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Ginkgo Biloba

A lot of my patients ask me about taking ginkgo for memory. Here’s my answer, with a little extra detail:

Ginkgo biloba has the longest life span of any tree, with some ginkgo trees estimated to be more than 1,000 years old. Even more astonishing is that ginkgo, as a survivor of the Ice Age, has been around for more than 200 million years.

Chinese physicians have used ginkgo leaves as a source of medicine for 5,000 years, but it’s only during the past several years that Western physicians began to investigate ginkgo seriously. The resulting clinical studies are so impressive they’ve been reported in conventional medical journals.

Herbalists recommend ginkgo as a vasodilator, meaning it opens up constricted or hardened blood vessels. What got everyone’s attention was gingko’s effect on brain circulation. Studies showed that people with age-related memory problems improved and those with early Alzheimer’s disease had a leveling off of their dementia.

These days, people concerned about keeping their mental functioning in optimal shape are the main purchasers of ginkgo. Consider ginkgo if you’ve mislaid your keys once too often, driven off again with your coffee mug on the roof of your car, or heard once more “But I told you that yesterday.” Ginkgo is also useful for men who want to improve their erectile function.

How it works
Ginkgo acts in several ways. Primarily, it opens up constricted blood vessels, improving blood flow to all parts of your body.  In addition, it reduces the stickiness of platelets, small particles in your blood needed for clotting. With freely moving platelets, there’s less chance of tiny strokes occurring in your brain. Ginkgo is also an excellent antioxidant, joining vitamins C and E in its ability to mop up cell-damaging molecules called free radicals.

What it’s used for
The best clinical studies on ginkgo are those of memory enhancement in people with mild memory loss and early Alzheimer’s disease.  Understand that age-related memory problems are not a sure sign that you’re developing Alzheimer’s by any means, but can indicate that your brain is not as efficient as it used to be. Nutritionally oriented doctors recommend ginkgo for any circulatory disorder: vascular disease of the legs, Raynaud’s disease, tinnitus, male impotence caused by poor circulation, and varicose veins. There is even some evidence that ginkgo will help if you have mild to moderate depression.

What to buy
Most of the clinical studies with ginkgo biloba used a standardized extract containing the active ingredients terpene lactones (6%) and ginkgo flavone glycosides (24%), with doses ranging from 120 mg to 240 mg per day. I would look for 60-mg capsules. Don’t bother with products
that aren’t standardized as you just won’t know what you’re buying. The label will say something like “standardized to contain xx mg of…”. Ginkgo is widely available. If you’d like to purchase online, click here.

How to take it
The low-dose range, 60 mg twice a day, will work nicely as an antioxidant and keep your blood vessels healthy (provided you don’t cancel gingko’s effect by smoking or eating spoonfuls of lard). If you’re having memory problems, you need to go to the higher range, spaced fairly
regularly throughout the day. This means 60 mg to 80 mg three times a day, with or without food. Give ginkgo time to work. The benefits for memory problems usually take six to 12 weeks of continuous use to occur. Long-term use of ginkgo is perfectly safe.

Side effects?
Virtually none, although mild headaches and stomach upset have been reported in a small percentage of new ginkgo users. There are no problems using ginkgo during pregnancy or while breastfeeding.

Reasons not to take
Because gingko’s blood-thinning effect on platelets is similar to that of aspirin, you should discontinue ginkgo at least a week before any scheduled surgery so that your blood-clotting system is normalized. Likewise, don’t use ginkgo if you’re taking a blood thinner, like Coumadin.

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