Ginkgo And Asthma

Learn Abou t How Ginkgo Works and its Important Side Effects

Ginkgo and asthma
Ginkgo. Photo © Wikipedia Douglas W. Jones

Ginkgo biloba is a widely used complementary and alternative medicine option that most people associate with combating memory loss. However, some may consider using it for asthma, too.

Nearly 60% of patients with asthma report using alternative asthma treatment and have tried complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) practices to improve their asthma, though there's a lack of definitive evidence that CAM works for this condition.

It's important that you weigh the potential pros and cons before considering using Ginkgo.

What Is Ginkgo?

Ginkgo extracts come from the leaves of the Ginkgo biloba tree, one of the world's oldest living trees. As with other CAM products the exact extract and it components can vary significantly from manufacturer to manufacturer. When used as a supplement it is generally provided as a capsule, tablet, or tea. There are some liquid formulations as well.

While ginkgo is regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, it is regulated as a supplement rather than a drug. As a result of those differences, supplements do not undergo premarket testing like products classified as drugs. As a result, there are not data related to safety or efficacy as well as its ability to treat, cure or prevent disease.

One particular concern relates to ginkgo and potential for cancer. The National Toxicology Program (NTP) looked at long term effects  of ginkgo in mice and rats and mice over two years.

At the end of two years, the NTP found increases in both liver and thyroid cancer. The exact relationship between ginkgo and human cancer is not known. While it may be relevant, the exact component of the increased incidence of cancer is not known. Additional information is needed before a determination can be made.

In one of the largest studies to date using ginkgo, Ginkgo biloba for the Evaluation of Memory or GEM 3,069 subjects received 120 milligrams of ginkgo twice daily or placebo over 8 years. The study did not decrease the incidence of dementia or Alzheimer's disease in elderly or elderly people with mild cognitive impairment. The study did not demonstrate increased cancer risk or other significant side effects.

How Might Ginkgo Help Asthma?

In terms of treating asthma, Ginkgo is thought to:

What the Research Shows

While Ginkgo has been extensively evaluated as a potential for memory problems like Alzheimer’s, it has been evaluated less extensively in asthma. In the studies for promotion of memory, research to date has not provided consistent results demonstrating benefit.

Evidence does not currently support using Ginkgo as a primary or adjunctive asthma therapy. Further, there have been no large randomized clinical trials using Ginkgo as an asthma treatment.

One study indicated that patients who used significantly higher than typical doses of Gingko showed a 10% to 15% improvement in FEV1 (a lung function test that measures the amount of air that can be exhaled in the first second of a forced exhalation) as compared to those taking a placebo over a 4- to 8-week period.

Other studies have demonstrated that Ginkgo may have an anti-inflammatory effect.

More extensive, well-conducted research is necessary before Ginkgo can be confidently recommended for asthma.

Using Ginkgo for Asthma: Side Effects and Precautions

Despite the lack of research, you may be interested in trying this supplement. It is important that you speak to your doctor before trying Ginkgo, and especially important not to go off your prescribed medications without getting his OK first.

When using Ginkgo, it's important to keep a few issues in mind.

Never directly consume Ginkgo seeds, as this can lead to loss of consciousness and seizures.

Most people who take Ginkgo supplements do so without encountering any major concerns, particularly if they started at a low dose and slowly increased it. However, there are some commonly reported side effects:

  • Diarrhea
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Upset stomach

More serious, though rarer, side effects include:

  • Allergy: As with any drug or supplement, allergy can occur and may cause a wide spectrum of symptoms ranging from a skin rash to life-threatening problems, such as anaphylaxis. If you think you are experiencing a reaction to Ginkgo, be sure to talk with your doctor.
  • Stevens-Johnson syndrome: A significant allergic condition causing blistering and sloughing of the skin
  • Bleeding: There have been a number of reports of spontaneous bleeding associated with Ginkgo use that ranged from minor nose bleeds to life-threatening conditions.

If you take any of the following drugs, you particularly need to talk with your physician about whether you should take Ginkgo or if you need to adjust the dose of any of your other medications while taking this alternative/complementary option.

  • Thiazide diuretics - This class includes the popular drugs HCTZ and chlorthalidone. There has been at least one report of Ginkgo increasing blood pressure in patients taking thiazide diuretics.
  • Seizure medications - Ginkgo may increase the risk of seizures by lowering your seizure threshold; your seizure medication dose may need to be increased to have a therapeutic effect.
  • Diabetes - Ginkgo may change how your body releases and metabolizes insulin. Because of this, it has the potential to interact with many different types of insulin medication. You should be extremely careful when taking supplements that might affect blood sugar, especially due to the potential for hypoglycemia.
  • Blood thinners - Aspirin, Coumadin, and ibuprofen are all examples of blood thinners. While Ginkgo has not been found to effect bleeding risk, there is the potential that the combined effects of medications could increase your risk of bleeding.
  • Surgery- Because of the potential for bleeding, make sure you tell your doctor if you're on the supplement and stop taking Ginkgo before any procedures such as dental work or major surgery.

Bottom Line

No botanical treatments for asthma have been studied as a replacement for traditional asthma therapy. Importantly, research supporting the effectiveness and safety of botanical treatments for asthma is also limited. While it appears that there may be some benefit of Ginkgo for your asthma, it's unclear how much is needed, how often it should be taken, and who might benefit from it the most.

If you would like to try to include Ginkgo as part of your asthma regimen, make sure you are doing everything your doctor has advised to improve your asthma and talk to your doctor first. Make sure you familiarize yourself with the side effects and make sure that you tell anyone prescribing you any medication that you take Ginkgo.

Sources:

Bielory L. Complementary and Alternative Interventions in Asthma, Allergy, and Immunology. Annals of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. 2004;93(Suppl 1):S45–S54.

E Ernst. The Risk–Benefit Profile of Commonly Used Herbal Therapies: Ginkgo, St. John’s Wort, Ginseng, Echinacea, Saw Palmetto, and Kava. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2002;136:42-53.

Huntley A, Ernst, E. Herbal Medicines for Asthma: a Systematic Review. Thorax 2000;55:925–929.

LiM, Zhang H, Yang B. Effects of Ginkgo leaf concentrated oral liquor in treating asthma. Chung Kuo Ching Hsi I Chieh Ho Tsa Chih 1997;17:216–8.

Tovar RT, Petzel RM. Herbal Toxicity. Disease-A-Month 2009; 55(10):587-642.

National Toxicology Program Technical Report on Ginkgo Biloba Extract.  Accessed March 27, 2016.

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