When we think about clogged arteries, we generally think about arteries near the heart (coronary arteries).
But leg arteries (peripheral arteries) can also get blocked, triggering peripheral artery disease (PAD). PAD can cause ongoing leg cramps (especially while moving around) and leg numbness. The problem can lead to surgery—to increase blood flow or even to amputate.
Of course, healthy habits such as eating well, exercising and not smoking all can help prevent PAD, but eight to 12 million Americans already struggle with the disease, so clearly many of us could use some extra help preventing it.
That’s why I was encouraged when I read that researchers have found that one of the all-time best-selling herbs may be an easy, inexpensive, natural way to prevent this painful problem.
What’s the herb in question? It’s the well-known ginkgo biloba. Researchers wanted to see whether it would stave off a variety of health problems, including dementia, heart attack, stroke, chest pain and what they classified as a clinical diagnosis of a PAD “event” (any severe problem related to PAD that would bring a patient to the hospital for surgical therapy or angioplasty). Lewis Kuller, MD, DrPH, the study’s lead author, told me more about the analysis.
The subjects were split into two groups, with one group receiving a supplement containing 120 milligrams (mg) of ginkgo biloba extract twice a day and the other receiving a placebo. (Those who were taking medications for any cardiovascular health problems continued taking them.) Over the course of the study (a median time frame of six years), the herb showed no tangible benefit in terms of preventing dementia—nor did it significantly prevent heart attack, stroke or chest pain.
But there was one finding that caught the researchers’ attention. During the study period, 35 patients had a PAD event. The researchers noticed that among those 35 people, 23 were in the placebo group and only 12 were in the ginkgo biloba group—so those who took the extract turned out to be only about half as likely to have a PAD event. In other words, the ginkgo biloba might have helped prevent PAD.
Granted, this finding is based on a small number of people. And the researchers don’t know for sure whether patients had had PAD events that met their criteria before the study began, because they didn’t have access to prior medical records. But the result is what scientists call “a statistically significant” difference. In other words, it’s a finding that shouldn’t be ignored, said Dr. Kuller, and one that should be further studied.
Dr. Kuller suggested that ginkgo biloba’s blood-thinning and vessel-dilating properties—stemming from flavonoid antioxidants—may be what made a critical difference.
But if the supplement is so good at opening up blood vessels and thinning blood, then how come it didn’t appear to help prevent other cardiovascular problems—beyond just PAD? Dr. Kuller isn’t sure but hopes that new research will answer that question.
Of course, there are foods that are rich in flavonoids, including many fruits and vegetables and even red wine and dark chocolate. But amounts and types of flavonoids in foods vary widely—so, Dr. Kuller said, a ginkgo biloba supplement is the only way, for now, to duplicate what was received by the people in the study.
If you are at high risk for PAD (risk factors include a family history of PAD, heart disease or stroke…being sedentary…smoking…diabetes…obesity…high blood pressure…high cholesterol…being over the age of 50 and being African American) talk to your doctor about taking a ginkgo biloba supplement—you might mention Dr. Kuller’s study.
While taking ginkgo biloba, any healthy person may experience persistent or temporary side effects, including upset stomach, headaches and dizziness, although these tend to be mild. (The higher the dose, the greater the likelihood of side effects.) However people taking certain drugs—including blood thinners and antidepressants—may suffer serious drug interactions (such as bleeding or serotonin syndrome, which can be fatal) while using ginkgo biloba, and pregnant women should also avoid it. If you’re taking an anticonvulsant, ginkgo biloba may make the drug less effective. So, again, talk to your doctor about all of your medications (and other supplements that you take) if you want to try it. Study subjects took 240 mg total per day, split into two doses, but ask your doctor about the best dosage for you.