by Dave Ferreira

ginkgo-leavesBefore getting into ginkgo’s medicinal uses, here’s a bit of history: The gingko is a one-of-a-kind tree species, often called a living fossil. It has remained virtually unchanged over great oceans of time, first coming into existence about 270 million years ago during the Permian period on the supercontinent Pangaea, well before the age of dinosaurs. It survived the “Great Dying”, Earth’s most severe extinction event which ended the Permian period about 250 million years ago. The tree has no surviving close relatives and is so unique that it’s the only living representative of its order, Ginkgoales, and has its own biological domain, the Ginkgophyta.

Cor Kwant, Amsterdam high school teacher and creator of the amazingly extensive, quirky and fascinating website, ‘The Ginkgo Pages,’ says this about the tree: “It may be the oldest living seed plant and is therefore seen by some as one of the wonders of the world. The sole living member of a once great and dominant race of vegetation in the world, the Ginkgo is, among the tens of thousands of plant species existing today, a most precious and tenuous link between the present and the remote past. It is the only living link between the lower and higher plants, and a symbol of longevity. Individual trees may live longer than 3,000 years.”

Ginkgos are very hardy and do well in urban settings since they tolerate pollution (possibly due to millions of years of growth near active volcanoes), are resistant to storm damage, and don’t mind restricted growing plots. They rarely suffer from disease and are bothered by very few insects. Several ginkgo trees survived the 1945 nuking of Hiroshima even though they were well within the blast zone. Six of these trees are still alive today. One, little more than a kilometer from ground zero, budded after the blast without any major deformity.

After a great earthquake and fire in 1923-Tokyo, many ginkgos survived while other trees died. A temple was saved because ginkgos surrounded the building — its bark and  leaves are thought to secrete a fire-retarding sap. The tree has been venerated since ancient times due to its many positive qualities and long lifespan — gingkos are regularly planted in China and Japan in temple gardens and near shrines and castles. Old ginkgos are often worshipped as divine objects. It is speculated that the gingko was saved from extinction by monks in the far east who cultivated it as a sacred tree for several thousand years. In China the nut is considered a delicacy and also used as a digestive aid (‘ginkgo’ translates as ‘white nut’ or ‘silvery fruit’ in Chinese).

Health benefits of ginkgo
Ginkgo biloba is a good example of a “tonic herb” — one that balances your system. If you are tired it can energize you, if you are stressed it can relax you. It is also known as one of the “kidney yang tonics” in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), a ‘warming herb’ restorative which, among other things, helps to increase one’s sexual energy. It promotes good circulation in the sex organs and is known for the ability to increase semen and erectile performance in men, and sexual fluids in women by warming the female genitals, thus increasing sensitivity. In fact, ginkgo’s hallmark effect is increased overall circulation, which is important in maintaining energy levels and getting the full benefit from the foods, vitamins and herbal supplements.

Western medicine began studying gingko’s health benefits in the late 1950s, but it’s been used as an herbal medicine for many health problems for thousands of years, particularly in TCM.  Ginkgo is currently used worldwide as a very popular herbal supplement and is one of the most commonly prescribed herbs. For instance, in France and Germany it is prescribed by general practitioners and covered by national health insurance — millions of scripts are written every year.

Clinical studies have verified ginkgo’s effectiveness in restoring function of the circulatory system and improving overall blood flow. As a specific example, research indicates ginkgo supports healthier circulation in the eyes, make it an herb of choice for natural treatment eye health in conditions like peripheral vascular insufficiency and macular degeneration.

Researchers now know that both the ginkgo tree’s defence mechanisms and its high life expectancy are due to substances found only in ginkgoes — aptly named ‘ginkgolides’. Ginkgolides (one of the terpenoids,  a blood vessel dilator, platelet thinner and anti-oxidant) are responsible for the vegetation’s medicinal properties. Ginkogolides, bilobalides (another form of gingkolide), flavonoids (a beneficial plant nutrient), plus other substances and phytochemicals unique to the tree are the elements involved in restoring blood circulation (particuarly to the brain), allowing improved use of oxygen throughout the body. Ginkgo also possesses antioxidant properties that stabilize brain structure and nerve cells, and protect from the oxidative attacks of free radicals.

In addition to improved blood flow to most tissues and organs, and protection against free radical cell damage, ginkgo extract blocks many effects of blood clotting related to a number of cardiovascular, renal, respiratory and central nervous system disorders. In general, the herb also contains numerous anti-inflammatory chemicals and natural antihistamines. So allergies, bronchitis and asthma can also improve with ginkgo.

Ginkgo is sometimes called a ‘brain herb’ since it can improve cognitive function (thinking, learning, and memory).  Studies show ginkgolides improve cerebral metabolism, inhibit fluid swelling in the brain and protect it against resticted blood flow. It is used extensively in Europe to treat dementia, stabilize Alzheimer’s and may also be prescribed for a wide variety of other ailments.

You can buy standardized ginkgo biloba extract at any health food store and we have a great brand at the clinic as well.

(Note: Information in this post is for educational use only, and is not intended as medical advice. While the writer attempts to be accurate, it is not guaranteed. It is recommended that you check with your health care practitioner before using herbs.)