Alternative dementia treatment: more trouble than it’s worth?

As a caregiver you may be inclined to try anything you can to improve the quality of life of a loved one with dementia, including complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). In broad strokes, CAM consists of herbs such as gingko biloba, ginseng, huperzine A, and ephedra. These herbs can be used separately or in a number of combinations as well as simultaneously with conventional medicine. Can be used, but should they be used? The following table may help answer that question.  

Herbal treatments


Herbs are considered ‘natural,’ which create a false sense of security in the user. The truth is that herbal treatments are a potential double-edged sword; on the one hand, as ‘dietary supplements’ they do not necessarily require to be proven either safe or effective and may fall outside the jurisdiction of regulators like the FDA. On the other, they can still have side effects and interact negatively with both OTC and prescription drugs. Unlisted ‘ingredients’ may include pesticides, heavy metals, and toxic herbs.

Questions to ask

·         Is the product manufactured in the U.S.?    

·         Is the manufacturer well known and reputable?    

·         Does the label list the name and form of the herb(s), the amount of the herb(s) in each dose in milligrams or grams, a lot number, and an expiration date?    

·         Does the label or product information list a toll free number you can call for more information?    

·         Call and ask how the raw herbs are identified and how the product is tested for purity and potency.

·         Have you discussed the possible benefits and adverse effects of the product with your pharmacist and/or doctor?


Heavy metals

·         Arsenic.

·         Lead.

·         Mercury.

Prescription drugs

·         Phenobarbital.

·         Ephedrine.

·         Chlorpheniramine.

·         Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.

·         Benzodiazepines.

·         Corticosteroids.

·         Methyltestosterone.

Unidentified herbs


·         The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM)

·         The Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS)

·         Natural Standard Database

·         Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database (consumer version)



Ginkgo Biloba


·         Improving memory.

·         Treating/preventing Alzheimer's disease (AD) and other types of dementia.

·         Reducing leg pain when walking caused by poor circulation.

·         Treating erectile dysfunction, multiple sclerosis, tinnitus.

Side effects

·         Increased risk for bruising.

·         Nausea.

·         Gastrointestinal upset.

·         Diarrhea.

·         Constipation.

·         Headache.

·         Dizziness.

·         allergic skin reactions.

·         More severe allergic reactions have been reported.

·         Raw ginkgo seeds contain ginkgotoxin, a chemical that can cause seizures and loss of consciousness.



·         Anticoagulant drugs.

·         Aspirin.

·         Plavix.

·         Voltaren.

·         Advil.

·         Motrin.

·         Anaprox.

·         Naprosyn.

·         Alleve.

·         Fragmin.

·         Lovenox.

·         Heparin.

·         Coumadin.

·         Ticlid.

·         Other antiplatelet agents (including fish oil and high dose vitamin E).


·         Pregnancy or breastfeeding.

·         Bleeding disorders.

·         Seizures, convulsions, or epilepsy.

·         Scheduled surgery or dental procedures.


Some clinical trials have suggested that ginkgo can improve the symptoms of dementia, but most of them were small or flawed. Further research is needed.



·         Improving general health.

·         Increasing wellbeing and stamina.

·         Boosting immune system.

·         Enhancing physical and mental performance.

·         Treating sexual dysfunction, hepatitis C, menopause symptoms.

·         Reducing blood sugar.

·         Controlling blood pressure.

Side effects

·         Headaches.

·         Sleep and gastrointestinal problems.

·         Allergic reactions.


·         Diabetes.


Some studies suggest it may lower blood glucose and promote immune function, but most have been small or poorly designed. More evidence is needed.

Huperzine A (Qian Ceng Ta)




muscle strains.

rheumatologic conditions like arthritis.

For Alzheimer's disease to prevent memory loss.

Side effects

Upset stomach.


Throwing up.





·         Cholinergic agonists.

·         Anticholinergic drugs.

·         Succinylcholine.


·         Heart conditions.


Probably not for frontotemporal dementia, but possibly for AD.

Ephedra (Ma huang)


·         Weight loss.

·         Increasing energy.

·         Improving athletic performance.

Side effects

·         Anxiety.

·         Insomnia.

·         Headache.

·         Increased heart rate.

·         Increased blood pressure.

·         Urinary retention.

·         Increased blood glucose.

·         A "flushing" sensation.

·         Acute hepatitis.

·         kidney stones.

·         Myocarditis.

·         Stroke.

·         Psychosis.

·         Excessive doses have resulted in heart failure, hypertensive crisis, tachycardia, CNS excitation, arrhythmia, myocardial infarction, stroke and death.



·         Theophylline.

·         MAO inhibitors.

·         Hypoglycemic drugs.

·         Antihypertensives.

·         Digoxin.

·         Decongestants.

·         Caffeine.


·         Hypertension.

·         Angina.

·         Heart failure.

·         Diabetes.

·         A psychiatric condition.

·         Previous heart attack or stroke.


Most likely none.


Most herbs do not have adverse effects as long as they are used properly and at recommended doses. On the other hand, most herbs don’t really have benefits. This mix of harmlessness and powerlessness renders them as effective as placebo or a homeopathic remedy. The examples here included are for illustrational purposes only. Discount Medical Supplies does not condone the intake of medication – either conventional or traditional – without consulting a licensed healthcare provider first.

Related: Alternative Health Harvested from Ancient Times