Well, you can forget ginkgo biloba

By Phil Plait | December 30, 2009 2:00 pm

I’m not too surprised to find out that a rigorous scientific test of ginkgo biloba found that it did not have the effects claimed by alt-med enthusiasts, including helping memory retention. Just speaking statistically, knowing the sheer number of claims made by people using "alternative" medicines, the vast majority of them are bound to actually not be true. Almost without exception, these kinds of claims are anecdotal in nature, which is unreliable. We need properly-handled blinded medical studies to find out the real nature of these claims, and this one, unfortunately, has not panned out.

I don’t expect this to have any impact whatsoever on either the sales of ginkgo biloba or the way it’s advertised, of course. In general, the practice of alt-med as it is presented to the public is not based in scientific analysis of evidence, so it doesn’t matter how much evidence is provided that shows that a particular claim is false.

That doesn’t mean we in the reality-based world want these tests to fail. My favorite part in the article is this:

The study finding is “disappointing news,” says Steven DeKosky, dean of the University of Virginia School of Medicine and the study’s senior author. The only positive thing the researchers found is that ginkgo appears to be safe, he says.

DeKosky is dean of a prestigious medical school, and says he’s disappointed. Of course he is. Despite what a lot of the alt-medders (and antivaxxers) say, doctors really do want what’s best for their patients. If ginkgo had panned out, then that would be another weapon in doctors’ arsenals to make us healthier, and make us healthier for longer in our lives. But it didn’t work, so he was disappointed.

Those of us skeptical of these alternatives to modern medicine don’t want these things to fail. We already know that some mainstream medicines are based on what could once have been called herbal medicines — aspirin is the obvious example, originally made from willow bark — so we know better than to dismiss these potential additions to medicine out of hand.

What we do dismiss are anecdotes provided as evidence, or used to make claims that aren’t warranted from the evidence. All those anecdotes are is a place to start investigating the evidence for a potential medicine, not evidence in and of themselves.

Tip o’ the ginkgo berry to Fark.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Alt-Med, Skepticism
MORE ABOUT: gingko biloba

Comments (60)

  1. Jonathan Page

    I like this; it sums up the skeptic’s view of alt med nicely.

    Also, the ad that appeared under the article when I read it, was, of course, for ginko biloba extract to improve my memory. :)

  2. The ads in your RSS feed are often quite ironic, as this one is:
    http://imagebin.ca/img/YH-Ao8P.png

  3. Ironically your ads are picking up on keywords in this post and trying to sell us Ginko Biloba… hahaha

    AdSense fail!

  4. But with a name like “Puritan’s Pride” you gotta trust it! :D I wonder if I’ll remember how much it didn’t work if I take it?

    And I almost feel like clicking the advert just to cost the purveyors of woo some money for fruitless clicking. ;)

  5. Rob Jase

    I tried using gingko but kept forgetting to take it.

    And I’m not even joking.

  6. But, if doctors found Ginko Biloba to be useful, and used it in medications, then it wouldn’t be useful anymore, at least to the alt-medders. It would be big-pharma poison.

  7. jcm

    NBC News has a news segment about Ginko Biloba:
    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3032619/#34625077

  8. Well, at least it’s still fun to say “ginko biloba.” You can’t take that away, Phil.

  9. Erik Day

    This just in: aspirin has no effect on drowning subjects. Once again, some substance is hawked as a cure-all, though in reality, doesn’t perform as advertised. Too bad, so sad.

    As a good skeptic, we have to give the nods where the nods are due — and that includes noting that substances like Ginko have been found to have beneficial effects in other areas. A snide blanket dismissal does a disservice to those cultivating an evidence-based opinion.

    …Of course, then you couldn’t use the pithy headline or take the easy shot at alt med. The article does a decent job of backtracking, but be careful of being the Fox News equivalent of skeptics.

  10. Kirk

    Erik, if aspirin were being sold as a drowning preventative, you’d have a point. One of the, if not the main, selling points of ginko biloba is memory improvement. So it’s quite right to focus research on that and report the results of that research.

    If you want to share some scientific studies of other medical benefits of ginko, please do! Keep in mind that Phil wasn’t issuing a personal attack against ginko (were such a thing possible), but rather commenting on a study about one of its purported effects. Not sure why that would make someone defensive…

  11. G

    “aspirin is the obvious example, originally made from willow bark”

    Or digitalis, AFAICT still made from foxglove.

  12. complex field

    Wasn’t the asthma med theophylline isolated from tea leaves?

  13. Georg

    This fairy tale about Aspirin made from willow bark is nonsense.
    There is no Acetyl Salicylic Acid in nature.
    Truth is, ASS was the first synthetic drug.
    Georg

  14. JoeSmithCA

    It’s interesting to note that the last remaining species from the genus Ginkgo is listed as threatened. I would have thought this Permian era decendent (ok, biloba is Jurassic, but the genus goes back to the Permian) wouldn’t be. Sigh. I was hoping Alt Med would at least do some good in terms of conservation. Maybe an add campaign “Save the Trees, save your memory!” :)

  15. Elias Tandel

    @ t3knomanser
    I had the same thought.

    ————————————

    All this alt-med thingy reminds me of a story my professor told me. He once traveled to China and decide to consult a “traditional healer” (i really don’t know the name), who gave my teacher a medicine that should clean his intestine. Well, my teacher vomited for 3 days. lol

    Anyways, this study of Gingko Biloba has at least one utility: the oracle was wrong.
    http://www.giantitp.com/comics/oots0331.html

  16. gdave

    @Georg (#13)

    It’s true that acetylsalicylic acid (ASA) is a synthetic drug. However, salicylic acid (from the Latin name of the willow tree, “salix”) is, in fact, found in the bark of the willow tree, and willow tree bark has been used since at least the time of Hippocrates (c. 5th century B.C.) as a pain reliever. ASA is a synthesized version of the naturally occurring salicylic acid, synthesized by a chemist investigating the properties of salicylic acid. So, while it’s true that “Aspirin” was never made from willow bark, it is made from a synthetic version of a compound originally derived from willow bark. Phil may not have been technically accurate, but his statement was hardly “nonsense”.

  17. QuietDesperation

    There was a radio ad a while back with people mispronouncing the name until they took enough ginko biloba.

    “Ginko bazooka” was my favorite. :-) My friends and I still sometimes say “You need some ginko bazooka” when one of us forgets something. Not that we actually used it, of course.

    Yup. Puritan’s Pride ad right up there at the top of the screen. Maybe you need to go independent and ad free, Phil.

  18. Jack Mitcham

    As was posted here before, here’s the Dara O’Briaian bit that goes into this:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VIaV8swc-fo (NSFW language)

    “Oh, ‘Herbal medicine has been around for thousands of years.’ Indeed it has, and then we tested it all, and the stuff that worked became ‘medicine,’ and the rest of it is a nice bowl of soup and some potpourri, so knock yourself out.”

  19. I’ll stick with my Enzyte, thank you!

  20. coolstar

    What, geckos have been proven safe? that’s absurd, I was bitten by one once.

  21. Leander

    “we in the reality-based world”

    As refreshing as many of your attempts to dispel nonsense from this world might be (and I mean that, no irony here), I’d really love for you to apply the intelligence you’re gifted with to your use of the word “reality”, and expressions containing it you’re so eager to use, like the one I quoted you with here. Said gift of intelligence in mind, I’m not gonna get into long explanations and ramblings and pointers here…just look, is reality not the world ? The world not reality ?

    I just wish people like you would use their intellectual flexibility to explore the world with approaches that go beyond mathematical thinking of correct and false. If you can’t conceive of a way to do this, or think that any way to do this you might conceive of is inferior to mathematical thought, it just shows that you’re incapable of appreciating what really can be done with a flexible mind.

  22. Leander

    And oh, Gingko…I don’t really care. Gonna be some decades until I’d have to look into this. Comment wasn”t about that.

  23. jick

    Isn’t it spelled “ginkgo”? The title says “gingko”.

    Well, at least the ginkgo seeds are delicious. Try it at home: put the seeds in a sturdy container, microwave it for thirty seconds or so. (I recommend empty paper juice bottles.) Crack open the shell and enjoy.

    Warning: the “fruit” part has a very nasty smell, so clean it off thoroughly, preferably before you bring it to kitchen.

    * Here in Seoul I see these trees everywhere in the street. (They seem to be quite resistant to polluted air.) I won’t worry about them going extinct anytime soon.

  24. @Leander:

    what really can be done with a flexible mind.

    Such as?

  25. James Moening

    If the study’s reasoning hinged on ginkgo’s ability to increase circulation as a hypothetical way to retain acumen and reduce dementia in adults, looking at participants 72 to 96 years old for seven years may have been an inappropriate window of study. I think decades of observation are in order for patients taking it over a lifetime. And variables such as family history, diet, physical and intellectual activity should be taken into account as well.

  26. D’oh! Fixed the misspellings of “ginkgo”. :)

  27. Flying sardines

    Of course I can forget ‘ginkgo biloba’ its remembering it & how to spell it that’s the hard thing! ;-)

    The Ginkgo is a nice looking tree with an ancient & interesting prehistory background – I’d like to grow one in my backyard although I’m not doing so currently. Its possible this study didn’t work for methodological reasons as noted by James Moening (# 25.) so I don’t think its something we knock or debunk too hard.

    But yes, the BA and skeptics are right to be skeptical here and regarding alt-med more generally In My Humble Opinion Naturally.

    @ 15. Elias Tandel Says:

    …All this alt-med thingy reminds me of a story my professor told me. He once traveled to China and decide to consult a “traditional healer” (i really don’t know the name), who gave my teacher a medicine that should clean his intestine. Well, my teacher vomited for 3 days. lol

    Yes but his intestines would’ve been nicely empty – and clean – at the end of that, even if he wasn’t right? ;-)

    PS. Happy New Year one & all. Farewell 2009 (you went too quick!) welcome 2010 the year Jupiter is scheduled for stardom! May you all have a very fun & safe start to the Year & clear skies ahead. :-D

    PPS. The old year is nearly over already here just another seven or eight hours left in 2009 where I am. ;-)

  28. G. Tingey

    OTHER “true” herbal remedies – often now replaced by manufacture of the active chemoicals, rather than plant-extraction) …
    Thymol (from Thymus serpullum – antiseptic.
    Digitalin – heart stimulant, from foxgloves
    ALL of the opiates – from Papaver somniferum
    Atropine – muscle relaxant and anaesthetic, from Atropa belladonna
    etc.

    But, of course, all of these, and the lots of others I have not listed, have been PROVEN to work.

  29. Fritz Schneider

    Happy New Year to everybody and, sceptics, please remind: gingko biloba – a wonderful tree in shape and especially in autumn in a yellow glowing, these facts are sufficient to apriciate this tree. A look at this wonderfull plant in my garden – even now in winter – sets my mind at rest.
    Isn’t that sufficient healthy?

  30. Astronomynut

    Alt.Med answers back…

    CRN RESPONDS TO GINKGO BILOBA STUDY

    http://www.crnusa.org/CRNPR09RespondsGinkgoBilobaStudy122909.html

  31. Charles Boyer

    Sooner or later we will have to face the fact that there aren’t any magic bullets and no fountains of youth awaiting us.

    We do know that cholinesterase inhibitors work to treat Alzheimer’s disease – and theories point to that class of drugs working by preventing the breakdown of acetylcholine — a neurotransmitter known to be important for memory and thinking.

    Thank goodness there are trained researchers who work within well-accepted and well-verified methods, otherwise we woud all be held hostage to fairy tales with no happy endings.

  32. #13 and #16 georg and Dave

    LOL, I’m glad I read the comments before saying anything. I was about to point out that aspirin was in fact never directly from willow bark, but then I stopped myself because it IS indirectly from it, which I think is good enough.

    So I would have wrote something, then rescinded it. You guys saved me the trouble.

  33. LOL and then i hit send before I wrote what I really wanted to.

    Aspirin is a good example of how the alt med folks consider something becoming a poison (even though I have not heard of them doing it with aspirin, this is probably due to ignorance).

    If ginkgo WAS a memory enhancer (I would be taking hoards of it as my retention capabilities have steadily worsened as i rely more and more on electronics to store my thoughts), then what we would do is:

    break down ginkgo into is constituent parts
    find the chemicals that are unique to ginkgo
    assess which ones may be the memory enhancer
    test each of the chemicals for their ability to enhance memory
    figure out how to synthesize this chemical either through harvesting ginkgo or direct chemistry
    provide this synthesized chemical in an easy to injest form
    Name this form of this chemical something like Ginkgazole or Memzate

    To alt medders, something in this process makes ginkgo a happy, safe, effective wonderful additive to the diet and Memzate is a deadly toxin that must be removed with an electric foot bath.

  34. Gary Ansorge

    The term “alt-medicine” is an associative phrase, loaded with implications. It suggests that whatever this is you’re ingesting/using, it really is a medicine. It should always be referred to as alt-TREATMENT.

    My favorite alt-TREATMENT is bud, because it helps me forget how foolish people can be and diminishes anger(hey, it’s cheaper than most tranquilizers) . Then I can laugh and get on with more serious subjects, such as “deadly toxin that must be removed with an electric foot bath”(how much voltage? 220???).

    Happy New Year, Y’All.

    Gary 7

  35. paoconnell

    My wife bought me a jar of gingko a month ago to help my memory. Should I just forget about it? (grins, ducks, and runs)

  36. Jimmy

    Nicely done study but you know that anecdotal evidence is still the best evidence (high sarcasm index) : ‘In a written statement, Douglas MacKay, ND, CRN vice president for scientific and regulatory affairs, notes that cognitive decline has many causes and that neither ginkgo nor any other single treatment is a magic bullet.

    “As a former practicing licensed naturopathic doctor, I have had the benefit of working with patients and have seen first-hand how Ginkgo biloba can be effective in improving cognitive function,” MacKay says.’

  37. Roy R Crawford

    I just received my second box of Airbore from another sister, and retaliated by sending her a link to how its maker had to pay seven megabucks for false advertizing. Good grief, why go to college if you’re going to ignore the science they teach you? Oh, yeah, it’s necessary for a good job.

  38. @Jimmy

    Wait, Douglas MacKay works in regulatory affairs? And he’s fine with stories as evidence, rather than serious clinical trials? He should know better.

  39. Kirk

    The claim for memory retention is for ginko biloba, another drug with the same name. :)

  40. amphiox

    With respect to a “personal” attack on gingko, however that can be interpreted, if I were a gingko tree, I’d be positively hoping that the humans find NO usefulness for my extracts, and that this factoid becomes WIDELY known and believed.

    Because there is absolutely no historical precedent for a plant with supposedly amazing medicinal properties being harvested to extinction. No sirree, absolutely none.

  41. No Phil, you have this completely and totally backwards! The bestest and mostest important part of this discovery is:

    The only positive thing the researchers found is that ginkgo appears to be safe, he says.

    That makes ginkgo biloba the *PERFECT* placebo.

  42. John

    Has anyone considered a study involving a fresh plant source? I’m not one for superstitious health practices, but some traditional practices were scoffed at for years before anyone did some comprehensive research (green tea being the first thing that comes to mind). Vitamins, for example, are a major part of mainstream medicine. When I worked as a lowly clinician, the senior doctor prescribed them like candy. Many of these vitamins, extracted from their source, have proven useless. I’m no nutrition scientist, but it seems bioavailability is rarely ever discussed. We look either at the singular extract or we look at the whole plant. We bend over backwards creating synthetic drugs and often all we ever needed was to eat our vegetables.

  43. Harman Smith

    @44:

    “Has anyone considered a study involving a fresh plant source?”

    Most modern, mainstream medicine is based on natural ‘stuff’ that comes from plants, and even microbes. See: penicillin.

    “some traditional practices were scoffed at for years before anyone did some comprehensive research”

    Traditional practices are never scoffed at until there is evidence that suggests that the traditional practices have no benefit. Are there people who do indeed scoff at traditional stuff for which there is no evidence for? Sure, but those people ain’t scientists. One of the reasons why traditional cultures and stuff are so important is that the people know a lot about many things in their environment that could be beneficial to health. There are a ludicrous amount of trees, flowers, plants that have not been studied carefully. Many of these old traditional cultures are also quickly disappearing, and with them, their knowledge of many species that they pass down from generation to generation.

  44. Jeremy

    While I can’t say that I’m surprised, I agree with Dr. DeKosky that this is a real shame. A relatively simple and comparitively easily obtained substance that could boost memory and other mental function without negative side effects would be a wonderful thing to have.

  45. 36. Gary Ansorge Says:

    My favorite alt-TREATMENT is bud, because it helps me forget how foolish people can be and diminishes anger(hey, it’s cheaper than most tranquilizers) . Then I can laugh and get on with more serious subjects, such as “deadly toxin that must be removed with an electric foot bath”(how much voltage? 220???).

    Happy New Year, Y’All.

    Gary 7

    ‘High’ hopes for a Happy New Year!

    J/P=?

  46. Matt

    I find it interesting that aspirin is being brought up in a ginkgo article. Was it ever scientifically proven that aspirin + ginkgo led to bad drug interactions? I remember in the late ’90′s it was thought that they were causing over thinning and stroke in some cases.

  47. dan

    A colleague of mine at a long forgotten office job once said of another colleague, “That woman need to take some Ginko Viagra, so she can remember what the f— she doin’!”

  48. Gary Ansorge

    I need some authors on evolutionary theory for someone just beginning their travels in this knowledge realm. Who are the more interesting, not very didactic authors?

    Gary 7

  49. Forget the scientific studies. What does Jenny McCartney have to say about it?

  50. Cairnos

    If we’re going to talk about naturally occuring products that works and then have synthetic derivatives made of them a classic example is coca to cocaine to the assorted more medically useful varieties (lignocaine HCL springs to mind).

    What makes this particulalry interesting is that the original herbal form used by locals is reasonably effective and harmless, the extracted form (originally marketed in europe as a wonder pick me up in a manner quite similar to most alt-med adds today) had dubious benefits and rather a few (now well known) downsides (such as a tendancy to play the violin and solve crime), and it took a lot of work (by Big Pharma of course) to produce derivatives which particular benifits with minimal downsides (oh and dosing schedules of course).

  51. DennyMo

    This study demonstrated that Ginkgo doesn’t help elderly patients with dementia and Alzheimers. Is it reasonable to conclude from that limited data set that Ginkgo also has no preventative effects? It’s of no benefit to otherwise healthy younger or middle aged adults? Seems there’s more work to be done to flat out state ginkgo is of no medical value whatsoever.

  52. Brian Too

    Of course Ginkgo works! Who believes these studies?

    Why, my ex-girlfriend’s step-brother’s bio-Mom took Gingko and there’s NO DOUBT it improved her aura…

    Of course she’s dead now, from drinking… the cirrhosis got her, poor thing. Not that her spirit guide didn’t warn her… we all did. She was great at parties though!

    (Ahem!)

  53. luminair

    I took Ginko years ago for severe tinitus. I took it for 3 months @ 2g x 3 times a day and it worked. It might not do much for memory, but it does help some circulatory disorders, especially where there’s no other medical help available. I tried specialists, the lot. And only after I was told they couldn’t help me I tried Ginko. So lets keep the perspective right here guys!

    By the way after 3 months I stopped the Ginko and the tinnitus slowly returned, so I started taking it again at a lower dose. Now I take it at a low maintenance dose and have never had the tinnitus return. Of course I give myself a break from it at regular intervals but wouldn’t be without it generlally speaking.

  54. Think About It

    Think about it, if physicians knew of something that really did keep people healthy, its not in their interest to disclose it. Do you think that the healthcare industry makes hundreds of billions a year keeping people healthy?? Don’t be naive. They’ve had the cure for cancer for a long time now, but you can bet that YOU wont ever hear about it. ;)

  55. richard neville

    I have now been on 720mg ginkgo extract,for over 6 months. I started over 12 months ago with 30 mg ,gradually increasing, then decreasing,until severe headaches subsided, then increase again.I had early parkinsons symptoms, tottering, freezing in dark places until my eyes adjusted and jerky unexpected arm movements.The more i took, the more my symptoms went away, as did some visual problems, i tried reducing recently, but symptoms returned, i resumed 720mg, that is 240mg, 3 times daily. My kidney function is hugely increased,my gamma gt liver function on my latest blood test reduced by 25%, from 93 down to 71, it will be interesting to see if next year it continues to reduce. My mental function, that is agitation and anxiety are much improved,as is my memory, and without any lifestyle change, i have lost 10kg, from 100kg to 90kg. Yes, i am gambling with such a high dose, but then after an mri confirmed many white matter lesions in my brain and basal ganglia due to ischema and being told i would have a stroke unless i took high dose statins, which i could not tolerate , i did not have much choice.I did stop taking aspirin as this does conflict, ginkgo has given me my life back, and i have found it to be dose dependent, and i have had to do this on my own, no support from any so called medical professionals. If i am asked, i will be happy to update next year.

  56. Ginkgo Hawk

    What a bunch of characters! I would love to hear back from you Richard. I make my own green tea from ginkgo, for my arthritis, it seems to help! But we do have 2009, 2010 ginkgo seeds AND seedlings if anyone wants to do their own experiments! You can contact us at ginkgotrees.eagle.hawk@gmail.com

  57. "actualrealscientist"

    no offense meant but you obviously havent looked into this very far before publishing ill thought out opinions all over the web. i can understand the prejudice against alt-medicines but even simply searching the web for reports and reviewes into Ginkgo Biloba you will find that out of all the alt medicines this is one of the few with scientific evidence to support it. it has been conclusively proven to protect hippocampal cells agains B-amyloid (the peptide protienes caused by Alzheimers that cause Dementia and memory loss). Not that I expect you to have any sort of change of opinion or indeed even research further, I just thought Id post this so anybody looking for solid and viable information would not simply take your word for it.

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