New research suggests the dietary supplement ingredient may cause miscarriage or harm fetal development. Learn more about it here.

By Libby Ryan
woman taking prenatal vitamins side effects
Credit: wong sze yuen/ Shutterstock

June 7, 2019

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration advised moms to avoid dietary supplement vinpocetine, due to concerns about an increased risk of miscarriage.

New research from the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) National Toxicology Program (NTP) suggests that pregnant women who consume vinpocetine are at a higher risk for adverse reproductive effects: decreased fetal weight or miscarriage.

“We’re advising pregnant women and women who could become pregnant not to take vinpocetine,” the FDA said in a statement. The administration is also advising that dietary supplements that contain vinpocetine come with a safety warning so that pregnant women or women hoping to get pregnant can easily opt out.

But let’s break this down because until companies do put those specified warnings on a bottle of supplements, you’re going to want to read that tiny print of ingredient labels. Vinpocetine is commonly found in supplement blends for memory or focus (but could be found in any non-prescription dietary supplement on the market) and appears under different names—that's where things can get complicated.

What is vinpocetine?

Vinpocetine is a synthetic substance that goes by several names. You might see it listed as Vinca minor extract, lesser periwinkle extract, or common periwinkle extract, according to the FDA. Nicole Avena, Ph.D., assistant professor of neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, told about common uses for vinpocetine.

“It's something that is found in lots of different supplements that's sometimes used for improving brain health or increasing memory functioning,” she explained. “It's also sometimes put in combination with things like ginkgo biloba, which is another herb that is often utilized by people to help with memory and focus.”

How dangerous is vinpocetine?

Avena gave an example of why women trying to conceive should specifically be aware of vinpocetine. If women who are trying to conceive are cutting out caffeine in coffee and tea, they might reach for a dietary supplement to help them focus, thinking there’s no risk there.

“We assume that supplements, if they're natural and an herb, are automatically safe for us,” said Avena. “But that's actually not the case.”

In the U.S., dietary supplements aren’t reviewed by the FDA in the same way drugs are. That means “the claims that are made on a lot of supplements are not always 100 percent backed by science,” explained Dr. Avena. In fact, vinpocetine is only available in the European Union as a prescription for specific cerebrovascular (brain and blood vessel) diseases.

Vinpocetine side effects for pregnant women could be serious. According to an FDA spokesperson, “We have specifically advised women of childbearing potential to avoid taking products containing vinpocetine due to the possibility of adverse effects on embryo and fetal development, including miscarriage.”

What should you do now?

If you’re pregnant or trying to get pregnant (or if there’s a possibility you could get pregnant even if you’re not actively ‘trying’), it’s a good idea to take a look at any supplements in your medicine cabinet.

“The FDA advises all consumers to consult with a health care practitioner before deciding to take a dietary supplement,” an FDA spokesperson said. “All consumers should carefully read the labels of any product they are thinking of using.”

Dr. Avena says anyone thinking of using a dietary supplement should be a “savvy detective" about anything they're putting in their bodies: watch for warning labels around pregnancy or nursing and look into the health claims on a bottle of vitamins or supplements.

“It doesn't mean that everybody who's been taking a supplement needs to freak out and be worried about it,” said Dr. Avena. “But it is important to be sure that you check the ingredients to make sure that if you are taking one that does contain this particular compound that you discontinue using it if you're trying to get pregnant.”