Ginkgo Extract Reduces Severity of Altitude Sickness
Taking an extract of Ginkgo biloba one day prior to rapidly ascending a mountain may help reduce the severity of altitude sickness, according to a new study in High Altitude Medicine and Biology (2002;3:29–37). This is encouraging for the millions of skiers, mountain climbers, and other high-altitude outdoor recreational enthusiasts who have been limited or unable to participate in these activities due to the debilitating symptoms associated with altitude sickness.
Altitude sickness, also called acute mountain sickness, is a condition that results from the decreased concentration of oxygen in the air at high altitudes. Symptoms may start to occur at any altitude 2,000 meters (6,700 feet) above sea level or higher. Symptoms may include headache, nausea, disorientation, mood changes, dizziness, fatigue, or swelling in the arms and legs. Symptoms usually resolve once a person returns to a lower altitude. Conventional preventive treatment for altitude sickness includes acetazolamide (Diamox®–a diuretic) and dexamethasone (Decadron®–a steroid), but both medications can cause serious side effects. Ginkgo biloba may be an effective, and safer, alternative in preventing altitude sickness.
In this study, 26 people were assigned to receive 180 mg per day of a standardized extract of Gingko biloba or placebo 24 hours before ascending Mauna Kea in Hawaii. The following day, participants were driven from sea level to a height of 4,200 meters (13,650 feet) in 3 hours. Questionnaires were used to evaluate symptoms at sea level and then after reaching the summit.
Overall, 21 of 26 participants developed some degree of altitude sickness (58% of those taking ginkgo and 93% of those taking the placebo). Although the lower frequency of altitude sickness in the ginkgo group was not statistically significant, the ginkgo group had significantly less severe altitude sickness symptoms than did those taking placebo. No adverse effects of treatment were observed in those taking ginkgo.
The effect of ginkgo in reducing the severity of, and possibly preventing, altitude sickness may have been underestimated in this study. Since most mountain climbers ascend mountains more slowly than they did in this study, the effect of gingko during rapid ascension may not be a true reflection of what would occur with typical mountain climbing. However, more research is necessary to determine if gingko would have a greater preventive effect against altitude sickness under normal climbing circumstances.
A cautionary note: Ginkgo biloba has been associated with thinning of the blood. Individuals with blood-clotting disorders and those who are taking prescription blood thinners such as warfarin (Coumadin®) should not take ginkgo without the supervision of a physician.
Darin Ingels, ND, MT (ASCP), received his bachelor’s degree from Purdue University and his Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA. Dr. Ingels is the author of The Natural Pharmacist: Lowering Cholesterol (Prima, 1999) and Natural Treatments for High Cholesterol (Prima, 2000). He currently is in private practice at New England Family Health Associates located in Southport, CT, where he specializes in environmental medicine and allergies. Dr. Ingels is a regular contributor to Healthnotes and Healthnotes Newswire.
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