Ginkgo biloba, the fascinating ancient

A THM Feature Article

GinkgoBilobaNearly everyone has heard of Ginkgo biloba. It is a wondrous plant/tree with medicinal leaves long obtained through natural health food stores and supplement providers in the form of capsules, tablets, liquid extracts and teas made from the dried leaves. And today it is also one of the most intensely studied herbs in conventional medicine, primarily for memory enhancement and treatment for depression—but also for eye problems, blood disorders and numerous other ailments.

What you may not know is that the Ginkgo biloba tree is earth’s oldest continuously existing tree, as well as the longest living tree, with a lifespan of up to 3,500 years.

It is referred to as a “living fossil” dating back millions of years to prehistoric Asia, Europe and America and is often called the Fossil tree. Other names include Kew tree and Maidenhair tree. The Ginkgo biloba tree lived with the dinosaurs, and the medicinal leaves of these 120-foot to 150-foot trees most likely were tasty and healthful morsels for the giant vegetarians of that time!

Another unique aspect of Ginkgo biloba is that it is not related to any other species in existence today.



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And unlike the dinosaurs and most other prehistoric life, the Ginkgo biloba tree survived through the Ice Age to modern times, although it is not exactly the same as its ancient ancestors.

Asians have been cultivating the ginkgo for medicinal and aesthetic use for at least 5,000 years. Ginkgo biloba is the national tree of China, and is the official tree of the Japanese capital of Tokyo. The fan-shaped leaf is the symbol of Tokyo.

Although the ginkgo has long been revered in Asia, it undoubtedly became more so after Hiroshima was flattened by the atom bomb in World War II. The ginkgo trees were the only living things to survive in the blast area. Though charred and battered, they fully recovered and are grand as ever today. A temple that boasted one of the largest and oldest of the trees was destroyed in the blast and the new temple was built around this venerable survivor. On it is carved the words, “No More Hiroshima.”

Engelbert Kaempfer, a German botanist was the first Westerner to encounter the ancient species while studying Chinese herbs in 1690.

The scientific name ‘ginkgo’ was probably derived through a combination of complicated Asian pronunciations and the botanist’s error, when Kaempfer immortalized his spelling of the word in his scientific document Amoenitates Exoticae of 1712. (Ginkgo remains as a top prescribed medicine in Germany to this day.)

William Hamilton brought the gingko to America in 1778, but for beauty and adaptability rather than medicine. They are excellent urban and shade trees and are widely used on city streets, mainly in the East as they prefer acidic soil. Believe it or not, the giant trees are very popular bonsai subjects as they can be kept artificially small and tended over centuries. The famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright is credited with spreading the tree’s popularity as he featured it in many of his building projects.

Although Asians have valued the medicinal properties of ginkgo for thousands of years and Europeans for a few hundred, it was not until the 1950s that Americans began seriously studying it.

Dr. Willmar Schwabe produced a potent extract from ginkgo leaves in 1965 and from that time ginkgo began its ascent to one of the top studied and used herbs on the market, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. UMM says modern research has focused on a standardized Ginkgo biloba extract (GBE), which is made from the dried green leaves. The extract is highly concentrated and has been found to be more effective in treating health problems than the non-standardized leaf alone.

Ginkgo leaves have an abundance of two types of chemicals, flavonoids and terpenoids, that contain potent antioxidant properties.

As most people reading this are aware, antioxidants combat free radicals, compounds in the body that damage cell membranes and DNA—and can even cause cell death. “Free radicals are believed to contribute to numerous health problems including heart disease and cancer as well as Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.” (UMM).

Both UMM and Mayo Clinic list the following health conditions that may be helped by ginkgo biloba, though both add the caveat that “more study is needed” in each and every case.

*Claudication (painful legs from clogged arteries) and chronic venous insufficiency. Ginkgo has been used for thousands of years to treat circulation problems. In Europe, ginkgo has been found particularly helpful in cases where small blood vessels and capillaries have become narrowed or fail to dilate.

*Alzheimer’s, dementia, age-associated memory impairment and general cerebral insufficiency. Ginkgo is prescribed widely in Europe for memory enhancement and has long been used in Asia for that purpose, as well as for circulation, asthma and general well-being.

*Hemorrhoids—in preliminary (U.S.) research, ginkgo has been found to be effective in treatment of patients with acute hemorrhoidal attacks.

*Cardiovascular disease—studies suggest that ginkgo may play a beneficial role in heart blood flow.

*Glaucoma and macular degeneration—Ginkgo may improve eye blood flow.

*Dyslexia—Research supports a possible use for patients with dyslexia.

*Diabetes—may help some symptoms associated with diabetes.

*Tinnitus—nerve damage and blood vessel disorders can lead to tinnitus, ringing, hissing sounds in the ears or head. Because ginkgo improves circulation, it may reduce these symptoms.

Other conditions that may benefit from ginkgo therapy include chemotherapy side effects reduction, cocaine dependence, schizophrenia, sexual dysfunction, vertigo, depression and more.

Like all of earth’s plants that have been used as medicine over eons, there are many conflicting research results in modern pharmaceutical labs, all too often depending upon the outcome sponsor’s desire. However, there is a consensus on three definitive effects of ginkgo therapy: Improvement in blood flow, particularly microcirculation in capillaries to tissues and organs; protection against oxidative cell damage from free radicals; and blockage of many effects of a platelet-activating factor that causes blood clotting.

Although generally ginkgo is thought to have no side effects, because of its circulatory benefits it is not advised to use ginkgo while taking such pharmaceutical drugs as blood-thinning medications, antidepressants, diuretics and even over-the-counter products such as Ibuprofen, Advil and Motrin.

As UMM says, “the use of herbs is a time-honored approach to strengthening the body and treating disease.” However (adding our own caveat), traditional herbs were not meant to do battle with the onslaught of body-altering chemicals available today.

So, if you, like many of us, are able and willing to avoid the pharmaceutical medications mentioned above, ginkgo may be of great benefit to you. But use caution and consult your medical advisor if you have an urge to combine natural remedies with unnatural chemical quick fixes.

And remember that the best way to avoid the need for chemical aids is to prevent disease by eating a nutritious diet, living an active life, and educating yourself by learning what foods and supplements provide the minerals and vitamins your body requires for efficient functioning.


Sources for this article include Mayo Clinic, University of Maryland Medical Center, Bill Sardi, and Wikipedia.




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