Ginkgo biloba benefits memory only in select situations; however, it can be effective for depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions.
Ginkgo biloba is one of the most widely used natural remedies in the world.
Billions of dollars are spent annually on ginkgo supplements, which are taken mainly to improve memory, stay mentally sharp, and ward off dementia.
But does ginkgo’s use as a memory supplement hold up to scientific scrutiny?
And just because it’s natural, does that mean it’s completely safe?
What Is Ginkgo Biloba?
Ginkgo biloba is a unique and amazing plant.
It’s the oldest known living tree species on the planet.
Fossils have been found dating back 200 million years!
It literally grew when dinosaurs roamed the earth, making it truly a living fossil.
You can now find these extraordinarily hardy trees lining city streets throughout the world.
They are resistant to disease, insects, and modern-day air pollution.
Some living specimens are over 2,500 years old.
A handful of ginkgo trees were at the Hiroshima atomic bomb blast epicenter.
Amazingly, they survived and are still alive today.
For centuries, ginkgo trees were thought to be extinct until pockets were found in China.
It’s believed that these remaining stands of trees were planted by Buddhist monks.
Parts of the ginkgo tree, including the fruits, seeds, and leaves, have been used for thousands of years in traditional Chinese medicine, but today only the leaves are used to make extracts and supplements.
You’ll see the terms “ginkgo” and “Ginkgo biloba” used interchangeably.
Ginkgo biloba is the scientific name for this tree and “ginkgo” has been adopted as its common name.
And since this tree is the only surviving member of the genus Ginkgo, there’s little chance to confuse it with other plants.
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How Does Ginkgo Biloba Work?
More than 140 compounds have been discovered in ginkgo, but only two kinds have known medicinal value — flavonoids and terpenoids.
The latest research supports that the following mechanisms are responsible for ginkgo’s benefits:
- Increase in blood flow to the brain
- Increase in neurotransmitters, chemicals that brain cells use to communicate with each other
- Increase in energy production in brain cells
- Decrease in blood viscosity, a measure of the stickiness and thickness of blood
- Decrease in free radicals which damage brain cells
- Protection from aluminum accumulation in the brain which has been linked to neurological diseases, including Alzheimer’s
Ginkgo Biloba Uses, Past and Present
Traditionally, ginkgo was used in Chinese medicine to treat disorders of the lungs, kidney, bladder, heart, blood, and brain.
Members of the royal court were given ginkgo to treat senility.
" A handful of ginkgo trees were at the Hiroshima atomic bomb blast epicenter. Amazingly, they survived and are still alive today.
Now, Ginkgo biloba is used around the world to treat a wide variety of ailments including memory loss, concentration problems, mental confusion, depression, anxiety, dizziness, dementia, eye problems, tinnitus, leg pain, and headache.
In the US, ginkgo is sold as a nutritional supplement, usually as a standardized extract made from dried ginkgo leaves.
In Europe, it’s available by prescription or as an approved over-the-counter medication used mainly used to treat circulatory conditions including dementia resulting from reduced blood flow to the brain.
In one year alone, German doctors wrote over 5 million prescriptions for ginkgo leaf extract.
But not all of these applications for ginkgo have withstood scientific scrutiny.
Why Taking Ginkgo Biloba for Memory Is Controversial
Clearly, Ginkgo biloba is an extremely popular memory aid, but recently ginkgo’s effectiveness has come into question.
With a history of thousands of years of use in China and the backing of modern medicine in Europe, it may seem puzzling that the benefits of ginkgo are in doubt.
Here’s a little background on how this came about.
In the 1980s, a German pharmaceutical company launched its first ginkgo product, an extract called EGb 761.
EGb 761 was found to improve mental functioning, but only in elderly adults with dementia, not in healthy adults.
Manufacturers of ginkgo supplements erroneously used this piece of news as “proof” that ginkgo improves memory and other cognitive functions in all adults.
Of course, this is not a scientifically valid extrapolation.
Here’s what two major studies concluded about ginkgo as a memory supplement in cognitively healthy adults, i.e., those not diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s.
Ginkgo Evaluation of Memory (GEM) Study
The Ginkgo Evaluation of Memory (GEM) Study is the largest clinical trial performed to date to evaluate ginkgo’s effectiveness on mental decline.
This study followed over 3,000 seniors with normal cognition or mild cognitive impairment over a period of eight years.
Researchers found no evidence of improvement in cognitive decline in general, or of memory, attention, visual-spatial construction, language, or executive functions.
GEM Study Conclusion: Ginkgo biloba does not slow memory loss or other signs of cognitive decline in healthy adults.
Meta Analysis Study
A large meta analysis examined the published research of 28 trials of ginkgo on memory and other cognitive functions.
These trials included over 2,500 healthy adults across all ages.
Researchers found no evidence of improvement in memory, executive function, and attention.
Meta Analysis Study Conclusion: Ginkgo biloba supplements have no impact as a cognitive enhancer in healthy adults, regardless of age, dosage, or how long they’re taken.
And finally, according to the prestigious Mayo Clinic:
“Although some studies have shown slight improvements in cognitive function for people taking Ginkgo biloba, most experts feel that Ginkgo biloba hasn’t lived up to its early promise and don’t recommend its use as a memory aid.”
Ginkgo Biloba for Serious Memory Loss
So, it’s widely agreed that Ginkgo biloba has not lived up to the hype as a general memory supplement for healthy adults wishing to improve their memory or halt mental decline.
But how does ginkgo benefit those with serious mental decline?
Can it halt or even reverse it?
The evidence here is mixed, but promising.
Here are the results of a few of the most notable studies on ginkgo for dementia and Alzheimer’s:
- One large meta analysis that covered over 2,300 patients determined that Ginkgo biloba extract made a safe and effective treatment for dementia.
- Another study on over 400 patients with Alzheimer’s or vascular dementia found that they experienced cognitive improvements and fewer disease symptoms.
- A daily dose of standardized ginkgo extract was found to work as well as the Alzheimer’s medication Aricept, and with virtually no side effects.
- However, a review of studies that included over 900 participants reported that the benefits of ginkgo for dementia patients are inconsistent and unreliable.
- And a rigorous study that followed over 3,000 seniors for over 6 years found ginkgo to be no better than a placebo for every parameter tracked, including rate of cognitive decline, risk of dementia, and rate of progression of dementia.
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It seems that ginkgo won’t prevent dementia, but it may help stabilize those already experiencing it.
Ginkgo biloba supplements can help dementia and Alzheimer’s patients with quality of life issues such as:
- difficulty with day-to-day activities
- learning and memory
- social behavior
Other Proven Brain Benefits of Ginkgo Biloba
There are some additional proven brain benefits of ginkgo.
Ginkgo has been found to significantly improve short-term memory in healthy adults.
Ginkgo seems to work synergistically with the Asian herb ginseng to improve memory in healthy adults.
Ginkgo reduces ADHD symptoms in children and teens.
It was not found to be as effective as Ritalin, but an important benefit is that it does have fewer side effects.
Ginkgo can help treat depression by increasing the turnover of both serotonin and dopamine, neurotransmitters often low in those with depression.
Ginkgo extract can reduce symptoms of anxiety and stress by reducing levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Ginkgo is a useful adjunct to antipsychotic medications.
When taken with ginkgo, antipsychotics work better to reduce symptoms of schizophrenia than when taken alone.
Inconclusive Benefits of Ginkgo Biloba
On the flip side, there are many alleged ginkgo benefits that haven’t stood up to scientific study.
For example, there’s no solid evidence that Ginkgo biloba helps high blood pressure, tinnitus, multiple sclerosis, seasonal affective disorder, heart disease, or several other conditions.
There is some scattered evidence that ginkgo can help with stroke recovery, but the current view is that it does not provide significant therapeutic benefit.
And, at least in seniors over age 85, ginkgo significantly increases the risk of stroke.
How to Read a Ginkgo Biloba Supplement Label
Ginkgo supplements are available as capsules, tablets, and liquid extracts or tinctures.
You’ll find that Ginkgo biloba supplements are offered as either standardized extracts or whole herbs.
If you’re ready to choose a ginkgo supplement, be forewarned that it can be confusing.
Below is a typical ginkgo supplement label.
Let’s decipher what it means.
This product contains two forms of ginkgo — standardized leaf extract (line 1) and whole leaf powder (line 4) — in the list of ingredients.
Virtually all research on ginkgo is performed using standardized extracts.
Studies usually use standardized extracts that contain 24-32% flavone glycosides and 6-12% triterpene lactones.
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This supplement also contains Ginkgo biloba powder, a whole leaf extract.
Traditional herbalists prefer the use of whole herbs instead of a few specific compounds in isolation as is the case with standardized extracts.
The rationale is that by using a full spectrum extract, you benefit from any potential synergistic effects of all naturally occurring compounds.
Most ginkgo supplements contain either a standardized extract or whole leaf powder.
The manufacturer of this supplement has decided to give their customers the benefits of both.
Since you really have no way to know for sure what is in a whole leaf ginkgo supplement, it’s important that you buy from a reputable company that takes quality control seriously.
According to Consumer Lab, a leading consumer watchdog organization, only 40% of ginkgo supplements that they tested contained the amount of ginkgo listed on the label.
An alarming exposé revealed that Walmart, Target, GNC, and Walgreens store brand ginkgo supplements were either contaminated or contained little to no ginkgo.
Ginkgo Biloba Dosage, Side Effects, and Interactions
There is no recommended daily allowance (RDA) for Ginkgo biloba.
A typical ginkgo dose is 40 mg, three times a day, for a total of 120 mg.
It’s usually advised to start at a low dose and to take ginkgo with meals to avoid gastrointestinal distress.
Doses of up to 240 mg per day are often recommended for therapeutic purposes.
Studies generally use between 120 mg and 600 mg of ginkgo extract daily.
Ginkgo Biloba Side Effects
Ginkgo is an all-natural supplement, but that doesn’t mean it’s without risk or side effects.
Ginkgo leaves contain alkylphenols, a family of compounds which are highly allergenic.
Known ginkgo supplement side effects include:
- allergic reaction
- unusual bleeding
Ginkgo contains compounds related to urushiol, a highly allergenic oil found in poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac.
While almost everyone reacts badly to these plants, if you have an extreme reaction to them, you might want to skip taking ginkgo.
Note that if you’re considering taking ginkgo seeds, DON’T!
Ginkgo supplements are made from leaves, not seeds; ginkgo seeds are extremely toxic.
They contain ginkgotoxin, a neurotoxin that can induce epileptic seizures, convulsions, and even death.
Ginkgo Biloba Interactions
Ginkgo can interact with blood-thinning medications such as Coumadin (warfarin) and aspirin, and medications for high blood pressure, diabetes, seizures, or depression.
Diuretics and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can cause unwanted side effects when mixed with ginkgo.
Together, they can cause a very serious condition known as serotonin syndrome.
Drugs.com lists nearly 300 drugs known to adversely react with ginkgo.
Ginkgo Biloba: Take the Next Step
Most of the benefits of Ginkgo biloba have stood the test of time in traditional Chinese medicine and as a prescription medication in Europe.
But not all of its purported benefits have withstood the findings of the latest research.
If you are a mentally healthy adult, ginkgo supplements won’t do much (if anything) to improve your memory or to help you prevent dementia.
However, for those diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s, ginkgo does show promise for improving memory and day-to-day quality of life.
Ginkgo biloba has also been shown to be beneficial for stress, anxiety, and depression.
It’s a helpful adjunct when taken with medications for ADHD and schizophrenia.
If you decide to give ginkgo a try, do your due diligence and find a high-quality product.
Ginkgo supplements are big business and, unfortunately, scam supplements abound.
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