a very powerful adaptogenic herb.
Many studies have looked into its effectiveness in treating degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and age-related dementia. One Italian study published in the European Journal of Neurology in 2006 actually concluded that ginkgo biloba works just as well as prescription drug Aricept (donepezil) in treating mild or moderate Alzheimer's, stating:
“Our study suggests that there is no evidence of relevant differences in the efficacy of EGb 761 [ginkgo biloba] and donepezil in the treatment of mild to moderate Alzheimer's dementia, so the use of both substances can be justified.”
Potential Side Effects of Ginkgo
As with most supplements, you should always use caution and read up on potential side effects before self-medicating. Just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it can’t cause potential problems.
For example, in addition to the ginkgo biloba leaves, the seeds are also used medicinally, but should be used with caution as uncooked seeds contain a chemical known as ginkgotoxin, which can cause seizures, and in large quantities, death.
According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), the most common side effects of ginkgo biloba include:
- Gastrointestinal upset
- Allergic skin reactions
There’s also some data to suggest that ginkgo can increase bleeding risk, so never take ginkgo biloba if you are on any kind of anticoagulant drugs or have any kind of bleeding disorder.
You also should not take ginkgo before undergoing surgery or dental procedures, for the same reason.
Even Safer Options to Keep Your Mind Sharp
Ginkgo is clearly a safer option than pharmaceutical drugs for keeping degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s at bay, but just like drugs, it doesn’t address the underlying cause of mental decline.
To really boost your brain health, don’t forget to incorporate these essential lifestyle changes:
- Start an exercise program
- Challenge your mind
- Avoid most fish and flu vaccinations, and remove mercury from your body
- Avoid aluminum, such as antiperspirants and cookware
- Correct abnormal zinc and copper levels
- Eat plenty of vegetables according to your nutritional type
- Eat plenty of good omega-3 krill oil