What it is
Vinpocetine is an over-the-counter dietary supplement that’s both herb and pharmaceutical. First, an herbal compound called vincamine is extracted from periwinkle (Vinca minor) leaves; it is then modified through a complex laboratory process into the pharmaceutical compound vinpocetine.
Vinpocetine was developed in Hungary and gained popularity in Europe and Russia, where doctors prescribe it to treat cerebrovascular problems (such as stroke and vascular dementia) and cognitive disorders (such as age-related cognitive decline), as well as tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and urinary incontinence. In the past ten years, American consumers have started using vinpocetine, too.
Vincamine, the herbal extract base, is also available as a dietary supplement, but it appears to be less powerful than vinpocetine, less supported by scientific research, and more likely to cause mild stomach upset.
How it works
Vinpocetine is a powerful antioxidant, on par with vitamin E, but its main mechanism is enhancing blood flow to the brain by relaxing blood vessels and thinning the blood (Clinical Neuropharmacology, 2002, vol. 25, no. 1).
Poor brain circulation is a cause of cognitive decline in older people, a common problem that hampers memory, concentration, language use, and the ability to think clearly. Anything that increases oxygen supply to the brain—as vinpocetine does—helps an aging brain remain nimble.
Vinpocetine also accelerates cognitive recovery after a stroke (Journal of the Neurological Sciences, 2005, vols. 229–230, no. 1; European Journal of Ultrasound, 2002, vol. 15, nos. 1–2). When it is administered intravenously within 72 hours of stroke onset, blood flow to the brain improves—and standard tests show that the patient recovers better (European Journal of Neurology, 2001, vol. 8, no. 1).
Although vinpocetine does not appear to alleviate symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, it does improve other types of dementia and cerebral dysfunction. When adults with mild-to-moderate vascular dementia took vinpocetine as part of clinical trials, memory, learning, and overall cognitive performance improved significantly (Nutrition, 2003, vol. 19, nos. 11–12).
Older adults often also develop urge incontinence, the sometimes overwhelming need to void the bladder even when there is only a small amount of urine. Vinpocetine appears to improve this condition by relaxing the bladder (Der Urologe A, 2005, vol. 44, no. 3). In one study of adults with urge incontinence who had not seen any improvement with standard medical treatment, approximately 58 percent improved while supplementing with vinpocetine (World Journal of Urology, 2000, vol. 18, no. 6).
Finally, vinpocetine can often silence ringing in the ears, or tinnitus—especially when caused by the acoustic trauma of loud noises. In one study, vinpocetine supplements taken within one week of the trauma relieved the symptoms of half the subjects. Even in people with older injuries, vinpocetine eased the ringing’s severity and improved hearing in more than two-thirds of cases (Alternative Medicine Review, 2002, vol. 7, no. 3).
Vinpocetine has only minor side effects. It may cause the skin to flush or cause minor gastrointestinal upset in people taking up to 60 mg daily. In one study, researchers found that vinpocetine had no negative effects on blood clotting in people taking the blood-thinning drug warfarin (International Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, Therapy, and Toxicology, 1990, vol. 28, no. 8). Nevertheless, it’s important to consult a health professional before taking vinpocetine if you take any prescription blood thinners.
How to take it
Take 10 mg of vinpocetine three times daily with food. On an empty stomach, only 6.7 percent of vinpocetine is absorbed, but with food the absorption rate shoots up to 60 percent to 100 percent (Alternative Medicine Review, 2002, vol. 7, no. 3). Vinpocetine’s injected forms (used for stroke treatment) can be administered only under the guidance of a health professional.
A month’s supply of this supplement costs between $10 and $15.
Oregon-based freelancer Victoria Dolby Toews, MPH, is the author of User’s Guide to Sexual Satisfaction (Basic Health, 2003) and User’s Guide to Glucosamine and Chondroitin (Basic Health, 2002).