A step-by-step guide to better midlife health
By Steven Foster
As we age, several factors can result in less blood flow to the brain. Blood vessels can lose elasticity and tone, making circulation less efficient in both the arteries and capillaries. Free radicals can lead to tissue oxidation (think of it as mental rust). This, in turn, can contribute to declines in memory function. The brain and central nervous system are especially sensitive to free radical damage.
Blood also can become “sticky,” slowing its flow. Any blockage can cause a stroke. Blood platelets can also clump, reducing flow to the central nervous system and inducing inflammation that can damage nerve cells and other tissue. All these factors, working alone or together, can decrease blood flow to the brain, decrease oxygen utilization, and eventually lead to age-related memory conditions.
Ginkgo can ease these problems, helping reduce the risk of strokes, repair damaged nervous tissue and increase mental acuity.
Ginkgo leaf extract combines the best of traditional herbal wisdom with rigorous modern science. The benefits of ginkgo leaf extract are now supported by more than 400 scientific studies.
Ginkgo is not only the best-selling phytomedicine in Germany and France, it’s also in the top five of all medications, natural or synthetic, prescribed in Germany. In the United States, it’s best known for its ability to improve short-term memory.
Ginkgo leaf extract is produced through a complex process that yields a product standardized to 24 percent flavone glycosides and 6 percent terpene lactones. Potential toxic components, such as ginkgolic acid, are reduced to less than 5 parts per million. It takes about fifty pounds of dried leaf to make one pound of extract, so it’s known as a 50:1 extract.
The combination of standardized chemical components in the plant are essential to its effects. Flavone glycosides are responsible for ginkgo’s strong antioxidant effects and help reduce the stickiness of blood platelets. Terpene lactones promote ginkgo’s ability to protect cells and increase circulation. In addition, lactones have been shown to help rebuild nerve tissue while protecting nerve cells from damage when blood supply is slow. Research has shown ginkgo’s potential to relieve difficulties with short-term memory, attention span and mood by improving oxygen metabolism in the brain.
Is ginkgo for everyone?
The clinical literature suggests that ginkgo is most beneficial to people over fifty. A study published in 1999 examined the effect of acute doses of ginkgo leaf extract in thirty-one volunteers aged thirty to fifty-nine. Conducted in England, the research evaluated the short-term effect of ginkgo on working memory after nine, fifteen, and twenty-one hours. Researchers found that ginkgo did improve short-term memory in healthy volunteers, and that a dose of 120 mg was most effective. The results also suggested that cognition was more likely to improve in individuals fifty or older.
How to take it: Typical dosage for ginkgo leaf extract ranges from 120 to 240 mg daily (usually the lower dose, divided into two or three doses). Look for a product standardized to 24 percent flavone glycosides and 6 percent terpene lactones in a 50:1 extract.
Another herb with an age-old “memory” reputation is gotu kola. Mentioned in the ancient texts of India for promoting intelligence, gotu kola is considered a rejuvenating tonic herb, especially for nerve and brain cells. Tradition suggests that it can increase intelligence and memory while retarding senility and aging.
A number of pharmacological studies show that gotu kola may be beneficial in improving memory and overcoming stress and fatigue. Two small studies from India, one published in 1972, the other in 1988, report that gotu kola preparations increased the general mental ability and behavioral patterns of mentally retarded children. These studies have not been duplicated in the West, but Canadian researchers are currently conducting studies of their own.
A 1992 pharmacological study evaluated the effect of fresh gotu kola leaves on learning and memory in laboratory animals. The researchers found that a water extract of the fresh leaves, fed to animals for fifteen days, significantly lowered levels of neurotransmitters in the brain and urine. Compared with the control group, the test animals receiving gotu kola retained learned behavior up to sixty times longer. These preliminary studies provide a scientific basis for traditional use and point to the need for further research.
How to take it: An average daily dose is 600 mg of the dried powdered leaves in capsules (generally taken as 1 capsule three times a day), or 1 teaspoon of the dried herb in a cup of hot water for tea
Steven Foster is an authority on medicinal herbs and the author of many books, including Steven Foster’s Guide to Herbal Dosages (Interweave Press, 1999).