Ginkgo: Ancient Medicine, Modern Medicine
It is a rare musical work or book that captures the imaginations of such a diverse group of people that it crosses over from the category it is meant for into another. Ginkgo, a medicinal herb from an ancient Chinese tree, is such a phenomenon. In Europe it has become one of the most prescribed medicines among medical doctors, herbalists, acupuncturists, and many other kinds of health professions.
Medical doctors and traditional herbalists often use radically different medicines—a doctor might prescribe xanax or valium for mild anxiety or nervousness, an herbalist the herb valerian, and a naturopathic doctor, a homeopathic remedy or hydrotherapy. But the phenomenon is that for disorders such as brain dysfunction, depression, mental weakness or confusion, loss of memory, ringing of the ears, and many other ailments, the physician, naturopath, and herbalist might all prescribe the same medicine—ginkgo.
Although not as well-known in this country as in Europe, ginkgo can presently be found in natural food stores everywhere, as well as in clinical practice both here and abroad in the form of a highly concentrated extract of the leaves.
The ginkgo tree is considered one of the world’s oldest living things and was first named Ginkgo biloba because of its 2-lobed fan-shaped leaves. The trees not only live to be over 1,000 years old, attaining a massive size, they have been around on planted earth for at least 2 million years. The fossil record shows that ginkgo lived in forests throughout several parts of the world including North America. In fact, one of the most extensive fossil forests can be seen on the banks of the Columbia river along the Oregon-Washington border.
Why has this tree survived when all others have died out? Modern tests show it to be remarkably resistant to insect damage, virus or bacterial infection, as well as modern chemical pollution which is why it is such a successful street tree in many parts of the world. Observers of the ginkgo phenomenon feel that it is ginkgo’s beauty though that has brought it into the modern age. As many legends tell, the trees were planted around temples by priests and priestesses because of their magnificent stature and delicate beauty. Thus they have been perpetuated and brought into the modern age.
The healing traditions of the ginkgo were recorded from thousands of years ago when the seeds were used in medicinal preparations to strengthen the kidneys, improve digestion, and help strengthen people who were recovering from many kinds of illnesses. The seeds were often added to popular dishes, considered both delicious and healing. The following recipe comes from 5 generations of Chinese families—I learned of it during a meal in the country’s first medicinal herb restaurant, the Emperor in San Francisco.
Cook 1 cup of rice in 2 cups of water until tender. Cook 1/2 cup of ginkgo nuts (available from Chinese food stores or ethnic sections in many natural foods stores or supermarkets) in enough water to cover them until tender. Add the ginkgo water to the rice and blend until creamy, add the ginkgo nuts and blend a little until the nuts are partly chopped, then heat the porridge until hot and serve forth in a porcelain pot. Flavoring spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, or allspice can be added, if desired.
This delicious treat—the nuts are sweet, slightly bitter, and astringent—makes a good dessert with all the healthful properties of the traditional ginkgo nut, which can help expel mucus from the respiratory tract, benefiting asthma or other respiratory ailments where there is wheezing and help strengthen a weak bladder when there is frequent urination—having to get up in the night to visit the bathroom. According to traditional Chinese medicine, the nuts are highly nutritious, but should not be used on a continual basis—and should not be used raw.
Although the nuts have the longest history of use in Traditional Chinese Medicine, it is the leaves that excite modern scientific interest. The Germans, with their penchant for analyzing the constituents and activity of natural substances, discovered, developed, and brought the leaf medicine from ginkgo into the modern age. In the 1950s, researchers from Wilmar Schwabe, a company making highly-researched products from medicinal plants, became interested in the chemistry of ginkgo and isolated several compounds which they found to be active in biological systems. A highly purified extract was developed and experimentation began in clinical situations to support the preliminary laboratory results. Over the last 35 years, hundreds of tests in both laboratory and clinic have proven without a doubt that ginkgo extract is a veritable treasure-trove of active compounds displaying an amazing array of activity on important body systems. Ginkgo is helping to counteract some of the more unsolved human ailments such as ringing in the ears (tinnitis), visual disturbances due to retina damage, and especially circulation and brain disorders.
First and foremost, ginkgo is a preparation for the health problems that can develop during the aging process—it is a medicine for middle-age and older. This is the application for which it is prescribed, having become one of the most successful drugs in Germany and France and other parts of Europe. In the U.S. ginkgo products have been available in most natural food stores for 2 or 3 years, but are just now becoming known as a memory and mental clarity-promoting herb. The full range of its amazing benefits may still await discovery.
Many herbalists feel that it is a matter of time until ginkgo is accepted as a remedy of major importance not only among natural practitioners, but in the allopathic medical community as well. And herein lies not only promise of great benefit for reducing suffering and disease, but a possible problem. Will ginkgo be available in the future as a prescription drug, or will it continue to be available widely, as today, in natural food stores and herb shops as a health supplement? Drug or supplement is an interesting question and one that needs to be resolved because it is one that may determine the fate of many natural remedies, such as evening primrose seed oil, which is already under fire because the studies show without doubt that it is effective, not unlike the studies on ginkgo.
Although ginkgo has been shown to possess many interesting properties, and an exploration of the available literature can be bewildering in its complexity, these can be boiled down to a few of the most interesting and important effects on the body and the major areas of practical application for everyday health problems. To summarize, ginkgo is primarily an important remedy for aging and the elderly—for restoring proper function and preventing degenerative changes in important parts of the body. The most profoundly affected organs of the body are the eyes, brain, blood vessels, and cardiovascular system, but beneficial effects on the organs of hearing and sight must also be mentioned.
These major physiological effects are thought to be due to several groups of active chemicals or constituents, specifically, flavonoid-like compounds, such as quercetin, kaempferol and isorhamnetin, and complex molecules called terpenoids, most importantly, ginkgolides A, B, C, J, M and one bilobalide (which are unique to ginkgo). Many commercial products are standardized (proven to be at a certain level in each batch) to 24% of the flavonoids—which may be the most desirable form in which to take ginkgo when a strong, consistent, highly purified product is needed. As a mild, but more wholesome, daily supplement, the liquid extract may be the product of choice. Both kinds of extracts are widely available.
Although scientists enjoy quantifying and pinning down exactly what minute effects these compounds have on the biological processes of the body for standardization or consistency of activity, and for advancement of our general knowledge of how the body works, herbalists take a more simple and traditional approach. Here, anecdotal and practical experience, as well as a long history of use is of primary interest. Important too, is how a particular remedy will affect an individual, which might have a different effect than with another individual with a different kind of constitution. Obviously, both approaches have something to offer—both pure science and humanistic person-oriented medicine.
An important question to the reader of this article is, obviously, what can ginkgo do for me? Clinical trials with human volunteers are going on now throughout Europe, with new studies being reported regularly. Many previous studies, performed over the last 15 years or so, show that ginkgo is most useful in the following areas:
- protection against free-radicals
- improvement of circulation of the legs and brain in the elderly, help in preventing cardiovascular disease and improvement of vessel tone and blood characteristics
- protection against loss of mental powers, helping mental clarity, memory, and concentration
- increasing blood, oxygen, and energy supplies to the brain
- ringing in the ears, vertigo, and dizziness
- protection against retina damage and vision loss due to free-radical damage
- may offer protection against environmental toxins (pesticides and herbicides) and general stress support
- PAF-acether inhibitor, possibly counteracting toxic shock and reducing symptoms of asthma and other common allergic or immune-based disorders
- has shown short-term memory enhancing ability, in both young and old people
Ginkgo & Memory
Two clinical studies show improved memory function in human volunteers. In the first, a double-blind clinical study showed that large doses of ginkgo extract can increase performance on memory tests. The authors of the study concluded that ginkgo extract enhanced the speed of retrieval (of information) from short-term memory. A single dose of 600 mg was given to the volunteers.
In the second test, eight healthy female volunteers took part in a double-blind, cross-over trial comparing the effects of ginkgo extract on short-term memory with placebo (9). Some of the subjects were given ascending doses (120, 240, 600 mg) of the extract and some the placebo. After a battery of tests, including "critical flicker fusion test", "choice reaction time" and the "Sternberg memory scanning test", it was found that the short-term memory of only the subjects receiving the ginkgo extract "was very significantly improved". The authors conclude by saying, "These results differentiate Ginkgo biloba extract from sedative and stimulant drugs and suggest a specific effect on memory processes".
These studies do not lead to the conclusion that one should take very high doses of ginkgo extract to increase the ability to remember, but rather, it suggests that a more moderate dose may have a cumulative effect generally benefiting memory.
In short, ginkgo may be the ideal herbal support to counteract some of the most common conditions associated with the aging process and of many environmental stressors, to which we are all subject.
To summarize, the main point to remember is that ginkgo, with regular use, can help increase and maintain the blood supply to the very small vessels of the body, the capillaries. These vessels nourish all the tissues of the body, but most importantly the brain, extremities, skin, eyes, the inner ear, the heart, and other vital organs.
Ginkgo may be the first herb that "comes to mind" for many of these increasingly common health problems.
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