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updated: 4/17/2011 3:53 PM

Ginkgo biloba for vitiligo shows promise

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I am sure that we have all seen someone who has patchy, light areas of skin. It is a condition called vitiligo. Vitiligo is relatively rare and occurs in less than 1 percent of the population. However, for those who have vitiligo, it can be frustrating, embarrassing and expensive. Although traditional medical therapies for vitiligo are limited, recent research suggests that the leaves from the oldest tree in the world, the ginkgo tree, may be part of the solution.

Skin color is determined by the number of pigment cells (melanocytes) in the skin. The more melanocytes, the darker the skin color. Vitiligo occurs when melanocytes die. We are unsure why the melanocytes die or why it happens in some people and not in others.

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Ginkgo trees are considered living fossils. They can be traced back over 270 million years. The leaves have been used in culturally based medical systems for millennia. Ginkgo biloba has anti-inflammatory, immune modulating, antioxidant and anti-stress properties. As a result, ginkgo has been shown to be beneficial for a diverse number of medical conditions including memory, circulation, claudication and tinnitus. In a recent medical study, taking ginkgo resulted in significant improvement in vitiligo symptoms.

Although this is a preliminary study, the results look very promising. Most traditional medical therapies are done over one or more years. With Ginkgo biloba, significant improvements were seen in only three months. However, it is unknown whether these improvements would continue if Ginkgo biloba is used for longer periods of time. My suspicion is that the improvements would continue.

Hopefully, research into Ginkgo biloba for vitiligo will continue.

Just because Ginkgo biloba is a natural product, it does not mean it is without side effects. Ginkgo biloba has a number of potential and real interactions with medications including blood thinners, high blood pressure medications, antidepressants and others.

• Patrick B. Massey, M.D., Ph.D is medical director for complementary and alternative medicine for the Alexian Brothers Hospital Network.

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