brain & memory supplements
Ginkgo biloba or maidenhair is a tree native to China that has been used in traditional eastern medicine for a variety of conditions for thousands of years. However, modern research has primarily been focused on ginkgo extract made from the leaves. Particularly ginkgo biloba supplements are associated with health claims and uses, most of which focus on brain function and blood circulation.
Contains Powerful Antioxidants. Ginkgo’s antioxidant content may be the reason behind many of its health claims as it contains high levels of flavonoids and terpenoids, which are compounds known for their strong antioxidant effects. Antioxidants combat or neutralize the damaging effects of free radicals, which are highly reactive particles that are produced in the body during normal metabolic functions, such as converting food to energy or detoxification. The effect of the free radicals is to also damage healthy tissues, which contributes to accelerated aging and disease development.
May Help Fight Inflammation. Inflammation is part of the body’s natural response to injury or invasion by a foreign substance. In the inflammatory response, various components of the immune system are recruited to fight against the foreign invader or heal the injured area. Some chronic diseases trigger an inflammatory response even when there is no illness or injury present. Over time, this excessive inflammation can cause permanent damage to the body’s tissues and DNA.
Years of animal and test-tube research shows that ginkgo extract can reduce markers of inflammation in both human and animal cells in a variety of disease states. Some specific conditions in which ginkgo extract has shown to reduce inflammation include: arthritis, irritable bowel disease (IBD), cancer, heart disease, and stroke. While this data is encouraging, human studies are needed before drawing concrete conclusions about ginkgo’s role in treating these complex diseases.
Improving Circulation and Heart Health. In traditional Chinese medicine, ginkgo seeds were used to open “channels” of energy to different organ systems, including the kidneys, liver, brain and lungs. Ginkgo’s apparent ability to increase blood flow to various parts of the body may be the origin of many of its supposed benefits.
One study in people with heart disease who supplemented with ginkgo revealed an immediate increase in blood flow to multiple parts of the body. This was attributed to a 12% increase in levels of circulating nitric oxide, a compound responsible for dilating blood vessels. Similarly, another study showed the same effect in older adults who were treated with ginkgo extract. Additional research also points to ginkgo’s protective effects on heart health, brain health and stroke prevention. There are multiple potential explanations for this, one of which may be the anti-inflammatory compounds present in the plant. However, more research is needed to fully understand how ginkgo affects circulation and heart and brain health.
May Reduce Symptoms of Anxiety and Dementia. Ginkgo has been repeatedly evaluated for its ability to reduce anxiety, stress and other symptoms associated with Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline associated with aging. Overall, research results are inconsistent in this area. Some studies show a marked reduction in the rate of cognitive decline in people with dementia using ginkgo, but others fail to replicate this result. A review of 21 studies revealed that when used in conjunction with conventional medicine, ginkgo extract may increase functional capabilities in those with mild Alzheimer’s. Another review evaluated four studies and found a significant reduction in a spectrum of symptoms associated with dementia when ginkgo was used for 22–24 weeks.
These positive results could be related to the role that ginkgo may play in improving blood flow to the brain, especially as it relates to vascular types of dementia. Overall, it’s too soon to definitively state or refute ginkgo’s role in treating dementia, but recent research is beginning to make this piece clearer.
May Improve Brain Function and Well-Being. There is some speculation that ginkgo may enhance brain function in healthy individuals. A handful of small studies support the notion that supplementing with ginkgo may increase mental performance and perceived well-being. Results from studies like these have given rise to claims linking ginkgo to improved memory, focus and attention span. However, a large review of research on this relationship concluded that supplementing with ginkgo did not result in any measurable improvements in memory, executive function or attention capacity.
May Reduce Anxiety. Some research indicates that supplementing with ginkgo may reduce symptoms of anxiety. A handful of animal studies have observed reductions in anxiety symptoms that may be attributed to the antioxidant content of ginkgo.
In one study, 170 people with generalized anxiety were treated with either 240 mg or 480 mg of ginkgo or a placebo. The group treated with the highest dose of ginkgo reported a 45% greater reduction in symptoms of anxiety, compared to the placebo group. However, it’s still too early to draw any definitive conclusions from the available research.
May Treat Depression. A review of animal studies suggests that supplementing with ginkgo may help treat symptoms of depression. Mice who received ginkgo before an unavoidable stressful situation were less emotionally affected by the stress than the group that did not receive the supplement.
The study indicated that this effect was related to ginkgo’s anti-inflammatory properties, which improve the body’s ability to cope when stress hormone levels are high. Nonetheless, depression is a complex condition that may have a variety of root causes.
Can Support Vision and Eye Health. Very little research has investigated how ginkgo relates to vision and eye health. However, early results are promising. One review showed that people with glaucoma who supplemented with ginkgo experienced increased blood flow to the eye, but this didn’t necessarily translate to better vision. Another review of two studies evaluated the effect of ginkgo extract on the progression of age-related macular degeneration. Some participants reported an improvement in vision, but this wasn’t statistically significant across the board. Many of these positive results seem to be related to increased blood flow to the eye.
May Treat Headaches and Migraines. In traditional Chinese medicine, ginkgo is a very popular treatment for headaches and migraines. Very little research is available on ginkgo’s ability to treat headaches. However, depending on the root cause of the headache, it may help. For example, it’s well known that ginkgo has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. If a headache or migraine is caused by excessive stress, ginkgo may be useful.
Additionally, if a headache is related to reduced blood flow or constricted blood vessels, ginkgo’s ability to dilate blood vessels may improve symptoms. On the contrary, some migraines are caused by the excessive dilation of blood vessels. In this situation, ginkgo may have little to no effect.
May Improve Asthma. Some research indicates that ginkgo may improve symptoms of asthma and other inflammatory respiratory diseases like COPD. This is attributed to the anti-inflammatory compounds in ginkgo, which may allow for reduced inflammation of the airways and increased lung capacity. One study in 75 people evaluated the use of ginkgo extract alongside glucocorticosteroid medication therapy for managing asthma symptoms. The levels of inflammatory compounds in the saliva of those who received ginkgo were significantly lower than those who received traditional medication alone. Another study in 100 people evaluated the use of a mixture of Chinese herbs, which included ginkgo, for treating COPD symptoms.
Those who used the herbal formula reported a considerable reduction in cough and bronchitis at a three-month follow-up, compared to the control group. At this point, it cannot be determined if this improvement can be attributed to ginkgo alone, or if it was a synergistic effect of the other herbs used in the treatment group formula.
May Reduce PMS Symptoms. Preliminary research indicates that ginkgo may help treat both the physical and psychological symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS). One study in 85 college students revealed a 23% reduction in reported PMS symptoms when consuming ginkgo. Interestingly, the placebo group in this study also experienced a slight reduction in PMS symptoms, though it was much lower at 8.8%.
May Treat Sexual Dysfunction. Some sources indicate that ginkgo may treat sexual dysfunction, such as erectile dysfunction or low libido. Ginkgo has the ability to improve blood levels of nitric oxide, which improves circulation via the dilation of blood vessels. As a result, ginkgo may also be useful for treating various symptoms of sexual dysfunction by improving blood flow to those areas of the body.
Some research has investigated using ginkgo to treat sexual dysfunction caused by the use of antidepressant drugs (SSRIs). Results indicated that ginkgo wasn’t any more effective than a placebo in these cases. Additionally, there may be an interaction between ginkgo and SSRI medications, which could render them less effective. One study evaluated the use of ginkgo to increase sexual desire and contentment in women who were concurrently undergoing sexual psychotherapy. The combination of ginkgo and therapy were effective over a longer term compared to a placebo, but supplementing with ginkgo alone was not.
It’s important to talk to your doctor before including ginkgo in your routine. For most adults, the risk associated with taking ginkgo is relatively low, but there are cases in which ginkgo could cause serious harm. If you are allergic to plants that contain alkylphenols or taking certain medications, you should not take ginkgo.
Possible side effects include nausea, diarrhea, dizziness, headaches, stomach pain, rash/allergic reaction. Ginkgo has the potential to interact unfavorably with certain medications. Some interactions could increase the risk of bleeding. Possible adverse medication interactions include blood thinners, SSRIs/MAOIs/antidepressants, and NSAIDS/pain medication.