How does this herb work?
Animal studies have demonstrated the ability of ginkgolides, the active constituents of the herb, to stimulate the differentiation of neurons in the brain. This process of differentiation is important for creating mature neurons that can communicate with the other neurons surrounding them.
Human studies have shown the herbs ability to improve the speed of attention, pattern-recognition, sustained-attention, and quality of memory in healthy volunteers.
Ginkgo has been shown to increase the amplitude of alpha waves produced in the brain. There are a series of different patterns of waves demonstrated by the brain that are related to the individual’s level of ‘alertness’. Beta waves are our most alert state with the brain processing many different stimuli. Alpha waves occur when the individual is alert but relaxed, a time of increased memory retention because the amount of information bombarding us is often less. The other waves include delta which occurs in deep and dreamless sleep, and theta waves which occur during REM sleep, dreams, and deep meditation.
One thing to be mindful of when interpreting these studies is that students and professionals should not expect benefits after popping a single dose of ginkgo or having that tea right before the books are cracked open. Taking the herb over a number of days or weeks allows the levels of Ginkgolides to rise in the body and yield benefits.
Talk to your primary care provider about whether adding it to your daily routine is an option. Tablets such as Ginkgo Extra or homeopathic tinctures such as Ginkgoforce are easily available product options.
I heard exercise was also good for memory and concentration, but I’m so busy. Who has time to work out every day?
While the benefits of regular exercise on the brain are well-studied, you don’t have to commit a large portion of your day to lifting weights or taking a 10km run around the neighbourhood or your workplace.
Growing evidence is beginning to show that short spurts of exercise, even as little as five minutes, can make a difference. This includes a quick bout of cycling or even grip exercises.
The increased blood flow to the brain actually causes changes in the memory centre known as the hippocampus, including an increase in its volume. Taking a five minute study break every hour to get your blood flowing is a great way to re-engage your body and brain in addition to holding on to that test material for a little while longer.
Listen to those small signs of stress and take steps to calm the mind for a memory boost.
Cortisol is affectionately referred to as the stress hormone, released when our body is facing a threat or a challenge. When the body enters a state of heightened cortisol, studies have shown that there is difficulty encoding long-term memories…something that is especially unfavorable if you have to write about the information on a final exam in two months. Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, stretching, and taking a moment to be mindful can help bring the cortisol levels down and improve your memory.
One study looked at how a relaxed mind sees a room in both preschool children and university students. When steps were taken to create a relaxed environment such as dimming the lights, diffusing essential oils such as lavender, and creating a comfortable seating area free of clutter, memory retention was much higher. The researchers were quick to point out that an environment encouraging moderate relaxation is preferred…too much and you might quickly doze off only to wake up on test day!
Those quick meals might be easy, but they often don’t provide the nutrients that the brain needs to crush that next test. Take a look at your diet for a look at better grades.
Certain classes of fats such as mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs/PUFAs) can help improve memory. A 12-month study showed that eating as little as one seafood meal a week improves how quickly the mind can process incoming information. In addition, the participants experienced a smaller decline in memory than if they were to avoid swimming with the fishes as it were. There are lots of opportunities for a fishy meal with a high amount of MUFAs and PUFAs including cold-water fish like salmon, tuna, and herring.
Additionally, there are products such as Bio-Strath where a certain species of yeast are fed a mix of nutritious herbs that they break down to basic forms. These are then extracted from the yeast and become far more absorbable than in their more complex, full form. The benefits of this tonic are two-fold in that it acts like a multivitamin and provides many different nutrients while also increasing the uptake of certain elements such as iron, zinc, magnesium, and thiamine (B1). The uptake in these minerals can increase concentration when deficient. There are a few different forms of the product depending on your preference including an elixir, tablets, and drops. Of note, the Elixir contains honey and therefore should not be given to infants under 1 due to the risk of acquiring infant botulism.
Are there any side effects I should be mindful of?
Caution should be taken with ginkgo if you are currently taking other pharmaceutical blood thinners such as Warfarin or Heparin. An interaction between this herb and these drugs could cause a severe drop in blood pressure known as a hypotensive emergency. It is also wise to stop this herb prior to surgery. One only has to close their eyes to imagine the additional and potentially deadly blood loss if ginkgo remains in the body during an operation. It’s critical to speak to your primary care provider about adding additional herbs to your routine.