Get the facts on gingko

For those over 50, ginkgo biloba is the most popular herbal supplement-mainly because it may improve circulation in the brain, thereby reducing the normal memory loss related to aging.

Fraser Smith, a naturopathic doctor and associate medical director at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine in Toronto, sees patients at his clinic in their sixties, seventies and eighties.

“One area where ginkgo is quite useful is when there is impaired circulation to the brain which can cause memory loss, mood changes and, in some cases, vertigo.”

Role in Alzheimer’s
He adds that ginkgo is also an antioxidant that treats more than just memory loss. Regular use of ginkgo is believed to prevent:

  • Heart attacks
  • Strokes
  • Or delay the progress of Alzheimer’s disease and its related dementia  

(Currently, there is no evidence that it’s a factor in preventing or treating the Alzheimer’s, especially if there is a strong genetic factor.)

Dr. Gordon Winocur, scientific director of research for the Alzheimer Society of Canada, agrees that ginkgo can be effective in some cases of normal age-related mery loss. But he stresses that it’s difficult to assess its effectiveness. Not all of the studies done on herbals are scientifically rigorous or long term.

 “People feel they should remember someone they met at a party a few nights before or their shopping list or specific appointments-things that are normally forgotten simply as a result of age-related memory loss,” says Winocur. 

“Where benefits have been observed is in groups of older people where normal memory loss has been observed.”

Preferred dose
For most people, the preferred dose is a standardized extract in tablet form that has 24 per cent ginkgo flavone glycosides and six per cent terpene lactones, according to Smith. 

Next page: Take caution

Take caution
“Ginkgo is a blood thinner so, if you’re on other blood-thinning medications, you definitely need to be careful,” explains Smith.

“People on Aspirin, which some people may not even consider a drug, could run into problems.
Someone on Coumadin, which is a blood thinner, definitely shouldn’t take it because ginkgo could have too much of a similar effect. And, if you’ve had aneurysms in the past, leaky blood vessels in the brain or arteries, stay away from ginkgo.”

Winocur agrees that caution is needed when taking any herbal supplement.

“Just because something is herbal or natural doesn’t mean it can’t have negative effects.”

Study underway
More and more, according to Smith and Winocur, physicians of conventional medicine, while not necessarily embracing naturopathic, are trying to learn more in an effort to ensure their patients’ best care.

Currently a large study is being conducted in the U.S. to look at ginkgo as a treatment for Alzheimer’s.

As Winocur explains, “I think we have to be open to alternative forms of medicine. We should never assume we know all there is to know and that conventional approaches will ultimately lead to all the answers without people having an open mind.”

Tell your doctor
If you’re taking an herbal supplement of any kind, honesty is the most prudent policy when it comes to your health care.

Whether your doctor is supportive or not, he or she should be up to date on the herbal supplements you’re considering. He can then determine whether you’re likely to experience any side effects based on your health and medication history.

Be sure you tell your physician if you’re already taking herbal supplements, especially if you are going to be having surgery.

A recent study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that some of the more common herbal remedies are also the most deadly if taken before surgery.

Stop before surgery
Ginkgo, in particular, can increase your risk of serious bleeding during or after surgery – especially if you are given other anticoagulants.

Ginkgo can also be a factor in dental surgery.

It’s recommended that you stop taking any herbals before a scheduled surgery-in the case of ginkgo, at least 36 hours before any procedure.

“The message is there is no question these herbal treatments have a long history and tradition, and I don’t want to close the door on them. I think we have to understand them better. At the moment, a lot of the usage is based on anecdotal word-of-mouth evidence, which is not to say that there isn’t some validity or basis in truth, but we don’t understand the limits,” says Winocur.

Ultimately it’s your decision. It needs to be an informed one – even when the label says “natural.”