Ginkgo Safe in Pregnancy
On September 4, 2001, Healthnotes Newswire reported on a study that claimed to have found a toxic chemical called colchicine in the blood of a group of women who had taken ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) during pregnancy (Chem Res Toxicol 2001;14:1254—8). The authors of that report suggested that women who take ginkgo during pregnancy may be putting their fetuses at risk of abnormal development and warned that all pregnant women should avoid using ginkgo. However, in an independent analysis recently released by the Council for Responsible Nutrition, no traces of colchicine were found in raw powdered ginkgo or ginkgo extract from five different sources. This new evidence strongly suggests that the allegation that ginkgo contains colchicine was a case of mistaken identity.
Colchicine is a substance derived from a plant called the autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale). It is used as a prescription medication for cancer chemotherapy, for some types of liver disease, and more commonly for the treatment of gout. Colchicine can be quite toxic and may cause symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, low red blood cell count, hair loss, rash, and—in severe cases—nerve, bone marrow, or liver damage.
Ginkgo leaves contain a naturally occurring, nontoxic substance that is almost identical in structure to colchicine. Since the researchers who published the original report did not perform the test needed to differentiate these two compounds, they could not really state with any degree of reliability that the substance they identified was colchicine. In fact, evidence from their own study (the extremely high blood levels of “colchicine”) should have alerted them to a potential error in their chemical analysis. In order to achieve such high blood levels, the women studied would probably have had to take dozens, if not hundreds, of times the usual intake amount of colchicine. Such amounts would almost certainly cause obvious toxic effects and might even be lethal. And yet, none of the women in the study showed symptoms resembling colchicine toxicity; nor have such side effects been reported among any of the millions of individuals who regularly take ginkgo.
The fact that the original report was accepted for publication, despite what appears to be an error in the method of analysis, may be a reflection of an ongoing bias on the part of many conventional doctors and scientists against herbs and other natural substances. A 1998 study published in Archives of Internal Medicine discussed the attitudes about nutritional supplements in American academic medicine. The authors concluded that reports of toxicity are generally accepted without question by most American scientists and physicians, but evidence that shows the health benefits of these same substances are either ignored or dismissed. Additionally, most major medical textbooks still fail to mention the therapeutic use of many vitamins and minerals, even when the health benefits of a specific nutrient have been well established and in some cases have been found to be better than its conventional drug counterpart.
Despite the criticism by some physicians that nutritional and herbal supplements are unproven therapies, thousands of articles have in fact been published in medical journals showing the benefits of many nutritional supplements and more studies continue to be published each year. It may be hoped that the scientific validation of natural treatments will encourage more physicians to consider their use before choosing other methods that may be more costly or have more adverse side effects.
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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