Ginkgo biloba, which is also known as gingko due to an old botanist error that somehow stuck, is a tree that is native to China and has been used as traditional medicine for thousands of years. It is said to provide a number of health benefits and is consumed widely for this reason, but there are also some dangers and side effects to be aware of, and we’ll discuss those in this guide.
What is Ginkgo Biloba?
The ginkgo tree, or maidenhair tree as it is also known, can live for hundreds of years (the oldest is said to be 1,500 years old) and grow up to 50 meters in length. It is the only living species in the ginkgophyta family, and in addition to its extensive history in its native China, it has also been cultivated in Europe for more than 300 years.
Its fan-shaped leaves are turned into extracts, and it’s this extract that’s found in ginkgo preparations.
Does it Work?
This is a question that can be answered both in the affirmative and the negative, which is so often the case with herbal remedies like this. Some studies suggest it could be beneficial, but others suggest the opposite. The best example of this concerns ginkgo biloba and neurological decline. There have been several major studios conducted in this area, but the results are split, as described below.
Ginkgo Biloba and Dementia (Cognitive Decline)
One of the biggest peer-reviewed studies to have ever been conducted on ginkgo biloba looked at the effect this herb had on cognitive decline over an 8-year period. (1) The goal was to study the effects of this herb on dementia to see if it could play a role in reducing the risk. They gave over 3,500 patients a dose of 120mg twice daily (or a placebo) and sought assistance from 6 US medical centres, using a number of assessment tools to monitor progress and check for decline.
In the end, there were no notable differences between the test group and the placebo group, which is definitely not what you want to hear if you’re here to read about the benefits of ginkgo. However, the goal of this study was to check for cognitive decline over a process of a few years, and all of the subjects were aged between 72 and 96.
Proponents of this herb will argue that it should be taken over a process of many years, and that its benefits are most notable when consumed earlier in life. But they shouldn’t be quick to dismiss the potential benefits of ginkgo consumption in older men and women. A study similar to the one cited above looked at the effects of this herb over 20 years and found it to be much better than placebo. (2)
All patients were older than 65 and used a standardised extract. The fact that this group was marginally younger might have played a role, but it seems more likely to be the result of the prolonged trial period.
Other Benefits of Ginkgo Biloba
There are a number of other apparent health benefits of ginkgo biloba, but while all of these are promising, none have been studied as extensively as the one mentioned above, and most have been limited to animal and lab studies:
- Antioxidants: Like many natural remedies, ginkgo biloba is packed with flavonoids—antioxidants that possess a wealth of health benefits and may help prevent chronic diseases when consumed as part of a healthy diet.
- Heart Health: This herb may help improve circulation, with one study suggesting it can improve blood flow in healthy adults. (3)
- Digestive Health: This herb is an anti-inflammatory, and as a result it may help alleviate gut inflammation. The anti-inflammatory effects are actually thought to be responsible for many other health benefits associated with this herb, including its effects on the heart and brain.
- Mental Health: There have been a lot of claims suggesting that ginkgo can help with depression and other mental health issues. There isn’t a great deal of research to back this up, but there are those who swear by it for this purpose and there has also been a few noteworthy studies on its effects on anxiety.
Is it Safe?
A few reports several years ago suggested ginkgo increased the risk of stroke. A certain UK tabloid took this information and ran with it, declaring that UK citizens were willingly ingesting a harmful substance without knowing the dangers.
This warning came from a study in which 7 patients taking ginkgo suffered from a stroke. If written like that, this information is certainly alarming, and that’s exactly how the tabloid translated it, but the truth was a little less alarming. It was a relatively small study group, all patients were aged 84 or older, and many more people in the study didn’t report such adverse reactions.
There might be some dangers and some risks, but to understand those, we have to look elsewhere. There is more research suggesting ginkgo is highly allergenic, for instance, and that it can cause some unpleasant side effects in high doses and on rare occasions (as discussed below). It should also be avoided by anyone on antidepressants (it could reduce the efficiency of these drugs) and medications for blood disorders. In fact, anyone taking medication or suffering from a health condition should consult a doctor before taking ginkgo.
There is also evidence to suggest that ginkgo can increase some of the dangerous side effects of NSAIDs.
What are the Side Effects?
Ginkgo can cause stomach issues such as pains, gas, diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting, and general discomfort. It can also lead to headaches, forceful heartbeats, restlessness, agitation, and insomnia. You should always start with smaller doses to reduce the risk of experiencing unpleasant side effects and assess tolerance.
There are always risks associated with herbal supplements (from the well-tolerated milk thistle to the questionable soursop tea), but some carry more risks than others and ginkgo is one of them. The good news is that it’s perfectly safe for the majority of the population, but for those with allergies or medical conditions, and those taking medications, it can cause very troublesome side effects.
How Much Should You Take?
Many of the studies concerning ginkgo biloba suggest that 120mg taken twice a day is a good starting dose, but there have also been studies using twice as much as this. As mentioned already, it’s best to start small just to assess tolerance, and you should also stick with the manufacturer’s guidelines from that point on.
Where to Buy Ginkgo Biloba
We often recommend getting herbs as close to their natural state as possible, such as buying turmeric root or turmeric powder as opposed to curcumin extract, or opting for pure green tea leaves as opposed to a green tea extract. But that can cause more issues with gingko, especially when you consider that the seeds are actually poisonous.
Supplements are therefore the best bet when it comes to ginkgo. However, a lot of food supplements have been found to be fake, containing little to none of the ingredients they claim, and this is also an issue with many products coming out of China, which makes ginkgo somewhat of a double whammy. So, on the one hand, you should look for extracts in supplement form, but on the other hand, you need to be very careful with the supplements that you buy, focusing only on reputable brands.