Brain booster: Ginkgo biloba

Quick. Where are your car keys? Your glasses? Can you name all your grandchildren? If you don’t know, does that mean you’re losing your memory? Probably not, but that hasn’t stopped thousands of people from heading to the pharmacy shelves in hopes of finding so-called “brain boosters”.

One of the most popular of these memory aids is ginkgo biloba, one of many herbal supplements vying for space on drug counters and health food stores around the country. It’s one of the five top sellers in Canada, along with garlic, echinacea, ginseng and chamomile.

Commercially available ginkgo biloba is made from an extract of the leaves of the ginkgo tree, one of the most ancient species of tree on earth. The plant is native to China, but can now be found on plantations and in cities around the world, in part because of its pollution resistant properties. But it’s not on the shelves for its hardiness. Ginkgo is most commonly used for its perceived benefits to the brain and to circulation.

^How does it work? Well, in pharmacy circles, ginkgo biloba is known as a vasodilator and an antioxidant that can fight free radicals. A vasodilator is an agent that can improve the circulati of blood in your body by widening blood vessels. Free radicals are unstable molecules that are a natural byproduct of your body’s processes. They can bounce around inside, causing damage to healthy cells, possibly setting you on the road to cancer.

So how can it help your memory?

Fraser Smith, a naturopath who teaches at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine, says ginkgo can benefit conditions where there is impaired circulation. Smith says those include some instances of memory loss, poor circulation to the legs, and ringing in the ears.

Ginkgo biloba has also been studied for its effectiveness in the treatment of many conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease, cerebral atherosclerosis, cochlear deafness, dementia, depression, menopause, retinopathy, senility, short-term memory loss, tinnitus, vascular diseases, and vertigo. Commonly prescribed in France and Germany, ginkgo is not often recommended by mainstream doctors here. Although there has been a lot of research in the last 20 years, ginkgo still falls into the category of unregulated herbal supplement.

Despite this fact, ginkgo has been the subject of many studies, in part because of its popularity in Europe. Indeed, a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed gingko biloba extract may stabilize or even improve cognitive function in patients with mild to moderate dementia. Patients who were evaluated by their relatives or caregivers, were generally found not to decline as quickly, and, in some cases, improved somewhat, compared to a control group.

Earlier research showed that circulation boosts were age-related — the older the patient, the greater the improvement in circulation from the baseline after taking ginkgo. Several other studies have supported this research, but there’s still no definitive answer as to the active ingredients and how they work. On the shelves, most preparations are labelled as a standard extract of 24 per cent flavonoids (sometimes called glycosides or flavoglycosides). Most have 40 mg pills, which are generally to be taken three times a day. They cost anywhere from about 10 cents to more than 40 cents a pill, depending on the brand.

But as with any herbal remedy, it’s hard to judge the quality of the product. As Dr. Reekum of the Baycrest Centre points out, consumers “can’t be 100 per cent certain they’re getting the active ingredients and we can’t even tell them what the active ingredients are.”

Fraser Smith says people should ask their doctor or a naturopath for suggestions when trying to decide on a particular brand or dosage. “People should do this under a physician’s supervision, whether they’re seeing a naturopathic doctor or a medical physician who has learned about ginkgo, because it’s a very powerful substance. It’s generally safe and well tolerated, but there are many different effects.” What if you’re feeling healthy? Are brain boosters of any use? So far, there’s not much evidence that ginkgo should be used as a preventative measure. Smith points out that if you have healthy circulation, there’s no indication ginkgo will help. Because ginkgo will probably increase blood flow, people with bleeding disorders should avoid it. Also, if you’re already taking blood thinners or Aspirin, consult your doctor.

So, if you think there may be a problem, check it out. Discuss any treatment plans, including herbal supplements, with your doctor. Remember: not all conditions warrant herbal treatment and some may even be made worse by it.

As far as herbals go, though, ginkgo is one of the better-researched and more common (at least in Europe). Its effects have been clinically proven to some extent. But if you’re thinking about using ginkgo biloba and boosting your brain, don’t forget to talk to a health professional first.