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Ginkgo Biloba for Memory Loss? With Caution

One of the top-selling herbs in the United States, ginkgo biloba has been used for thousands of years in traditional Chinese medicine. 

A National Institute on Aging (NIH) ginkgo trial of more than 200 healthy adults older than 60 showed no improvement in memory or concentration. It is possible that doses higher than the 120 milligrams used daily in this six-week trial could be effective. Look for results of current large, long-term trials, such as the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine's study with 3,000 volunteers. These will help to confirm whether or not ginkgo biloba can help prevent dementia or enhance memory in healthy people. 

Some research suggests that ginkgo biloba is effective for early-stage Alzheimer's disease. Ginkgo biloba may be as effective as acetylcholinesterase inhibitor drugs such as donepezil (Aricept). Studies have also indicated that ginkgo biloba may be helpful for cerebral insufficiency, a decreased flow of blood to the brain from clogged blood vessels.

However, a 2009 study in The Journal of the American Medical Assocation showed that compared with placebo, 120 mg twice daily of ginkgo biloba did not result in less cognitive decline in older adults with normal or only mild thinking impairment.

Ginkgo biloba is available in tablets, capsules, teas, and fortified foods. Do not use ginkgo biloba seeds, which can be very toxic. Tea bags often contain 30 milligrams of ginkgo biloba extract, while a typical dose used in ginkgo biloba studies is 80 to 240 milligrams of a standardized extract daily by mouth in two to three divided doses.

Although ginkgo biloba is generally safe, you should be aware of its blood-thinning properties. Stop using ginkgo biloba or use caution before surgery or dental procedures. Your risk for bleeding is also greater if you are taking blood thinners such as aspirin or warfarin. Also, it is possible that ginkgo biloba affects insulin or blood sugar. So be cautious if you have diabetes or hypoglycemia, or if you take substances that affect blood sugar.

Minor side effects of ginkgo biloba may include headache, nausea, or intestinal problems.

Memory Enhancers That May Be Unsafe

Before adding any memory supplements to your diet, have a pharmacist check for potential interactions with any drugs or supplements you're taking, advises Lausier.

"And, remember that 'natural' isn't always safe," she says. "When you think about nature, you often think of beautiful and harmless. But think about a lion and a wildebeest -- that's nature, too."

  • Bacopa. Used for millennia in India, bacopa is an Ayurvedic herb that shows some promise for memory problems, says Lausier. But it is an example of a memory supplement that carries a higher risk of drug interactions. For this reason, she doesn't recommend using it until further study is conducted. 
  • DHEA. A hormone that declines with age, DHEA has garnered lots of interest. Taken long-term or in high doses, however, it may increase the risk for certain types of cancer, as well as other serious side effects. 

As you evaluate other potential memory supplements, keep in mind that the FDA does not strictly regulate herbs and supplements. This makes it harder for you to assess their strength, purity, and safety. Fugh-Berman advises doing your own research on effectiveness and adverse effects, using reliable, unbiased sources.

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